“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 Three

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As we continue with this third part of a look at a House of Representatives Select Committee on the Pacific Railroad report from 1860, having covered the majority report by ten of the twelve members, as well as a dissension from one representative from Minnesota calling for the most northern route to the west coast emanating from his state, it is certainly no shock to find that the second offering in dissent from the majority was for the further southern route and that its proponent was from Andrew Jackson Hamilton, who lived in Austin, the state capital of Texas.

Hamilton’s submission was ordered to be printed later than the others, which were on the 13th and 16th of April, respectively, his being on 9 May. He began by addressing the question of the constitutionality of whether Congress could legislate on a transcontinental railroad and opined that it “may use the inventions of science and art in selecting the best instruments with which to conduct successfully the public administration,” so that, while “it should be admitted that Congress cannot build a railroad to the Pacific, it may contract (with those who can) for the transportation of mails, supplies, munitions of war, soldiers, sailors, and public agents over such a road.”

As to the matter of paying for a line, this was, not to Hamilton’s thinking, a constitutional matter, but “merely a question of policy, to be considered with reference to economy, security, and reimbursement.” He added that the national legislature “is not confined to a given formula in making a contract, and may make payment in advance or after performance” by contractors and pointed out that history was replete with instances “of the undisputed exercise of this discretion” even for projects that were pure scientific, such as explorations. Therefore, any projects which would “assure the common defence, promote the general welfare, and add ameliorations to commerce” were perfectly valid for Congress to pursue under its powers.

Besides, it was essential that “the extreme parts of this confederacy may communicate with each other more rapidly than they can at present” and that “the best mode is to establish railroads from the States in the Mississippi valley to the shores of the Pacific,” so it was incumbent on Congress “to lend every facility to the prosecution of such works” so long as it did not overstep its bounds. He then entered into his digression from the majority view, noting that “the line through Texas to the Pacific is known to be practical,” first with survey conducted in 1844-1845, when the Lone Star State was an independent republic. Since then, that work was “verified by the reconnoissances [sic] of several officers of the United States.”

The first 500 miles of the route were hailed as “peculiarly adapted in every way to the construction and maintenance of a railroad” and as part of the 32nd parallel line that “is by far the cheapest and most practicable route.” Hamilton then went into some detail about the conditions through his state, as well as observed that, after the first nearly 800 miles to El Paso, the 500 miles to Fort Yuma on the Colorado, the boundary between California and the Arizona Territory, was at manageable grades.

Once within California, the representative continued, “the practicability of this route, indeed of other routes, from Fort Yuma, to San Francisco has been established by several close reconnoissances [sic],” citing the work by Lieutenant John G. Parke during the explorations and surveys undertaken several years before by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the Department of War (today’s Defense department) under the oversight of Secretary Jefferson Davis. Major William Emory of the Corps, who also participated in the surveying effort, wrote that the 32nd parallel line “is the most practicable, if it is not the only feasible route by which a railway can be carried across the Sierra Madre [Sierra Nevada] and its equivalent ranges to the south” in California.

Davis was also cited as observing that

the route of the 32d parallel is, of those surveys, the most practical and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi river to the Pacific ocean. This is the shortest route, and not only is its estimated cost less by a third than that of any other of the lines, but the character of the work required is such that it could be executed in a vastly shorter period.

The climate, Hamilton went on, was “salubrious” and free from snow and, while he added that “we will not extend this paper by details as to climate, water, fuel, stone, timber, and other elements” concerning construction, but declared that “beyond any doubt, all the elements for success are present, and there can be no rational dispute as to the feasibility of constructing the railway along the line.” He flatly stated that “a comparison of the routes of the 32d and 41st parallels [the furthest northern line] will most clearly demonstrate the superiority of the former.”

The representative noted that the cost estimate for the 41st parallel route was just north of $116 million, whereas the lower line was pegged at $90 million and that arable land on the latter was 200 miles more, while uncultivated lands were that amount greater for the northern route. Moreover, it was stated that the elevations along the two routes, the 32nd had the best conditions, as well. With better conditions, which translated to lower cost, it seemed clear to Hamilton concerning “the superior advantages of the southern route over the only route recommended by the majority of the committee.”

