“A Pacific Railroad is . . . Worthy of a Great and Powerful Nation”: A Report by the Select Committee on the Pacific Railroad, House of Representatives, 13 April 1860, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In summer 1830 (this is the beginning of the Homestead’s interpretive period concluding in 1930), the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad opened its first 130-mile segment from Baltimore to Ellicott City, Maryland and inaugurated American railroading. It was not long before some began dreaming of a transcontinental line to the Pacific as the so-called western movement of “Manifest Destiny” barreled through indigenous and Mexican people in wars of conquest.

Within a half-decade of the conclusion of the Mexican-American War and the seizure of fully one-third of México by the United States, active planning for a transcontinental railroad was undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Yet, the rising tide and tensions of sectionalism between northern and southern states, chiefly over slavery, which led to the Civil War of 1861-1865, included bitter differences of opinion about where to build the line.

Even though the prevailing opinion among those who conducted the surveys that the most direct and least expensive route was a southern one from Arkansas to either San Diego or San Pedro, the political reality was that such a line was not going to happen as the country edged nearer to war and northerners would not countenance a southern route. Given this, the highlighted artifact from the Museum’s holdings for this post, a 13 April 1860 report from the House of Representatives’ Select Committee on the Pacific Railroad, is particularly interesting.

Issued just a day under a year from the onset of the war, the document included a majority report by ten members, as well as dissenting views from the other two members, and it is fascinating to read the arguments for three separate routes—southern, central and northern—and this multi-part post will summarize what each opinion offered as rationales for their preferred route. The majority of the committee began their report with a clear military motivation, referencing recent wars in the Crimea involving England, France and Russia and in Italy, and averred that

Hostile powers could seize upon those lines [of communication on the west coast], transport an army by steam[ship], and make a campaign in California before we could transport forces across the country to succor or sustain our friends and kindred of the Pacific shore.

A Pacific railroad is a military necessity to aid in the defence of the Pacific states; and every reflecting mind possessed of patriotic emotions will perceive that California wealth and weakness invite aggression; and demand of us immediate and decisive exertions in their behalf.

The time for action was nigh, the argument went on, after political conventions and resolutions, as well as the fact that “large sums have been appropriated and expended in preliminary explorations; large volumes have been written and published at the public expense.” While President James Buchanan called on Congress to act, the majority of the committee implored that “it may be regarded as a national determination that we must now take decisive action and secure successful results.

It was noted that, while up to 2,000 miles was required for the desired route to San Francisco, this “is only perplexing because it passes through sparsely settled and somewhat barren portions of the republic, and because of the importance its construction will give to adjacent locations.” The Army Corps work of the early to mid Fifties was such as to have “furnished the careful student with ample means to determine some rational conclusion of this important subject.” In fact, it was added that a large-scale map was of great help to the committee “in the determination of a great conflict of views relating to the length and position of routes.”

Notably, it was decided to choose one line “although many able arguments were urged in favor of two or more,” as will be referred to later. There were four possibilities studied out of which the sole route was chosen and it was observed that the pros and cons of the quartet were such that “to present the favorable and unfavorable qualities of each route, would extend this report beyond reasonable limits.” The majority settled upon the central one “without prejudice to others” and recognized that the selection was “the most difficult and exciting obstacle in the determination of congressional action,” while different parts of the country would naturally favor the route “which will best subserve its local convenience.”

Beyond local favoritism, however, there was also that some interested parties “dread the prestige such a work will give to a rival section” and the committee opined that “it is impossible to fully reconcile this antagonism, by urging the importance of the common national interest.” Still, it was felt that a centralized line would be the best way to address this matter, provided that there were “branches on each side, and from each end, [which] can most easily and directly accommodate all sections of our country.”

The quartet of routes followed the 32nd (to San Diego), 35th (San Pedro), 41st (San Francisco Bay Area) and between the 47th and 49th (to Puget Sound near Seattle), but centrality of the 41st parallel was expressed as being so “as to the west; central as to the numerous lines of railroads traversing the western States; central when prolonged eastward, as to our great cities, it being parallel of Philadelphia, and central as it passes through the centre of our whole population.” To this end, the choosing of the central path was considered “most likely to accommodate the greatest number of our people.”

