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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 6

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Great Iron Trail

Robert West Howard

G. P. Putnam's Sons
New York, 1962

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 8
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p84  Chapter VII
El Paso or Salt Lake?

Neither current events nor history show that the majority rules, or ever did. . . . Jefferson Davis (1864).

The wagon trains sent out in 1853 to explore the five possible routes for a Pacific Railway carried surveyor instruments, geologist's tools and artist supplies. The first field notes reached Washington during the fall of 1854, followed by oilcloth packets of topographic estimates and on‑the-scene paintings and sketches.

One school of historians maintains that Secretary of War Jefferson Davis researched this material with "great integrity" and "complete honesty." Another school, viewing the outcome as a Civil War prelude, concludes that, "The decision was rigged." In any case, the Secretary's decision was that the all-South Oxbow, running from the Red River Valley via El Paso and the Gadsden Purchase lands, was only 1,618 miles long and would cost $35,000,000 less than any other route.

The Northern Pacific Trail, based on the Lewis and Clark route plus Thomas Hart Benton's original plan for a Missouri-Columbia Canal, was given an official cost estimate of $130,781,000. (The field notes estimated $117,121,000, but  p85 the War Department discovered another $13,660,000 of "unavoidable" expense.)

The Benton-Frémont Buffalo Trail took 2,080 miles to cross from West Port to San Francisco, the survey concluded; Secretary Davis dismissed it because of "impracticable" costs and terrain.

The 35th Parallel route crossed the Raton Pass into Santa Fe, then followed the Spanish trails used by the Army of the West in 1846. But the 1853‑4 survey, as published, alleged it to be 1,892 miles long and gave it the highest cost estimate of all — $169,210,255.

The California-Mormon Trail, according to the War Department, snaked 2,032 miles from Council Bluffs to San Francisco; a railroad over it would cost a minimum of $116,095,000. Moreover, the report gloomed, the route was impassable six or seven months of the year because of snowdrifts, the fierce "northers" and springtime floods.

But the Oxbow felt only occasional snows, was 414 miles shorter; the South & Pacific Railway could be built for less than $70,000,000, or only $5,000,000 more than Asa Whitney's initial estimate for the Chicago-Oregon Railway.

The War Department published its reports in twelve volumes titled Exploration and Surveys, RailRoadº Route Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. "The Government expended hundreds of thousands of dollars in explorations," Ted Judah's friend, John C. Burch, would write about them a few years later, "and elaborate reports thereof had been made and published in immense volumes, containing beautiful and expensive engravings showing the most picturesque and wonderful scenery in the world on the route of the exploration . . . yet all of this did not demonstrate the practicability of a route, nor show the surveys, elevations, profiles, grades or estimates of the cost of constructing the road over the route finally adopted."

The volumes were still being edited when Secretary Davis persuaded a $30,000 appropriation through Congress for development  p86 of the United States Army Camel Corps. Edward Fitzgerald Beale, the Navy officer who had made the spectacular transcontinental ride with New Helvetia gold, and was currently superintendent of Indian Affairs for California and Nevada, was appointed commander of the procurement expedition to Africa. Beale's ship, the Army transport Supply, reached Tunis in the fall of 1855, received a gift of two Bactrian camels​a from the Bey, and coasted on to Balaklava. There British guards related their experiences with these animals during the Crimean War and convinced Beale and his associates that a United States Camel Corps would be ideal for operations against the Apache, Navajo and Comanche along the Oxbow.

The Supply returned to Indianola, Texas, in the spring of 1856 with a cargo of 38 adult and 2 baby camels. Commander Beale established a training camp at Green Valley near San Antonio and began a series of field tests.​b Thus, that year the hopes of the South Pacific Railway's promoters reached their highest tide. The theory of "squatter sovereignty" propounded by Stephen A. Douglas' Kansas-Nebraska Compromise had exploded into guerilla raids throughout the Missouri-Kansas frontier. If the fighting spread north into new Nebraska Territory, Council Bluffs would be blocked just as effectively as West Port and St. Joseph for terminals of any Pacific railway approved by Congress. And now the Camel Corps was readying a new form of traveler security for the Oxbow.

