“A Skeleton Report”: Lt. R.S. Williamson on Surveys for a Transcontinental Railroad Route in California, 1854

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The concept of a transcontinental railroad to the Pacific Ocean was in the minds of many Americans during a long stretch of the 19th century, but, in the early 1850s, the federal government authorized surveys to be made for the building of a line through the massive expanses of the West, some of which was only recently seized in the Mexican-American War.

The project was under the auspices of the Department of War, which existed from 1789 to 1947, when it was divided into the Department of the Army and the Department of the Air Force.  During the administration of Franklin Pierce from 1853 to 1857, the Secretary of War was Jefferson Davis, who served in the Army from 1825 to 1835 (when he resigned to marry the daughter of his superior officer, Zachary Taylor, against his wishes) and then again as a volunteer during the Mexican-American War.  After a stint as a senator from Mississippi, he resigned to run for governor of that state, but lost.  After campaigning for Pierce, he was rewarded with the Secretary of War post.

In late 1853, Davis’ goal of acquiring land from Mexico for a possible southern transcontinental railroad route led to the Gadsden Purchase, one of the most successful of the early efforts to develop momentum for the larger project.  Davis also closely managed what has widely been known as the Pacific Railroad Surveys, which numbered five.  These included a far northern route from St. Paul, Minnesota to Puget Sound in Washington Territory; a middle route from St. Louis to the San Francisco Bay area; and two southern ones, with a proposed line from Oklahoma to Los Angeles and another from Texas to San Diego; and, finally, a coastal survey from San Diego to Puget Sound.

This last was led by Lt. John Parke, who also co-led the Texas to San Diego survey, and Lt. Robert Stockton Williamson.  Williamson, born in Oneida, New York in 1825, was named for a family friend Robert F. Stockton, a Navy commodore who was instrumental in seizing California during the Mexican-American War (William Workman met with Stockton at Mission San Juan Capistrano to arrange an amnesty for Californios defending their homeland against the Americans and then helped bring the white flag of truce to the commodore when Los Angeles was taken on 10 January 1847, ending the war in California.)


Williamson, with Stockton’s help, joined the Navy at age 18 before he went to West Point, where he finished fifth in his class in 1848 just after the conclusion of the war.  He became a second lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers, which eventually led to his assignment to conduct the transcontinental railroad surveys.

Williamson was sent from the east coast to the west in spring 1853, arriving at Benicia east of San Francisco in late May.  From there he organized his surveying party and went to work.  As required by his instructions, Williamson sent a report to Secretary Davis, dated 12 January 1854.  After a resolution by the Senate, Davis forwarded the document to that body on 17 March.  Three days later, it was sent to the Select Committee for the railroad project and, on 3 April, it was ordered to be printed.

In the opening section of his report, after noting his trip to California and the organization of his party and commencement of work in the field, which traversed the state southward to San Diego and where he discharged his crew, Williamson wrote that he returned to San Francisco the day after Christmas 1853, where he established an office.  He added that he was “busily engaged in making the necessary computations, and compiling the maps and sketches, which will form the basis of a full report, showing the results of the expedition.”

He lamented that “my instructions, however, require that I should present a skeleton report to be laid before Congress on or before the first Monday of February” and noted that “I have had as yet time to make only rough estimates of the altitudes of the passes examined, and none of the maps are in a sufficiently advanced state to accompany a report at this time.”  Concerned that such a document “will be necessarily meager and unsatisfactory,”  the lieutenant was resigned to the fact that his orders “do not permit me to delay beyond the specified time” so “I have prepared the following sketch of my field operations.”  He hoped to have full report to make in two months.


After departing from Benicia, Williamson and his crew headed south into what he called the “Tulare valley,” stopping at “Livermore’s pass, through which we entered the valley of the San Joaquin.”  After determining that Livermore was practical for a railroad, he proceeded southeast and looked at areas of the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains.  After carefully surveying the area, he went to Walker Pass east of modern Bakersfield and, from the summit, searched southward for promising passes towards Southern California.

What Williamson did was that he “ran two lines of levels from base to base of the Sierra: One through the Tejon pass, and one through the pass known as the ‘Canada de las Uvas,’ which is just at the junction of the Sierra with the coast range.”  He dismissed Walker Pass as being “the most difficult . . . of the passes that were examined.”  With the respect to the southern extremity of the “Tulare valley” or San Joaquin Valley, Williamson returned to discussing Tejon Pass and Canada de las Uvas (Grapevine Canyon).