On top of this, though there was another important benefit “which must not be omitted in this connexion,” this being that “for commerce with Australia, the Sandwich Island, all Oceanica, and the entire west coast of Mexico, Central and South America,” the southern route was far more superior and that, when it came to the 41st, there simply was “no comparison between them.” He specifically highlighted the “valuable commerce [that] will be opened” with respect to the opening of markets in México, especially with El Paso as a crucial point of contact for the northern part of that country, while he noted that what “now falls almost exclusively into British hands will, thenceforward, stimulate American enterprise and reward American industry.”

As to Mexican exports, it was observed that these were mainly of gold and silver and the representative contended that “there is no reason why these should not seek the markets of the United States instead of being shipped across the sea.” Given this, Hamilton asserted that “no other mode of making such an acquisition to existing commerce can be adopted along the parallel of 32 [degrees], touching first at El Paso, and thence skirting Arizona, as far as Fort Yuma, before it turns northward to San Francisco.”

Hamilton did, though, espouse support for two transcontinental routes, including the northern one, and directly opined that “both roads are wanted, and both can be built, not only without the loss of a cent to [the] government, but with an accretion to the strength and wealth of the nation, that will vastly augment the ties which bind the sections of this country together.” Given the fact that the Civil War was virtually assured by the time he issued his report, as well as his views about secession (see below), this is a notable comment.

As for the trade with Asia, which was a main focus of the argument posed by Minnesota’s Cyrus Aldrich for the 42nd parallel route, Hamilton countered that any ships leaving Puget Sound “must run south for the eastern trade winds quite to the point at which the southern railway would first touch the Pacific shores.” He cited cotton shipments from British India to China and noted that “could the American ship take this article directly from a Pacific port, with favoring breezes to the shores of China,” including from future growing areas in Arizona and southern California, it would greatly benefit the American economy, including the return of “the rich products of the east to swell the national revenue and the profits of our mercantile interest.”

Noting “the vast revolution in the commerce of the world that must be effected by the completion of railroads” was obvious, Hamilton noted that transcontinental rail lines would cut trips from New York to China and back from 270 to 90 days and that trade “will seek the path of the most rapid and secure interchange” with America poised to rival the greatness of the Ptolemies of ancient Egypt and modern Britain. He reiterated that his differences with the majority was not about benefits accruing from a transcontinental railroad line, but noted that he was “clearly convinced that one road will not meet the conditions required by the country” for defense, mail service, and agricultural, commercial and mining purposes.”

He repeated that “from New York to the Pacific ocean the very shortest line is to San Diego” and cautioned that a central route would not “serve to invite to happy homes the million who may be accommodated in the sunny alleys of the southern region.” Hamilton even added to his argument the question of whether “the Indian of the northwest [would] be compelled to retire from the lands desired for occupancy, and the more unruly savage of the south be permitted to desolate the southern frontier with impunity and to beat back the adventurous [white] pioneer who seeks the distant plains of that fertile region for a new home” should the northern route be selected.

The only fair way to deal with the topic was to build both northern and southern lines “and to do so by equal favor extended to each” and, whatever the concerns were about direct government involvement in financing, he added

We are persuaded that Congress desires to encourage, in every way it can, the production of such beneficent and grand results as must flow from the completion of our main continental thoroughfares, and that Congress cannot be blind to the fact that the progress of these roads will constantly rend to lighten the public burdens, at the same time that they give material and important aid, both to a well devised system of frontier defence and to the nation’s development.

When it came to military necessity, the only reason Hamilton could see for favoring the 41st parallel line was if “the Mormons may repeat the scenes of last year, when their alleged insurrectionary spirit demanded an outlay of money to prepare to quell it.” The greater concern, as he saw it, was that “on the Mexican frontier we have more than a thousand miles exposed to outrage by the Indian and the foreign bandit,” but providing needed military aid could only be reasonably accomplished with efficient rail transport.

Besides, it was well established for about two decades that the 32nd and 41st parallel routes were “already traversed by the emigrant, by troops of the United States, by mail stages and transportation trains,” with, in late 1841, the migration of the Workman family to greater Los Angeles hewing closer to the 35th parallel, which was proposed to terminate at San Pedro, as it used the Old Spanish Trail. For the representative, “there will be no clashing of interests between the two routes,” though he also averred that “the conditions of their prosperity have no relation to each other,” while then offering that their development in conjunction “assist to bind together, from east to west and north to south, that great whole which is our country, whether it lies under the tropical sun, or in eternal snows.”