In the early summer of 1856, the future seemed bright for the South & Pacific Railway. Secretary Davis began campaigning for his former post as United States Senator from Mississippi. The Democrats had nominated James Buchanan as their Presidential candidate; he had proven such a bumptious reactionary, in Congress and as ambassador to Russia and Great Britain, that he should be easy to maneuver. Governor John B. Floyd of Virginia wanted to be Secretary of War if the Democrats could defeat that radical, new  p87 Republican party and its "Pathfinder" candidate, John C. Frémont.

Grenville Dodge's urgency to finish the Mississippi & Missouri survey into Council Bluffs was not solely due to his loyalty to Farnam, Sheffield and Durant; or even for the pleasure of beating the Iowa Air Line transit men. At Peru, Illinois, during 1853, he had fallen in love with Anne Brown. The couple announced their engagement before the survey race began out of Iowa City; Miss Brown went to Danvers that fall to meet the rest of the Dodge family and spend the winter as Sylvanus' assistant at the bookstore post office.

Since 1852, wagons had straggled into Council Bluffs in anticipation of agreement between Federal commissioners and the Omaha Indians on the treaty that would enable the great prairie trough of the Platte Valley to become the Territory of Nebraska. During December, 1853, Dodge and Dey joined the hundreds of men searching for future homesites along the Missouri's west bank. They rode due west twenty miles behind the traders' post of Omaha to Elkhorn Creek. Here the north-south ridges formed by glaciers and prehistoric flood channels gave way to the east-west sweep of the Platte Valley. The Elkhorn rippled down from northwest through groves of hickory, beech and cotton wood. Congress was giving assurance that Nebraska Territory would be created during 1854; Dodge decided to build his cabin on the Elkhorn, and asked Dey for a leave of absence to return to Danvers.

Anne and Grenville were married in Danvers on May 28, 1854, two days before Congress opened Nebraska for homesteading. They spent the summer tenting beside the Elkhorn and finished their cabin before fall. In the spring of 1855, Sylvanus, and Grenville's brother Nathan located an adjoining claim, built a second cabin, and began bull-plowing bottom land.

That summer, too, William Farnam and Thomas Durant buggied across Iowa, arguing with bankers and local politicians  p88 about the urgency for organizing Pacific Railway rallies in each community. The speeches at these affairs always preceded the barbecue; politicians had demonstrated for a century that the tantalizing odor of roasting ox held crowds through two-hour speeches. There was enthusiasm enough for the Mississippi & Missouri's extension from Fort Des Moines to Council Bluffs. But it came from farmers, peddlers and crossroads merchants who could afford only a few shares of stock. The bankers and legislators, like the New York and Boston stockholders, muttered pre-election fears: Times are bad; the Kansas war may set the whole Missouri Valley ablaze; Des Moines is far enough; wait and see what the next Congress will do.

Dey stubbornly kept Dodge on the pay roll, allotting him $1,500 a year to explore potential gradients through Omaha to the Platte Valley and west toward South Pass. Thus it was that Dodge, taking sights far up the Platte one summer afternoon in 1855, saw two brown specks on the plain. They loomed into white men astride gaunt ponies. He held his rifle at the cock and jogged toward them. A hundred yards away, one of the strangers threw his arms above his head, shouted, and spurred his pony. Dodge howled back. The horses slid together in a cloud of dust, and the riders embraced.

Fred Lander and an assistant were returning from the War Department's survey of the North Pacific route to Puget Sound. They had started West with a seven-man expedition. The other five had died in accidents and Indian fights and from mountain fever. The Pacific Railway dominated the conversations around the Dodges' fireplace during the next two weeks. "It's bound to come right through this valley," Lander prophesied.