Tejon had steep grades so it, “next to Walker’s pass, is the most difficult of the passes examined.”  As for de las Uvas, it had obstacles and “would require stationary power for four miles,” but for the remaining distance of twenty miles, “I think a road might be constructed, though the grade would be heavy.”  Overall, however, Williamson was concerned that, of all the areas explored, “it will be exceedingly difficult to select one through which a railroad can be constructed without having recourse to inclined planes with stationary power.”

Williamson, though, observed that there was “one pass, of the existence of which we had never heard” and which was “found to be far preferable to any other” because of its easier grades.  No name was given for this, but it was noted that “it is at the head of the southeasternmost branch of the Santa Clara river.”  This appears to be the route coming in from Lancaster and Palmdale in the Antelope Valley and following the modern 14 Freeway towards the Newhall Pass.  He added “having arrived upon this stream, a road can follow it down without difficulty to the Pacific,” this being the route of Highway 126 from today’s Santa Clarita to Ventura.

Williamson p3

Williamson then headed east to the Mojave Desert, where he divided his party, so that Parke was sent to seek out a route southeast to the Gila River in southern Arizona, traveling through the exceedingly harsh desert regions of southeastern California.  A civil engineer, J. W. Smith, was ordered “to examine the new pass in the coast range [mentioned above] and the approaches to Los Angelos [sic].”  Williamson led a third group to trace the Mojave River and then make a reconnaissance to Los Angeles.  He reported that “it was impracticable to cross the [San Gabriel] mountains south of us, unless by first crossing the coast range and turning [toward?] Mount San Bernardino, a high peak, from which a long unbroken spur runs eastward far towards the Colorado.”

What he seemed to mean here was a potential line coming through Newhall Pass and into the San Fernando Valley to Los Angeles and then east through the San Gabriel Valley and into the Inland Empire and through San Gorgonio Pass into Palm Springs and then southeast past the Salton Sea to the Colorado at Fort Yuma.  To this end, Williamson sent Parke “with the wagon train over to the San Bernardino valley, from which point he should search for a good pass leading to the eastward of the mountains, south of the San Bernardino peak.”

Williamson hoped to discover whether the Mojave River met the Colorado, which it doesn’t, and then follow that mighty watercourse to where it meets the Gila at Yuma.  Interestingly, he reported that “for about fifty miles from our depot camp we followed along the wagon road known as the old Spanish trail, leading to the great Salt Lake.”  What he was referring to was what has also been known as the Mormon Trail from Salt Lake City to San Bernardino, established as a Mormon outpost in 1851, and which could accommodate wagons.  The Old Spanish Trail, which basically was used from about 1830 to the end of the Mexican-American War, was along part of that Mormon route, but it was not utilized by wagons, but, rather, pack mules.  The Rowland and Workman Expedition of late 1841 used the actual Old Spanish Trail, but later travelers on the Mormon route often used the older name.

The lieutenant then went into some detail about his explorations in the Mojave Desert, noting that the region “was destitute of wood, water, and grass.”  Unable to locate a pass to get them to the Gila “and being fearful of losing our animals for want of water and grass,” Williamson headed back west and then south to Warner Pass, southeast of modern Temecula, where he encountered Parke.  This pass was named for Jonathan Trumbull (a.k.a., Juan José) Warner, an American who was a close friend of the Workman and Temple families.


Parke, he continued, left the main camp probably near today’s Barstow and “had passed through ‘Cajon pass’ into the San Bernardino valley, and from then had recorssed the coast range through the pass of San Gorgonio [near modern Palm Springs and Banning].”  This was “found to be an excellent pass” with better grades than elsewhere in the region.  After staying with “friendly Indians,” likely Cahuillas, Parke “continued his march to the southward, till he struck the wagon road leading from Fort Yuma to San Diego, and taking this road, crossed the mountains at Warner’s pass, where I rejoined him.”

As for Warner’s pass, Williamson noted that it “is the one spoken of by the citizens of San Diego as the best approach to that city.”  Another, spelled as “Jacum” and stated to be “near the boundary line [with Mexico],” probably refers to the area east through Jamul, where Highway 94 runs close to the Mexican border.  Parke was then ordered to conduct more investigations of the areas north and east of San Diego, while Williamson moved on toward the Gila and its junction with the Colorado.

