From Point A to Point B: A Report on a “Railroad to the Pacific Ocean,” House of Representatives, 13 July 1846, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In late 1841, the first two large-scale overland parties to arrive in California almost simultaneously made landfall in the Mexican department. The Bidwell-Bartleson Party, which left western Missouri, reached its destination at the ranch of John Marsh in what became Contra Costa County on 4 November, while the Rowland and Workman Expedition, which began at Santa Fé, New Mexico in early September arrived in our region the following day, according to William Workman who had a glass plate (sadly, recently lost) made to commemorate the occasion, because the 5th is Guy Fawkes Day, a British national holiday.

The viable opening of a migration route, especially along with became the California Trail used by the former group, along with ongoing use of the Old Spanish Trail, which the latter used, and later southern routes, were to be instrumental in the continuing American seizure of indigenous and Mexican territory throughout the 1840s including the Mexican-American War and the Gold Rush.

For many who dreamed of a United States that, animated by the common term of “manifest destiny,” would stretch from sea (Atlantic Ocean) to shining sea (Pacific Ocean), another long-harbored wish was the construction of a transcontinental railroad (or more than one), which was an immensely daunting concept, but which was realized in 1869 as the Central Pacific built from California eastward and the Union Pacific constructed west from Council Bluffs, Iowa, across the Missouri River from what became Omaha, Nebraska.

Nearly a quarter century before and issued a month before American forces seized the pueblo of Los Angeles during the war, a report titled “Railroad to the Pacific Ocean” was issued by Robert Smith, chair of the Committee on Roads and Canals, “concerning the subject of constructing a railroad, or other method of easy and speedy communication between the navigable waters of the Missouri and the Columbia rivers.”

Smith, who ran as an “independent Democrat” from his district in Illinois and who founded the small enterprise in Minneapolis that much later evolved into the massive General Mills food processing company, began the report by noting,

Few persons, if any, are to be met with who deny to the government of the United States the constitutional power to construct either roads or canals within its own Territories, and upon and through its own lands. Its power within and over its Territories and lands seems to be analogous to that of one of the States, and has been exercised repeatedly and constantly during the whole of this century, unlimited but by the wants of the governed, and unchecked but by the pecuniary ability of the government.

Further Smith and the committee asserted that “the constitutional power of Congress to grant the prayer of the petitioners [to whom the committee responded through the issuance of the report] , by proceeding to construct a thoroughfare from a point west of the State of Missouri to the mouth of the Columbia river, for military, for post office, and for commercial purposes,” though it was willing to say that this is believed to be unquestionable.”

Moreover, it was a “pleasing unanimity of opinion” that commerce and trade should be carried to the Pacific and, since 1841, it was added, there was plenty of commentary on this point by members of Congress, the media and others and it was an issue that was “large, growing, and worthy of proper and reasonable encouragement.” Anything “confined within suitable limits” that worked towards this goal would “be decidedly popular with all classes of citizens, but that matter of limits was the essential question.

The committee recognized that “the prudent and the sober-minded” would certainly balk at the cost required to build a railroad of the vicinity of 3,000 miles in length “stretching across vast uninhabited prairies and lofty mountains,” the native people notwithstanding, and involving a cost roughly pegged at around $100 million—this was, in fact, about what the final project entailed. Something more modest, however, was something that these conservative voices “would cheerfully assist” with “if one could be assured at a small cost compared with the object sought to be realized.”

While a route from Independence, at the western edge of Missouri, or from a site on the shore of Lake Michigan to where the Columbia River empties into the Pacific at Astoria, Oregon, was “desirable,” it was also deemed by the committee to be one that could not “be consistently recommended at this time.” Instead, the group felt that certain conditions needed to be met, such as “tested suitableness of the plains for agricultural purposes;” “the capacity of the rivers Missouri and Columbia to easily and safely float” steam-powered craft; “the amount and value of trade with Oregon and California;” and “the opening of more southern channels of commerce from the Atlantic to the Pacific cities.” This latter included rail lines built through México (whether through conquest or cooperation—coerced or otherwise—was not stated) or a rail route or canal across the Isthmus of Panama.

Regardless of what these conditions were determined to be, the committee repeated that a transcontinental rail line of the length needed, with elevations to be addressed in the Rockies and other mountain ranges, and other constraints, “is a project too gigantic, and, at least for the present, entirely impracticable.” Such a rail line, it continued, “has never been attempted in any age, or in any nation, known to history,” though, it should be added, railroads were barely two decades old at that juncture and the technology would evolve significantly in subsequent years.

The committee observed that, even in regions with large populations in cities of commercial importance and ample agricultural resources and with powerful financiers in countries which “have never been able to persuade themselves to even attempt” such a project even of only a tenth of the length contemplated for a transcontinental route,

would it not be unwise and injudicious for a government, with an income of less than $30,000,000 [annually], to undertake to build one nearly 3,000 miles long, over the Rocky mountains, upon a speculative opinion that the road would create business and population to such a wonderful extent that a return of a reasonable usance for the money invested might be expected within a moderate period of time?

