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

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

With American railroads having begun offering service by 1830, there was no shortage of ideas about how to extend the new form of transportation across the continent within a fairly short time. Though a transcontinental railroad was not completed until 1869, federal government discussion about it dated back long before and this second part of a post based on a House of Representatives report from July 1846 is an interesting one as it examined the feasibility of the idea.

Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, a powerful American political figure for many years, was among the most fervent proponents of the idea and, naturally, saw his centralized state in the Midwest as an ideal location from which to build such a line. After all, the Santa Fe Trail, from 1822 onward, originated from Franklin, where the Workman brothers, David and William, resided, and, almost two decades later, as William and his family, along with around 60 other people, headed for Los Angeles on the Old Spanish Trail from Santa Fé, New Mexico, the first wagon train of settlers departed western Missouri for northern California.

An 1841 “Map of Upper California” from the Homestead’s holdings and made as part of the U.S. Exploring Expedition led by Lt. Charles Wilkes of the Navy.

In 1846, Benton had 25 years of experience in the Senate and was approached by the House Committee on Roads and Canals for his views on a transcontinental line and he replied on 27 April. He began by saying he was honored to be able to address “the subject of the North American route to India, by way of the Columbia river, for the purposes of commerce and intercourse” and added that “I wrote many essays upon that subject above a quarter of a century ago,” some of which he was including.

Asserting that “I fully believed in the practicability and advantage of a commercial route across the continent, by way of the Missouri and Columbia rivers,” Benton noted that recent reports “confirmed all my convictions on the subject.” He concluded that there were two routes, south and north, to get to the Columbia and to the Pacific and he went into some detail about these and argued that the northern one was such that “the land carriage between steamboat navigation on the Missouri, and navigable water on the Columbia, [is] about two hundred and ten miles.”

The senator remarked that “it is an old Indian and buffalo road, which Lewis and Clark travelled on their return [in the first decade of the 19th century]” and only sixty miles of mountain terrain comprised “the only difficult part of the land route.” He included a repot made by a federal Indian affairs superintendent who traveled through the region embraced by the northern route in 1828-1829, but observed that “this northern route has never been scientifically examined” and should be. Two statements were also included with respect to the conditions at the mouth of the Columbia, where Astoria, Oregon is situated and the view that this latter “is not only a good port, but a better one than the port of New York” and “is a point of the utmost consequence in establishing a commercial route with India by the line of the Columbia river.”

A March 1846 article from a Steubenville, Ohio newspaper, the American Union was also included in the report and comprised essays by Benton in 1818 and which showed “that a master genius pencilled them, whose foresight at that early day has not deceived him at this.” The first was reproduced and, being very lengthy, we’ll excerpt certain statements here, beginning with the fact that the Missouri politician identified commerce with Asia as essential, because of spices, mineral and gems, cotton and silk, tea and other commodities from that part of the world and “silver and gold are the article with which they are purchased.”

That, Benton noted, was a problem for the United States because America sent large quantities of gold and silver to Asia, but there was a need to “substitute for it [with] a trade in barter” and because the U.S. lacked “mines to supply a drain so incessant and so enormous.” Just a few years after this report was issued, that situation changed mightily with the outburst of the California Gold Rush. He argued that two American products that could turn the unfavorable balance of trade were furs and bread, because it “abounds in both these articles.” Yet, American trade historically went east, even to Asia, and it “should therefore go to the west, to arrive in Asia; and taking that route, they would immediately be able to carry furs and bread into the markets,” with the latter developed from farms on “the fertile banks of the Columbia river.”

Noting that there had always been Asian trade and that “such will probably be the case to the end of the world,” Benton added, “Nature has made but one Asia” and given its products, mentioned above, “Asia must continue to be sought after as the brightest jewel in the diadem of commerce.” The senator then expounded on ancient and modern routes of trade before discussing a “new route proposed for the people of the United States, by the Columbia and Missouri rivers.” Discussing Columbus, La Salle, Lewis and Clark, and others, Benton said the latter pair “demonstrated the existence of a water communication, with a few portages, through the heart and centre of the republic from the Atlantic to the Pacific” along the Columbia, Missouri and Ohio rivers with “a channel to Asia, short, direct, safe, cheap, and exclusively American.”