Most of Lander's report to Washington had been routed by Panama Isthmus mail from Oregon. But, he decided, he would go on to Washington and attempt an audience with Mr. Davis. News of the Oxbow route estimates had been gossiped back to the frontier forts. Officers who knew Fitzpatrick, Carson, Bridger and other veterans of the South Pass and Wasatch Crossings snorted disagreement. A Pacific railroad, they said,  p89 might cost more than $100,000,000 by any route. But the California-Mormon Trail would assuredly not cost more than the Oxbow and would be easier to build. Fred Lander rode on to Washington and urged another survey of the California-Mormon Trail. It netted him a frosty "Thank you."

The ancient feud between the Omaha and Sioux Indians resumed with a series of murders during the fall and winter of 1855. Friends in both tribes came to the Dodge cabins and urged them to move into Council Bluffs before "big war come" in the spring. Anne leased a house in Council Bluffs and settled in while the three men sledged crops and furniture across the Missouri ridge. Grenville spent the spring of 1856 helping Durant and Farnam organize another series of Pacific railway rallies at Council Bluffs, Omaha and Florence.

It was Durant, historians agree, who slyly introduced the element of "civic pride" into the system of stock sales for the Mississippi & Missouri and its extension to the Pacific Ocean. Florence, Nebraska, was six miles down-river from Omaha and closer to the Platte Valley. Some of the Mississippi & Missouri stockholders at Davenport and Iowa City favored Florence as the Nebraska terminal of the line. Farnam, "the bluff engineer," made a better impression on frontier audiences than Durant, "the New York slicker." Durant coached Farnam in the "pitch" to be made to each community. If Council Bluffs would subscribe for $300,000 in bonds, grading would begin at once toward the line's end-of-track at Fort Des Moines. If Florence bettered the bid, grading would start from the Iowa River bluff opposite that town.

During the conferences at Florence, Dodge and Farnam visited with the Cornish, Welsh, Manx and English Midland families gathering for a summer migration to the "Promised Land" in the Great Salt Lake Valley. Partly because of disquieting rumors ebbing out of Washington, these converts to the Book of Mormon would attempt the trip over the Rockies without wagon trains. They were building two-wheel handcarts to hold their luggage and foodstuffs. As they whittled spokes  p90 for the handcarts' wheels and forged bar iron into tires they sang the rollicking song they had just composed:

For ye must cross the raging main

Before the Promised Land you gain

And with the faithful make a start

To cross the plains with your handcart.

For some must push and some must pull

As we go marching up the hill,

So merrily on our way we go

Until we reach The Valley, oh!

If these innocents could be inspired to attempt the 1,200‑mile trek to their Promised Land with handcarts, Dodge thought, comparable faith and persistence by a few engineers, contractors and politicians could win the Pacific Railway for the same route.

The course taken by the pilot of the steamboat Effie Afton as she swung down the Rock Island channel of the Mississippi one afternoon that summer was even more fateful for the final route of the Pacific Railway. An eddy whipped her across channel into one of the piers of the Mississippi & Missouri bridge. She tilted, attempted to back off, and columns of flame shot into the wooden fretwork of the bridge. Henry Farnam's masterpiece blazed like a haystack. Volunteer firemen from Rock Island and Davenport pumped and chopped desperately and saved everything but the central span.

The Effie Afton's owners refused to pay damages. The bridge was a menace to navigation, they charged; the railroad should pay them for the steamboat's stoved-in woodwork and scraped paint. Norman Judd, the line's attorney, recommended to Farnam and Durant that he engage the services of an old friend at Springfield, Illinois — a trial lawyer who had served the Illinois Central well during lawsuits — whose name was Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln accepted the case and based his argument on the prophetic fact that "people have as much right to travel east  p91 and west as north and south." The suit crept through Iowa courts, went on to the United States Supreme Court, and was eventually decided in favor of the railroad. Its importance is that it introduced Abraham Lincoln to the California-Mormon Trail route for the Pacific Railway.

On July 22, 1856, Congress authorized appropriations for expeditions to build bridges, blast boulders and grade the more dangerous wheel tracks along the Oxbow, Santa Fe and California-Mormon Trails. The organization of field crews began that fall; Frederick Lander was appointed chief engineer and field superintendent for California-Mormon Trail improvements.