Just the conditions in Oregon, which involved international controversy not to mention the incursions of white settlers among the indigenous people there, were such that “no business man would undertake to keep the road in repair for its receipts for many years.” Also pointed out was that a line from Missouri or from Lake Michigan “could be used by a portion of the year” because the “difficulty of keeping the snow during the winter months from the tracks of all railroads located north of this city (Washington) is well known.”

A review of the recent landmark explorations and surveys by John C. Frémont, soon to be a major and controversial figure in the war in California and, a decade later, the Republican Party’s first presidential candidate, affirmed the position of the committee that “the intelligent and reflecting business man can judge with reasonable certainty of the propriety of raising the means (by taxation or otherwise [bonds?]) necessary to construct a commercial avenue across these mountains, along the route indicated.”

Lauding Frémont as “one of the most efficient and capable men in the corps of engineers” as well as “this meritorious and gallant young officer,” the committee provided a detailed analysis of the route which was proposed “by numerous memorialists and petitioners.” It noted that, beyond the substantial elevations for most of the distance, “this is not the greatest obstacle to overcome,” as the major issue was that for nearly 1,500 miles there was no elevation under 5,000 feet, more than 600 at above 6,000, and almost 200 at north of 7,000 feet with gorges, defiles and other daunting topographical features, along with the matter of deep snow.

To this last point, it was asserted that “if the immense masses of snow to be removed extended but a few miles, the evil or difficulty might be readily overcome; but when the great length of the road over the snowy region is considered, the difficulty becomes serious.” Additionally, it observed that “to compute the cost of such a work with any considerable degree of accuracy, without surveys, without estimates, and without experience, is clearly impossible.” Allowing for the fact that no such project had yet been attempted, the committee concluded that “it is safe . . . to say that the work could not be accomplished for one hundred millions of dollars.”

To support this view, a report of an estimate for a survey of the proposed by John James Abert, a figure of great importance, though underappreciated today, as he oversaw the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers from 1829-1861, including its remarkable work of surveying and mapping the vast American West. Historian William Goetzmann referred to the corps as “a central institution of Manifest Destiny.” We’ll look at that document in a subsequent part of this post, but the committee wrote that it was not “proper, at this time, to recommend the expense of a survey of it [the route], believing that sufficient information for all practical purposes, at present, can be obtained from the explorations of Colonel Fremont . . . and at a trifling expense compared with that of maturing an entire new survey.”

What was left for the committee to address was “whether . . . any other route exists which is more practicable.” To that end, Smith wrote to Thomas Hart Benton, the immensely powerful United States Senator from Missouri (who happened, far from coincidentally, to be Frémont’s father-in-law), noting that Benson “had given this subject much attention and investigation” and requesting his response “as to the best commercial route to Oregon, with such information connected therewith as he might be pleased to communicate.” Never one to shy away from written or oral commentary at great length and verbosity, Benton replied and we’ll look at this subsequently.

Its brief summary included the committee’s satisfaction at hearing that the Columbia River mouth was better than that of New York City for a port or harbor, while it deemed Benton’s expansive discussion of Pacific and Indian oceans trade to be “graphic and interesting, and cannot fail to convince the most skeptical of the high importance of securing it to our people, if attainable by the expenditure of even large sums of money.” The senator called for “improvements” to the Missouri and Columbia rivers for better steamship navigation, but it was claimed that, these accomplished “the merchant of Oregon can approach with steamboats within 150 miles of his brethren of the Atlantic side of the Rocky mountains” with goods from India and China. This meant the gap between the northeastern reaches of the Columbia with the Clark Fork in Montana, but the rest of the linkage was the question.

In fact, as it ended its opening statement of the report, the committee used a lot of “ifs” with respect to improvements of navigability for rivers, while as great deal hinged upon the matter of “some kind of a road or means of communication from the Missouri river to Clark’s river [Clark Fork].” It was then the matter of navigating those massive mountain ranges, surveying the Columbia and the Missouri, which were “of vast importance” but “warmly recommended” by the committee. It warned, though,

If this route, upon examination, proves impracticable, the committee greatly fear[s] that a cheap, safe, and speedy communication with our possessions upon the Pacific, through the territories we now own [a crucial point], may not reasonably be expected to be obtained for many years.

With Senator Benton’s reply, however, the members “most earnestly recommend that a law may be passed directing Colonel Fremont, or some other experienced engineer, to survey” areas that were deemed necessary to better understand the regions of the route not yet adequately reviewed. Also included in the report were excerpts from “the valuable and interesting work of George Wilkes, esq. [sic], of New York, showing the vast importance to our government of constructing a commercial avenue to connect the Atlantic with the Pacific ocean[s],” along with a survey bill the passage of which “is earnestly recommended to the House.”

Part two is coming soon, so be sure to check back for more from this remarkable report!

Leave a Reply