“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 Two

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Of the twelve members of the House of Representatives’ Select Committee on the Pacific Railroad for the first session of the 36th Congress, which met from 5 December 1859 to 25 June 1860, ten were behind the majority report and its recommendation that, of four possible routes, two to southern California, one to the Bay Area of the Golden State and the last Puget Sound, the best was the line to San Francisco.

That discussion comprised the first part of this post and now we move to one of the two minority reports, issued by single members of the committee and ordered printed on 16 April 1860, and their suggestions for routes at the northern and southern extremes. Not surprisingly, the representative calling for the most northern route was Cyrus Aldrich, who was from Minnesota, where the Twin Cities area of Minneapolis/St. Paul stood to benefit mightily as the eastern terminus of such a line.

His argument was that

The northern route connects the great lakes and the Upper Mississippi with Puget’s Sound [sic—the inlet was commonly called Puget’s because it was named for Peter Puget, a lieutenant serving under George Vancouver during explorations there in the 1790s] and the Columbia river. it is required for the defence and development of the northwest, for the transportation of the mails, troops, supplies, and munitions of war. it is demanded to enable the country to control the changing course of the trade of Asia.

Aldrich continued that this route was the shortest connecting water lines, with termini closer to Asia and Europe, had smaller gradients, was easiest to engineer, had the best position for future settlement, and had the most ample supply of building materials (iron, stone and timber), to boot.

The route from St. Paul to Seattle (population of about 200 in 1860!) was around 1,750 miles, hundreds of miles shorter than the others, while the distances from Seattle to ports like Shanghai and Canton (Guangzhou) were also less by 300 and 240 miles, respectively, though prevailing winds made the sailing shorter. With respect to eastbound travel, once shipments got to Lake Superior, then there was ease of sailing that route, while rail to an Atlantic port was also shorter than via the other routes.

Aldrich reviewed the gradients, the importance of linking the Missouri and Columbia rivers and the “Character of the Country,” which emphasized “that all but 320 miles of the route passes through an arable country” and were either grazing lands or well-wooded. With settlements well established near the proposed line in Oregon and Washington, the representative noted that “the worse portion of the country on the route lies between Snake river and the Spokane, and between the Columbia and the meridian passing through the mouth of the Pelouse [Palouse River]” in southeastern and eastern Washington. Even then he observed that “in this tract, occupying simply 50 miles of the route, there is generally good though not abundant grazing, and many spots of good arable land.

Water was abundant virtually everywhere and wood was to be easily located in all areas except in portions of eastern Washington and a few other small areas, while the two core rivers, the Columbia and Missouri allowed for ready shipment of timber and, even where a temporary use of cottonwood might be required, more durable wood could later be brought in for replacing these sections. Otherwise, cedar, fir, pine, spruce and other trees were found in great abundance in such ranges as the Bitter Root, Cascades and Rockies and pine and fir elsewhere in reasonable proximity. Clay and sand for bricks were considered of “ample supplies at convenient points” while west of the Rockies “in the Spokane country . . . there are inexhaustible supplies of the most valuable ores of iron.”

Aldrich also claimed that “the objections which have been urged against this route on account of the severity of the climate and the depth of the snow are utterly untenable” given that there were already railroads in areas along it and that snow was “absolutely lesson the northern than on the central route,” such as from Minnesota to the Rockies and in eastern Washington and the Flathead region of Montana. Moreover, stock grazing was successfully conducted “throughout the entire extent of the route” during winter and without fodder, so he concluded, “it is not necessary to elaborate this question of climate, as the information given in the reports of the explorers is very full and convincing.”

With respect to engineering, Aldrich stated that “the only engineering difficulty of mark on this route are the tunnels which lie on the line of the shortest practicable route” and that there were tunnels in the nation and Europe that were longer and the technology used for excavating them was improving rapidly. Otherwise, because of the well-watered and mountainous character of much of the rote, there would have to be “large quantities of ridging and culvert work, heavy excavations in rock and earth” and, in some of the wetter regions along the Columbia, “special provision against freshets [of heavy rain].” In all, the most difficult areas probably involves under 300 miles of the line and several more challenging and expensive roads were already completed in parts of the nation.

Looking to brush aside any concerns about engineering and to “cease to annoy ourselves” about what was discussed above, the representative moved to the estimate of costs and concluded that building not quite 1,550 miles of road from the western edge of Minnesota to Seattle would be $95 million with another $17 million for a Columbia River branch. Aldrich went on to suggest, though, that “this estimate will be considerably reduced in the careful location of the road” and that there were “very liberal sums for contingencies of all kinds” and, while about 750 miles of the route was calculated to cost $40,000 per mile, he felt that “much of this distance can be building for $25,000 a mile, including a full equipment.”