As Jefferson Davis had forecast, John B. Floyd became Secretary of War in the Buchanan Cabinet. Officers at Fort Kearney warned Lander against possible ambushes by the Mormons on the desert crossing between South Pass and the Wasatch; at Fort Laramie, Lander learned that a Utah Expeditionary Force was organizing to "give the Mormons a lesson they'd never forget."

Secretary Floyd's preparations for the Mormon War were so furtively clumsy that the 5,000 infantry and cavalry didn't leave Fort Leavenworth until mid-July. Russell, Majors & Waddell, the freighting firm that held the Army's contract to haul supplies to all the forts west of the Missouri, received its first notification of the Utah Expeditionary Force in late June; Floyd gave them five weeks to round up 3,000,000 pounds of supplies, load it, and get their ox trains rolling toward South Pass. General William S. Harney, assigned to command the force, was a towering Indian Wars veteran who knew the treachery of October and November weather on the Rockies' plateaus, and furthermore did not share the Buchanan-Floyd views about "the polygamous, ungodly Mormons." (He had recently been transferred from Oregon where in addition to conducting a masterly campaign against the Cayuse and neighboring tribes, he had instilled some reverence in Lieutenant  p92 Philip Henry Sheridan — still almost as brash as he had been on Albany's Rose Hill in 1836.) No ox trains and barracks-soft infantry could reach the Wasatch passes before snowfall, Harney predicted in dispatches to Washington.

Before the column was halfway up the Platte a messenger reined in with a letter from Mr. Floyd. Harney was relieved as commander. He would be replaced by Colonel Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Albert Sidney Johnston, former Secretary of War of the Republic of Texas. (Colonel Johnston's assignment as commander of a Texas cavalry regiment would be filled temporarily by his Lieutenant Colonel — Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Robert E. Lee.)

The next five years would prove John B. Floyd a traitor, liar and thief. The temptation is to ascribe his 1857 activities to the Secession plotting of his 1859‑60 deceits. The temptation grows during an examination of 1857 developments in the Slavery-Free Soil struggle. In Nicaragua the proslavery pirate William Walker again tried to take over the government and thus gain control of its trans-isthmus route to California. The proslavers of Kansas rigged the Le Compton Constitution that recognized as "legal property" the slaves already in the territory. President Buchanan studied — with astute Southern coaching — a proposal to occupy the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora, allocate Federal funds to purchase Cuba from Spain, and turn all three into slave territories. The Mormon War and the appointment of Albert Sidney Johnston as the Utah Expeditionary Force commander fits snugly into this pre-Secession pattern; the Utah war could delay Congressional bills seeking Federal appropriations for the Pacific Railway via the California-Mormon Trail; Colonel Johnston was an avowed "slaver," a Virginian by birth, and a Texan by fierce adoption.

The Force crept up the North Platte's ridge toward South Pass that August week when Ohio banks closed their doors and set off "the Buchanan Panic"; fears about the Mormon War and guerilla fighting in Kansas contributed to the 4,392 business bankruptcies that fall and winter. But the  p93 Mormons did not panic. Their Nauvoo Legion defeated the Utah Expeditionary Force without the loss of a man.

Two of the Russell, Majors & Waddell ox trains pulled into Simpson Hollow east of Jim Bridger's fort on the afternoon of October 4. Another train was fifteen miles east. A regiment of United States dragoons camped on the west bank of the Green River a few miles west. About midnight forty Nauvoo Legionaires surrounded the Simpson Hollow wagons, disarmed the guards, and ordered the bullwhackers to "Get your clothes on and start walkin'." By the time a scouting force of Dragoons forced the Green to investigate the transriver fire cloud, the raiders were slapping leather east toward the next wagon train. Before dawn 75 wagons and 300,000 pounds of meat, flour, sugar and grain were charred circles in the forests. As a final insulting fillip, the Legionaires drove 700 of the wagon trains' oxen home to the City of Great Salt Lake via a back trail.

