“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 Four

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This fourth and final part of an 1860 report by the House of Representatives Select Committee on the Pacific Railroad, concerning the imminent decision to be made on which route to choose for a transcontinental railroad line to the Pacific coast, follows a report by the 10-member majority of the group and a pair of solo dissents and alternative suggestions.

Here we look at the appendices including a trio of letters from officers of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who, under the auspices of the Department of War (now the Department of Defense) and the Secretary of War, future Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis, helped conduct explorations and surveys for a set of proposed routes earlier in the 1850s (don’t forget: 1860 was the last year of the Fifties!) and a table of information connected to these eight alternatives.

The first missive was from Captain Andrew A. Humphreys (1810-1883), a career Army officer and civil engineer whose grandfather Joshua was an early designer of U.S. Navy vessels, including the famous U.S.S. Constitution and whose father Samuel continued that tradition. In 1831, Humphreys graduated from West Point, was assigned to an artillery unit and served during the Seminole War in Florida before joining the Typographical Engineers.

He made his name through intensive studies of the great Mississippi River and dealing through engineering with the threats of its frequent flooding. After a second breakdown of his health, Humphreys became an important adviser to Secretary Davis for the transcontinental railroad surveys project and prepared a general report, culled from the various materials generated from the various field work, submitted to Congress under the secretary’s name.

His letter for this select committee report was dated 9 April 1860 and answered correspondence between committee member Reuben E. Fenton, one of the majority and a representative from New York, and Frederick W. Lander, chief scout for the 41st parallel survey team. Humphreys observed that his deep experience with the transcontinental project led him to differ from Lander’s suggestions and noted that

if there is to be but one railroad to the Pacific—and I think but one can be built for many years—I should regard it as unfortunate, in a military point of view, should that road pass through the Mormon settlements. They are and probably will continue, so long as they exist as a separate community, hostile to the United States; and, in the event of a war with a great maritime power, when we should probably be entirely dependent upon that railroad for communication with the Pacific States and Territories, they could and very probably would interrupt this line of communication.

He also pointed out Lander’s claim that the southern route was 700 miles longer than the central and that it comprised a “wild interior’ requiring “twice as much aid to construct and maintain” than the 41st parallel he favored. Humphreys commented that “Mr. Lander has not passed over any portion of the southern line,” so his opinion was not to be considered authoritative.

Because all eight routes were thoroughly examined and described, “the means of ascertaining what are the great characteristics of each line” were clear. Given this, Humphreys pointed out that the southern route was actually 100 miles shorter when San Francisco was added as the terminus to the 32nd parallel line, rather than San Diego—the distance to the latter was about 1,680 miles. Even if the road was to begin at a point along the Mississippi and he advocated for St. Louis because of its centrality, the southern route would only be 69 miles longer and “though a fertile country, within one hundred miles of the Mississippi river.”

Humphreys continued that “the true distance for comparison is that which separates San Francisco from the great centres of trade on the eastern coast,” and reported that, while the central route was a mere 75 miles shorter to New York from the California metropolis, the distance to Charleston, South Carolina was over 250 miles and that to New Orleans some 680 miles shorter via the southern route. Moreover, if San Diego, as originally proposed, was the western terminus the argument would be even stronger for the 32nd parallel line and uncultivated land along it was 210 miles less.

As to cost, Humphreys added that this “is evidently a much more intricate one than that of their respective lengths” and would require ” detail which would extend this letter beyond all reasonable limits.” What he wrote to this effect in the winter of 1854-1855 was encapsulated in a statement made in the first volume of the reports of the explorations and surveys:

the cost of construction on the southern route, from the Mississippi river to the Pacific ocean, would be but little more than one-half of that upon the route of the 41st parallel . . . and that the cost of the first named route extended [from San Diego] to San Francisco would be but about wo-thirds of that of the so-called central route . . . and, further, that the travel, freight, and cost of maintenance of each would not be materially different.