One of the areas explored by Parke was a route leading west from Warner Pass through the Cleveland National Forest not far from the Mount Palomar Observatory the Mission San Luis Rey but it did not lend itself to a railroad.  Neither did Williamson’s examination of areas east of the pass, while Parke said that the “Jacum” was “decidedly impractical.”  East of Warner’s Pass and today’s Anza-Borrego State Park, however, Williamson found “no impediment to the construction of a road across this plain.”  As to the Gila-Colorado junction, he opined that “there will be no difficulty in bridging the Colorado at the mouth of the Gila.”

With this, Williamson concluded by observing that these brief explanations of the passes explored were, he hoped, “sufficient to explain their general character, and will answer the desired purpose till a minute description with profiles and maps can be prepared.”  He then summarized his opinion of the best option for a transcontinental line through the region:

the most direct route from the mouth of the Gila to the Pacific, and the one that presents the least difficulties, is through the San Gorgonio pass to the San Bernardino valley, and thence nearly on level ground to San Pedro, should San Diego be selected  as the terminus [italics added].  I think still the San Gorgonio pass would have to be selected from whence the road, having approached the coast, could pass near it to San Diego.  If it be desired to reach San Francisco, the road having crossed the San Gorgonio pass and traversed the San Bernardino and Los Angeles valleys, would recross the coast range through the new pass described above, from which point it would reach any of the passes in the Sierra Nevada that might be selected . . . Should the difficulties of crossing the Sierra Nevada be considered too great, a road from Los Angeles near the coast might be found.  An instrumental examination of the coast range between Los Angeles and Monterey is required before any road can be located to the city of San Francisco.

There is some significant confusion here, especially where the italicized part is, because San Pedro is obviously some 125 miles north of San Diego, so Williamson likely meant to say Los Angeles as a terminus.  In fact, the full reports later issued and published did identify a 35th parallel route to Los Angeles as most desirable, along with a 32nd parallel line to San Diego.

Williamson report p5

If, however, San Francisco was the desired terminus, it was recommended to run the line through San Gorgonio Pass, the Inland Empire, and the San Gabriel Valley to Los Angeles, before turning the line north through Newhall Pass and into the Antelope Valley and, probably, through Tehachapi Pass and into the San Joaquin Valley.

The coast route from Los Angeles, as mentioned, would have had to go through Ventura and Santa Barbara before making its way north through what is now Vandenburg Air Force Base and along the coast to San Luis Obispo and the Salinas Valley towards Monterey.  As Williamson observed, however, no investigations were yet made of this region, though that would soon take place.

Added to this report was a short letter from Dr. A.L. Heerman, a physician and naturalist, who wrote that he collected some specimens of birds, reptiles and fishes as well as plant species, despite the less-than-ideal weather.  Heerman added that, because he lacked standard reference works, he could not determine which of his specimens were of new genera or species.  The full reports of the surveys did prove to be very valuable because of the work done by naturalists like Heerman in expanding knowledge of animal and plant life in the western United States.

By the time the Pierce administration ended in 1857 after the election of James Buchanan as president, Jefferson Davis was replaced as Secretary of War.  Worsening relations between the North and South over slavery and other issues pushed the nation closer to the Civil War.  While Davis, as a Southerner, naturally preferred a southern route, which, however, was easier and cheaper by all estimates, the onset of the war, which brought Davis to the presidency of the Confederate States of America, determined the final route of the transcontinental line.  The Union selected a route from Omaha, Nebraska to San Francisco (actually, Oakland) and, between 1862 and 1869, the remarkable rail project was built.


As for Williamson, he completed his railroad survey work and worked on the staff of the Army’s Department of the Pacific.  When the Civil War broke out, he was assigned to an engineering battalion and then was the main topographical engineer in North Carolina.  He was brevetted a major for battlefield service in the late winter and spring of 1862 before becoming the head topographical engineer for the Army of the Potomac and then back to the Department of the Pacific.  In 1863, he joined the Army Corps of Engineers and worked on lighthouses, harbors and coastal defenses.

After the war, he headed the San Francisco office of the Army Corps of Engineers, which largely worked on rivers and harbors along the Pacific coast as well as at Pearl Harbor, an American concession in the Kingdom of Hawaii.  He achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel by the time he retired in 1882 because of tuberculosis and other health issues.  He died in San Francisco three years later at age 57.  He is probably best known in California as the namesake of the second tallest mountain, after Mount Whitney, in the state.

This report is an important early document in the surveys that eventually led to the building of the transcontinental railroad.  Williamson’s belief that a road through our region, including the Inland Empire, San Gabriel Valley, and Los Angeles, was the best route is an important recognition of the importance of the potential of greater Los Angeles.

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