Similar raids on livestock and supplies slowed Johnston's march to a crippled crawl. The Mormons burned stands of grass along the route. The snows came. Johnston finally ordered his troops to hole up for the winter at Fort Bridger. When President Buchanan went before Congress on December 8 with a shrill plea for "more troops to reassert Federal authority in Utah" the Mormon War was over. During the spring of 1859, after abject promises that not a soldier be stationed in the City of Great Salt Lake, Johnston marched his columns down to the desert edge forty miles west of town. The Mormons baked the bricks and cut the lumber for the barracks built there — on contract and at good prices. Johnston named the place Camp Floyd.

Through it all, the Mormons and their leaders evinced faith that their struggle was with "a power clique in Washington," but not with "dear Uncle Sam." Frederick Lander's reports on the South Pass wagon road construction bear this out. He wrote to Washington:

"The passage up the Platte and into the mountains was made without any difficulty whatever, so far as the Utah population  p94 was concerned. John Justus, my messenger to Salt Lake City to procure men, was enabled to proceed in the business of hiring them without interruption immediately upon the arrival of Colonel Johnston's command . . . I was assured by ex-Governor Young, whom I visited while in Salt Lake City, that . . . he would be very glad to have his people employed by me, not only because the work was one of public utility, but because it aided the people in getting a little money for the purchase of groceries and what they termed 'settlement supplies.' The Mormons who worked upon the wagon road were very much pleased with their engagement, and returned to the city comfortably clad from the stock of clothing which had been taken to the mountains by the expedition. The existence of this Mormon population, and the supplies they are enabled to furnish, is a most important matter in making estimates for any public work to be carried on in that section of the country. They are very excellent laborers, many of them Cornish miners who understand all sorts of ledge work, masonry, & c. They will prove of remarkable service should the proposed line of the Pacific railroad pass anywhere in the vicinity of their settlements. I paid them a dollar a day for work, but the next season I shall probably have to pay them at higher rates. Ex-Governor Young told me that he would engage to find laborers and mechanics to build that portion of a Pacific railroad which should extend across the Territory of Utah.

Another 4,225 business firms went into bankruptcy in 1858, and 3,913 more gave up in 1859. Farnam, Sheffield and Durant succeeded in saving the Chicago & Rock Island, but the Mississippi & Missouri failed. Durant and Farnam hurried to Iowa City, argued with politicians, and succeeded in having the Chicago & Rock Island named receiver for the Mississippi & Missouri's trackage and surveyed route.

John B. Jervis resigned and went East to supervise construction of the Hudson River Railroad between New York City and Poughkeepsie. Peter Dey succeeded him as chief engineer. Grenville Dodge rode out the "Buchanan Panic" by opening a Council Bluffs office that peddled real estate, undertook contract freighting, and sold contract lumber to home builders.

The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy managed to survive too.  p95 Samuel Reed shifted to its Burlington and Missouri route and was assigned to start location surveys toward Ottumwa, 75 miles west of the Mississippi. Europeans bought the bonds that enabled the Hannibal & St. Joseph to build across Missouri; on February 1, 1859, its rails joined at Cream Ridge, Missouri. Thomas Hart Benton died in 1858, but his ghost must have led the Grand Marches at the St. Joseph and Hannibal receptions that week; railroads had finally linked 1,200 miles of his Road to India, from the Hudson to the Kansas prairie, just thirty years after his prophetic series of editorials in the St. Louis Enquirer.

As though in justification of the old warrior's crusades for the New West, a gold strike that seemed as dazzling as California's sent thousands of wagons, daubed with Pikes Peak or bust legends, west out of Missouri valley towns. Grenville Dodge opened a trading station for them on the Elkhorn and persuaded his father and brother to go out and operate it. This traffic up the South Platte encouraged Chicago & Rock Island's backers. They approved Dey's request to put Dodge back on the pay roll and send him on a Pacific railroad survey all the way to South Pass.

Dodge arrived home from this survey on August 12, 1859, and saw a crowd gawking around the Pacific House in Council Bluffs. Anne drew back from their first embrace to gasp, "You're just in time. Abraham Lincoln is here. He's promised to make a speech tonight."