Whatever the difference in the future development of lands along the two routes, whether of Nebraska, Colorado and Utah on the 41st and New Mexico, Arizona, and Sonora [northern México] on the 32nd, Humphreys opined that “the settlements that would precede, accompany, and follow the construction of a railroad to the Pacific, would not . . . be less numerous nor less extensive on the one route than on the other.”

Lieutenant Matthew F. Maury (1806-1873) was from Virginia and joined the Navy at 19, but, after a leg injury forced him out of service at sea after some fifteen years, he became an expert on currents, meteorology, navigation and winds, leading to become, in 1854, the head of the national naval observatory at Washington, D.C. While he had no direct involvement in the explorations and surveys for the transcontinental route, his expertise in climate and shipping by sea, led to his inclusion in the report.

Maury wrote a letter on 4 January 1859 to the National Intelligencer newspaper and called for the matter of the Pacific railroad to “be put to the popular vote of the nation,” with his assumption being that it would be widely approved. He, moreover, felt that there were would never be a one-route solution that would find common ground, so he wrote “two roads at least are necessary. At least two roads, one at the north and one at the south, are required for the common defence” as well as for access to Asian markets.

Maury believed that Britain’s control of Vancouver Island next to Puget Sound was such that the two routes, no matter whether the northern ended at the sound or at the mouth of the Columbia at Astoria west of Portland or if the southern terminated at San Diego, San Pedro or San Francisco, were absolutely required. After discussing what a simple correlate of parallels was not sufficient to account for variance in climate, he went on to note that it was vital that the lines be along land that “will be the best agriculturally and commercially” and that these had to be the one from the west edge of Minnesota to Puget Sound and “the southern route commencing at El Paso, in Texas, and going thence to San Pedro or San Diego and San Francisco.”

Maury went into some significant detail concerning “thermal bands” spanning the globe and the geography embraced within them, including the agricultural products found there, and concluded that the upper, or northern, of these included “the great commercial centres of the world, as New York, Liverpool, London, and the German ports of Europe” and so on. Given this, he wrote that “it will . . . require no great art of divination to satisfy you that a railroad along this upper band to the Pacific may be looked upon as a ‘fixed fact.’ I tell you, one if obliged to be built there.”

The northern band, however, was determined to be one “much more apt to have full freights both ways than are railways feeding like areas in the lower band.” Still, Maury went on, “each one of these thermal bands in the United States wants its road from sea to sea, and each must have it” In the southern states, he noted “Memphis and El Paso are in the middle of the lower band; hence, you perceive, this band has its roads well under way, and it is high time Uncle Sam should take hold and extend it westward.”

Maury further suggested that the northern route would only require 870 miles of federally supported road, meaning that “1,500 miles of road [is] to be provided for by the general government” because “if the southern road be taken to the California line, California will take care of it thence to San Francisco” leaving Washington to only have to account for some 500 miles from El Paso to Yuma. This was, he added, a contrast to a decade earlier when it was believed that the “government would have had to provide for it all the way from the Mississippi to the Pacific . . . and that would have required a single road about 2,000 miles long.”

Maury noted that railroads were built in cold, northern climes with abundant snow, so any arguments against the 41st parallel line were moot. Concerning access to Asian trade, he observed that ships sailing from Puget Sound or the Columbia were obliged to tack south to catch favorable tradewinds, but returning ships from China heading for California had to bear north and then east and pass Puget Sound and Astoria.

Two roads, then, were needed to avoid a doubling in those sea voyages and China, Japan and Russia would be closer to the Mississippi Valley than if there was just one transcontinental rail route. Even if the federal government could not fully support the pair, Maury claimed, “northern capital and southern capital will assist in both.” He then concluded, “I hope I have succeeded in showing to your satisfaction that at least two railways—one at the north, the other at the south—are required to the Pacific. They are commercial necessities.” He didn’t plan on writing such a lengthy message, but confessed that “the interest I feel in the subject of it has carried me away.”

Albert H. Campbell (1826-1899) was a civil engineer who was involved in both the 35th parallel survey headed by Amiel Whipple in 1853-1854 and the 32nd parallel survey led by John G. Parke during 1854-1855, and, because he was a good artist, his toned lithograph sketches and drawings are, along with the maps, the most prized aspects of the multi-volume reports issued as a result of the explorations and surveys.