After opining that “radical error has been fastened upon the public mind by false presentation of the starting and ending of a Pacific railroad” because lines were considered complete beyond the Mississippi River, which was considered the eastern terminus in the surveys,” the majority noted that, “in considering the western terminus, we must look to a safe, direct connexion with San Francisco” or to such inland rivers as the Sacramento, from which a steamboat could be taken to the city. On the other hand, it went on,

A terminus at San Diego or at Puget’s Sound [sic] is, like the isthmus [Panama?] route, unsafe, being too far from the centre of the Pacific population, and too far from the great Pacific emporium, to which we should seek to have a safe communication in time of war. From either of these points to San Francisco, several hundred miles of ocean steam line is required. All lines should therefore be terminated at the bay of San Francisco, or what will be substantially the same, on the Sacramento or San Joaquin rivers, where steamers can always transport two hundred tons of freight, keeping the entire line interior, and therefore safe in time of war.

A little creative math portended to show that the central route was the shortest, but this was achieved by insisting that the other three had to terminate at San Francisco, which, naturally, extended them significantly instead of having termini at San Diego, San Pedro and Puget Sound. Moreover, the strategic possibilities of the southern California locales was completely lost on the committee, which felt that Puget Sound and the Gulf of California, within the bounds of México, were far more important.

Elaborating further on its selection, the majority noted that, given the obstacles that were presented in crossing the great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the basin between California and Utah, the Sierra Nevada range and so on, “nine-tenths of the overland emigration has adopted this route,” while there were large settlements along it, as well. Specifically highlighted were “the new gold mines of Pike’s Peak” in what became Colorado; “the forty thousands Mormons” in the future state of Utah; and “the new and important Washo[e] silver mines” of what, within just four years, became the state of Nevada. It was added that “the latest news from these new mining districts is exciting a new flood of emigration unparalleled in former years,” though the ferment of the California Gold Rush of roughly a decade before was certainly of greater import.

The report then went into great detail concerning the route as culled from several surveys, though it is worth noting that, because the winter of 1857-1858 and two since were ones in which miners and soldiers “have not been seriously annoyed by snow,” the judgment regarding the formidable Rocky Mountains was that “the climate is comparatively mild.” Besides, the statement went on, railroad companies had board fences, snow plows and locomotives to clear tracks so that “snow is no longer a railroad obstruction worthy of much consideration anywhere, and is no more in the arid regions of the Rocky mountains than in the eastern States of the same latitude

As to the vast spaces of Utah and Nevada, it was believed the only issue was the lack of timber, while the Sierra Nevada range area was summarized as “with silver on one side and gold on the other, [the range] is now, summer and winter, traversed by thousands; and the necessity of a railroad is, therefore, greatest where the difficulties are most formidable.” Even still, the issues were considered not much different from what was found in the Alleghany Mountains on the east coast and the work of Lt. Edward G. Beckwith was cited as enough that “any practical railroad constructor will be convinced of the practicability, and, in some respects, interesting portions, of the railroad route.”

Its extensive quoting from the Beckwith report on his survey of the central route was followed by the statement that “the Secretary of War, Hon. Jefferson Davis, in his summary report of 1855, although he favors the southern route, this speaks of this central . . .” noting that Beckwith’s work did reveal “the discovery of a more direct and practicable route than was believed to exist from the Great Salt Lake to the valley of the Sacramento.”

Moreover, an alternate in that region was found by Brevet Lt. Col. Edward J. Steptoe and was considered a solution to some of the problems traversing the Nevada basin and Davis’ review stated that “in the absence of instrumental surveys . . . no opinion can be formed as to the practicability of this route for a railroad,” though if the Steptoe alternate was viable, it would improve what was “already known to be less [difficulty] than on any other route except that of the thirty-second parallel.”