As did his colleagues in the majority, though with perhaps somewhat less emphasis, the representative observed the importance of the northern route for national defense, though it is interesting to note his reference to “a foreign power, now bent on the development of its possessions north of the boundary.” This meant Great Britain and, while there were occasions in the 1840s in which war with England seemed very likely, Aldrich did not seem to fell it relevant to bring in a much larger military problem: our own seemingly inevitable Civil War.

He added that the growth of population along the route would naturally provide the human resources for defense purposes, while observing that British Canada was not likely to have a transcontinental rail route for many years to come and the time was ripe for the United States to get its line completed well in advance of its northern neighbor. Aldrich went so far as to suggest that an American northern route would mean that “freight business will be so large . . . that the necessity will at once be established of laying a double track.” Given this, he felt “this this road is the condition indispensable to American ascendency on the northwest coast, and in the commerce of the Pacific. Its effect to strengthen the defence of the country, both on the sea and on the land, must impress every mind.

In fact, the representative then summoned all of his rhetorical skill to aver that, to avoid “lethargy and effeteness” of the American military and to tap into the “inventive genius of our people” along with “the great administrative capacities of our government,” it was incumbent on the nation

to devote the uncrippled energies of our people to the development of the resources of our country—subduing its wildness, establishing its communications, extending its commerce, quieting and subordinating all its disturbing elements, protecting all branches of industry in their legitimate pursuits, and this creating vast resources and facilities, and impressing upon our institutions an iron and irresistible energy, which in war will cause armed men and vessels of war and supplies to spring up at command, and the whole to be applied in the spirit and success which we have crowned the accomplishment of the conquests of peace.

Yet, a year later, the nation was engulfed in an all-absorbing conflict that belied all of this high-flying rhetoric and Aldrich’s assertions. He was, of course, ultimately correct in stating that “Puget’s Sound is marked out by nature for a great commercial entrepot” and that “the northern route will give it to the United States, with all its grand elements of naval strength.” Otherwise, England might take advantage of any lapse in will and effort to build the line.

Concerning more southern locales, the representative offered that “the Columbia river branch of the northern route lends itself to a connexion [sic] with San Francisco by the Willamette and Sacramento valleys” and benefit the California city because it would be “her shortest possible connexion with the great lakes.” Aldrich continued that there would some day be 5 million people in Minnesota, Wisconsin, “Northern Iowa,” Dakota and the British holdings further north which would also help San Francisco. He advised, though, that with good steamship routes already in place between that city, the Columbia and Puget Sound, “we do not recommend government aid to establish this connexion.”

Aldrich briefly discussed mineral wealth and stated that, beyond the limitless supply of iron ore, there was “a large gold-breading country east of the Cascade mountains with coal, copper, lead, quicksilver, silver and other minerals along and to the north of the line. He also referred to the potential of gold mines in British Columbia and Washington and that a boom was expected “before the road could even be located” and that this, in turn, would expand agriculture and animal husbandry in these regions.

Lastly, the representative expounded on “Trade with Asia,” noting the potential to tap the markets for some 600 million souls there. Essential, of course, was that “the shortest time will determine both the course of travel and the line of movement of all costly articles of freight.” This meant that “all articles which deteriorate by exposure to a tropical climate will take the northern route across the continent,” these including furniture, furs, silk, spices and tea. Notable, given how reversed the situation is now, Aldrich believed that

A short route to China is of the utmost importance to this country, to facilitate the exportation of goods manufactured from the great American staple . . . With the proposed northern road, we shall best avail ourselves of our geographical position to control the markets of Asia with our cottons. It has been estimated that the supply necessary for these new markets will require an amount of cotton equal to the present entire crop of upland cotton in the United States.

With a baseline of fifty cents per person yearly in trade, Aldrich ended his report by claiming that $300 million a year in trade could be realized from the connection to Asia, while that number would double when transport to Europe was considered. With that, it was merely stated that this alternative was provided for “the consideration of the House [through] the accompanying bill.

While the central route was adopted and completed in 1869, a northern transcontinental line was built to Seattle in 1883, followed a few years later by a line across to the west end of British Canada. The third part of this post examines the second minority report which advocated for the extreme southern route along the 32nd parallel to southern California, so be sure to check back for that.

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