Campbell’s letter is brief but very interesting for us in southern California because he was asked for his “opinion as to the most practicable route for a railroad from Fort Yuma to San Francisco” as part of the 32nd parallel line. He simply replied,

regarding directness [and cost] as one of the most essential requisites in the location of a railroad, in my opinion the proper route . . . is via the San Gorgonio Pass, San Bernadino [sic] valley, the Cajon Pass, along the edge of the Mohave basin, the Cañada de las Uvas, head of Tulare plains [and onward to San Francisco].

Campbell cited maps generated by Parke and Lt. Robert S. Williamson adding that “it will be perceived that this route is the shortest practicable one” and that he “consider[ed] it the most economical route along which the proposed railroad can be built.” Combining features of both maps, the line was just 600 miles.

Moreover, Campbell concluded that “the only important points along this route which present any serious obstacles are the Cajon Pass and the Cañada de las Uvas,” though he’d traveled through the Cajon three times and once through “Grape Canyon” and he assured that “I am confident that a location can be made through each of these passes with grades less than 100 feet per mile, at reasonable cost” as “side slopes are favorable, and no tunnelling may be necessary.”

The engineer and artist referred to a letter he wrote in February 1858 noting that this combining of routes from the two maps would save some fifty miles when calculating from New York City to San Francisco, but he also pointed out that

The route which I have above recommended, particularly from San Bernadino [sic] through the Cajon and Cañada de la Uvas, has not, that I am aware of, been specifically reported upon or recommended by the War Department . . . but on a careful review of my observations while connected with these surveys under Captain Whipple and Lieut. Parke . . . I am satisfied, in my own mind, that this is the most practicable and most economical and direct route.

The table concerned eight alternatives of four routes, with one of the 41st from Council Bluffs, Iowa at the Missouri across from Omaha, Nebraska and terminating at Benicia northeast of San Francisco; two for the 38th and 39th parallels from Westport, in what is now the south part of Kansas City, Missouri, and ending either at Benicia or San Francisco, two along the 35th parallel from Fort Smith, Arkansas, along the Arkansas River on the border with Oklahoma, and finishing either at San Francisco or San Pedro; and three alternates for the 32nd parallel route from Fulton, a hamlet along the Red River in Arkansas northeast of Texarkana, a dual city in Texas and Arkansas and ending at San Francisco, San Pedro or San Diego.

Of these, the two 38th/39th parallel alternatives, the longest by air mile at 1,740, were deemed to be impractical. The 41st parallel route, though fifth longest at 1,410 miles, was determined to be the most costly at just a shade above $116 million. About $10 million less was the 35th parallel line to San Francisco, at 1,500 miles, while the second variation on the parallel to San Pedro was pegged at $92 million. The 32nd parallel versions were all cheaper, with the one to San Francisco estimated at $90 million, though Parke placed it at near $83 million and the corps office added $2 million for the portion from San Jose to San Francisco. The San Pedro and San Diego alternates were each $68 million, with Parke placing the latter at $59 million.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, as noted previously, there was no possibility of further consideration of a southern route, cheaper though it may have been. Campbell, a Virginia native, joined the Confederate Army and was known as General Robert E. Lee’s map-maker as he headed the topographical department. Maury, too, was from that state, but, while he opposed secession, he joined the Confederate Navy. Being a northerner, Humphreys became a major general with the Union Army with a significant role at the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and, particularly, Gettysburg.

The 41st parallel route was selected for the transcontinental line with two private companies, the Union Pacific on the east and the Central Pacific on the west, contracted to build it. The war and other issues limited the ability of the former to make much progress prior to mid-1865, while the former, removed from the battle zones, moved more rapidly. The planned junction was pushed east and, in May 1869, the two companies finally met at Promontory, Utah, near the north end of the Great Salt Lake northwest of Salt Lake City.

The Homestead’s collection has two of the reports, the fifth and seventh, of the surveys and explorations and future posts will delve into aspects of these, so be on the lookout for those.

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