To address fears about the expenditures required of the federal government for the enterprise, Hamilton recommended that these, in the form of credit provided to private firms, were not be more than what was already completed and he adopted the fifty-mile rule by which no funds or credit were to be allotted until that amount of road was completed and a presidentially appointed inspector signed off on the quality of what was finished. Credit of $20,000 per mile meant a $1million dollar bond, payable in 30 years at 5% interest and the next 50-mile segment would engender another such bond. A company seeing the road to completion would receive “credit [that] becomes immobile and invested perpetually” so that “the government depending upon the security of the road to assure its capital” as well as “relaying that the service it will demand” would equal the interest required for payment of the bond.

With a scheme that would protect the federal government from undue financial risk would provide “the advantage of developing a valuable commerce” and the ability to efficiently and rapidly deploy troops to the coast in a few days, as well as offer the opportunity to dictate “that the rates of transportation shall always be fair.” From here, Hamilton turned to broader future forecasting, observing that transcontinental roads “will be carriers of a magnificent commerce to be poured upon them by a collateral system of works in which already a thousand millions of dollars are invested, and in which a thousand millions more will be invested before a century elapses,” though his sense of scale was vastly underestimating.

Ironically, the representative intoned that acting now was opportune “for to-day no foreign wars or civil broils exist to stay our energies or waste the substance of the nation” and “the clouds upon our horizon are not charged with storms” because “the sun of peace and liberty shines gloriously upon the land we are contemplating, and no fear for its magnificent future can inhabit the breasts of men who are fitted to shape its destinies.” Despite this high-toned rhetoric, which pretended that the cleaving of the Union was not a serious threat, Hamilton again intoned that,

There may be other feasible and practical routes across the continent, but there can be none to meet all the conditions which render the route along the parallel of 32 [degree] so valuable. It is the true axis, to which southern populations and the southern system of railroad improvements will gather, and it is destined to be the vehicle of a splendid national commerce . . . These are better than the silken bands of ephemera political sentiment: they are solid contributions by manly enterprize [sic] to gird together the foundations of our common country by ties of mutual interest and dependence. They establish the union of the American people upon the broad basis of a facility of intercommunication, a prosperous internal commerce, and a fraternal civilization which . . . still holds fast to the main inheritance which is the pride of every patriotic American heart.

Hamilton cautioned that building just one transcontinental line was “eminently unwise” and would foster “the domination of a sectional representation [which] has begun already to become oppressive.” Building both the 32nd and 41st parallel lines would guarantee that “in providing for the settlement and development of this country Congress has an equal care for the wants and the real interests of every part of it.”

Understanding how important the question of financial investment by the federal government was, the representative concluded with another argument for the 30-year bond system, noting that mail service and troop and supplies transport would be well served by such an arrangement as the “government is now spending more annually [on those two areas] than the coupons which would attach to a hundred millions of dollars, were that sum at once advanced in aid of these great national enterprises.” Hamilton was sure that “the business of the government itself will pay the coupons” and allow the contracted firm “to redeem the principal before the maturity of the paper; but if not, at least to pay the interest perpetually.”

Lastly, he recommended that the House pass his amendment calling for a contract with the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, this being a Texas concern that predated the California firm that became a major railroad power later, for troops and mail transport. Of course, the Civil War did come within a year and the Union decided to build solely along the central route, with the transcontinental completed in 1869.

As for Hamilton, he was against secession and, deciding not to run for reelection later in 1860, returned to Texas and was elected to the state senate, but would not swear loyalty to the Confederacy, left the state and supported Union efforts during the war. After it ended, he was appointed provisional governor of Texas and then served on its military court as Reconstruction was undertaken. He lost the governor’s race in 1870 and practiced law and farmed near Austin until he died five years later from tuberculosis.

We’ll conclude with part four which includes three letters by those involved in the surveys for the transcontinental route along with a table of distances, estimated costs, elevations and other information for the eight proposed routes that came out of the surveys of earlier in the 1850s, so be sure to check back for that.

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