The Mississippi & Missouri's attorney, Norman Judd, wanted a loan on a plot of land Dodge had purchased for him on the Missouri flats. He asked Lincoln to take the mortgage. Lincoln, returning from a lecture tour in Missouri, had come upriver to look at the property. But Dodge sensed another reason for the visit as he listened to the speech that night. The debates with Senator Douglas the year before had made Lincoln the favorite son of the Illinois Republicans. Frémont was washed up. Senator Seward of New York and Abraham Lincoln would probably be East-West rivals for  p96 the Presidential candidacy in 1860. Lincoln, by sauntering into Council Bluffs to inspect the mortgage value on land owned by a man he had known and trusted for a decade, was playing the fox again. This could be a bid for the convention votes of the Iowa delegation. It showed in his speech. "The clear and lucid manner in which he set forth the true principles of the Republican Party," reported the Council Bluffs Non Pareil the next day, "the dexterity with which he applied the political scalpel to the Democratic carcass, beggars all description at our hands." The loudest cheer of the evening came when Lincoln, poking a finger toward the Missouri, twanged, "Not one, but many railroads will center here."

Dodge walked down to the Pacific House next morning to see whether Lincoln would expound on that railroad prophecy. W. H. M. Pusey, Lincoln's official host, saw Dodge in the crowd, tugged Lincoln's arm, and said, "That black-whiskered fellow down there is Grenville Dodge. He knows more about railroads than any two men in the country."

J. R. Perkins, Dodge's official biographer, described the interview that followed Pusey's brag: "Lincoln studied Dodge intently for a moment, and then slowly crossed the porch to where he sat on a bench, crossed his long legs, swung his foot for a moment and said, 'Dodge, what's the best route for a Pacific railroad to the West?' 'From this town out the Platte Valley,' was the instant rejoinder."

During the next hour, as Dodge himself expressed it later, "he shelled my woods completely and got all the information I'd collected for Henry Farnam, my employer." Extorting the California-Mormon Trail and the engineering facts Frederick Lander had given him about the Wasatch and Nevada, Dodge pointed out the importance the route already had in the rush to the Pike's Peak gold fields. "In 1857 alone, at the height of the fears about Johnston's Utah Expedition," he quoted from Lander's field report, "more than seventy thousand cattle were driven through South Pass and over the deserts to Utah. If cows can make it, a railroad certainly can." And he had  p97 picked up another rumor. Word of a new gold and silver strike somewhere on the Nevada side of the Sierras had reached Fort Kearney. Pikes Peak gold . . . City of the Great Salt Lake . . . Nevada gold and silver. All three were located directly over the California-Mormon Trail.

Abe Lincoln nodded. He had some news too. Some young engineer was preaching from San Francisco to Sacramento that the logical route for a Pacific railroad was up the passes out of Sacramento to Salt Lake. He had stirred up such a fuss that a Pacific Railroad convention was scheduled to be held in San Francisco sometime during the summer. For all Lincoln knew it might be going on right then.

Thayer's Notes:

a In view of a number of other small errors thruout this book, it should be noted that the Bactrian or two-humped camel is not native to North Africa (and personally, in several years in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia I've never seen one there); though not impossible of course, Bactrian camels seem unlikely and it's tempting to substitute dromedaries.

That said, the American camel procurement expedition of 1855 to Italy, Tunis, Greece, Turkey, Egypt and the Crimea did wind up with two full-blooded Bactrians among its 33 camels — for entertaining accounts of our War Department's camel shopping, see Charles C. Carroll, "The Government Importation of Camels, a Historical Sketch", in 20th Annual Report Bureau of Animal Industry (Washington, 1904); and "Jefferson Davis's Camel Experiment", Popular Science Monthly (Feb. 1909), 74:141‑152 — but I've been unable so far to tell where they were obtained. See also the next note.

b A detailed account of this camel testing is given in "Operation Camel: An Experiment in Animal Transportation in Texas, 1857‑1860" (Southwestern Hist. Q. 17:20‑50).

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