Davis, though, ended his tenure as head of the War (now Defense) Department with a change in presidents in 1857 and returned to the United States Senate and then resigned to accept the presidency of the Confederate States of America. As noted above, there was no way that a southern route was going to be accepted and the outbreak of the Civil War made the choice of the central route an obvious one.

The main challenge as the majority saw it was in trying to provide a reasonable cost estimate for constructing a transcontinental line, though the surveys of several years prior put a price tag of about $116 million for the central route. This repot noted that “the practical difficulty which is presented in estimating the cost of a Pacific railroad, is the unsettled and comparatively uncultivable portions of the country.” It was asserted, though, that the central route the group favored “is most accessible to men and provisions,” such as those coming from the Mormons in Utah.

The iron for the track and the rolling stock, or components of trains, were not considered a major issue, though “the extra cost would mainly relate to . . . roadbed and ties.” The growth of mining and emigration was presented as factors that would mitigate “the loneliness and desolation which exists on all the overland routes.” Suggesting that construction begin at either end and that they would “proceed with great activity towards the mountains,” the majority cautiously estimated a 2,000 mile line’s cost at $120 million.

As for “probable results,” it was anticipated that

A railroad once made, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific, through a healthy inhabited portion of this continent, will sensibly affect the commerce, travel, and social intercourse of the world. Europe and Asia will be brought in effect much nearer to each other, and we will be much nearer to Asia. Travelling lines will not only be shortened, but they will be much more speedy, healthy, and inviting, by interposing the variety of land scenery for the dangers and monotony of the sea.

The majority further attempted to calculate the economic windfall of travel of the transcontinental line estimating that there would be 200,000 trips annually at $60 each, while $1.5 million in fees for gold transport (3% of an expected $50 million), a like amount realized in mail service and “transportations of men and munitions of war” would amount to some $5 million.

In sum, it was anticipated that $20 million would be generated from these sources, while another $10 million was expected from freight charges and the total of $30 million was considered “sufficient to pay current expenses, and also a fair dividend on the estimated cost.” In reply to suggestions that these figures were over-estimates, the majority opined that “before the road can be completed another decade of our history will have transpired, and western progress will more than compensate for possible errors.” Moreover, it was assumed that there would be “new elements of business that will be created by a new channel of commerce” thanks to “this creative power of railroads.”

With respect to financing, it was suggested that 30-year bonds at 5% interest be issued to pay for transport and telegraphic services, while advances were only to be made as 50-mile sections were completed and the government was to be secured with a first mortgage lien on the road and the equipment used for its development. With $60 million in bonds, comprising half the cost with the remainder to be borne by private funding, and $3.5 million in annual interest, yearly debt servicing was to be $6.5 million and the $3 million between the latter two figures was to be a sinking fund to redeem the bonds in under 24 years and, of course, well before the maturity date.

Operating costs for three daily trains were pegged at just south of $13 million with about $10.5 million left for for dividends, repairs, supervision and taxes, but with the latter three at about $2 million, this left some $8.5 million or 12% of the sum of $70 million which would be the principal plus interest during the work to build the line. There was, though, the caveat that, despite its best efforts to determine the work and cost, the presentation “may differ from the views of many, and may not be the best mode of accomplishing the object.”

It added that, while $60 million seemed like an enormous amount, “the Mexican war cost us two hundred millions, and we never felt the payment.” For the investment, moreover,

The construction of a Pacific railroad will accomplish more good, and add more to our national glory . . . A Pacific railroad is consistent with the intercourse and intelligence of our people, in harmony with the progress of the age, and worthy of a great and powerful nation.

It will unite isolated sections of our own country, create a direct communication between Europe and Asia, and revolutionize the commerce and elevate the civilization of the world.”

Seven of the committee members subscribed their names together with the added comment that they’d “prepared a bill designed to furnish the requisite legislation to accomplish the object, which they present with a recommendation that it do pass.” One member concurred, another did so, but added that he was in favor of a branch to the Columbia River in conjunction, while a third concurred “except [with] the plan of construction.”

The next part continues with one of the minority reports, so be sure to check back in soon for that.

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