Coming from the west, then, Benton defined this route as a voyage across the northern Pacific; a navigation up the Columbia; “a land carriage across the Rocky mountains;” and sailing down the Missouri. He went into detail about each of these, with the Columbia involving only short portages along with transfer of materials to varying boat sizes. While the Multnomah and Lewis rivers off the Columbia were mentioned as worthy of further study, he advocated for the Clark River or Fork of Idaho and Montana, combined with the Rocky Mountains land route using the Southern Pass. This led to the Missouri River descent, which Benton argued could be traveled at 12 miles per hour. So, he concluded, “the practicability of the new route is completely established; not by argument and theory, but by examination and actual experiment.”

Compared to the very lengthy trips to Asia using eastern routes, the politician continued, “the new route would therefore be shorter by twenty thousand miles than the route now followed.” There was also the matter of safety and he argued “the new route would be free” from dangers involving sea travel, including storms and pirates and privateers, while “the remainder of the voyage would lay through the heart and centre of our own dominions” and be perfectly safe. It was natural that costs would also diminish greatly, even with portage and land carriage, and he insisted insurance would not be needed as the route “was free from the dangers of tempests and of capture.”

Benton reiterated the bounty of goods in furs and bread, as remarked earlier, though he also mentioned salmon, sea otters, whales, and pearls as articles that could be traded. He asserted that “a colony on the Columbia would soon have flour to export to India” because the river “drains a region several times larger than the old thirteen United States,” with weather like that of France, “and soil well adapted to the cultivation of grain.” It was added that fur tycoon John Jacob Astor already had his namesake town at the mouth of the river, but, for future settlement,

there is nothing wanting but a second Daniel Boone to lead the way, and thousands of ardent spirits would immediately flock to the Columbia, to develop its vast means of agriculture and commerce, and to open a direct trade between Asia and America.

Sections of an 1830 report by Joshua Pilcher, the Indian superintendent based out of St. Louis but who also was a fur trader, concerned what he observed in his travels through the Rockies and the upper reaches of the Columbia. One of the key points made by him was that “the Rocket mountains are deemed by many to be impassable, and to present the barrier which will arrest the westward march [later termed “Manifest Destiny”]. The man must know but little of the American people who supposes they can be stopped by anything in the shape of mountains, deserts, seas or rivers.”

Claiming he’d spent three years in the Rockies and traveled from the Gulf of California to “the Athabasca of the Polar Sea,” perhaps the lake of that name that spans northern portions of Alberta and Saskatchewan in Canada, Pilcher claimed “that nothing is more easily passed than these mountains,” especially at the head of the Platte River which led to “one of the best passes, and presents the best over-land route from the valley of the Mississippi to the mouth of the Columbia.” This was South Pass, whereas its northern counterpart was 2,575 miles from St. Louis, largely up the Missouri “and a clear navigation all the way, except “one hundred and fifty miles, through a low gap, to Clark’s river [Clark Fork]; and then over land sixty miles to the main Columbia river.

After Benton wrote to him on 30 March 1846, James Blair of the Navy, replied a few days later, on 2 April, regarding a request for information on the feasibility of a harbor at the mouth of the Columbia. Blair was part of the very important U.S. Exploring Expedition under Lt. Charles Wilkes conducted from 1838 to 1842 with the Columbia survey taking place in summer and fall 1841, at the time the Workmans were heading to California. While deferring to Lt. Samuel R. Knox, who commanded the Flying Fish schooner on which Blair sailed, as well as passed midshipman (and, later, Rear Admiral) William Reynolds. Blair answered that his reply “would be precisely the same in import,” if less “satisfactory” than any answer from the others.

Blair told Benton that “in a state as it is now,” the Columbia mouth “is far preferable to that” of the harbor of New York, “especially on the proximity of safe anchorage to the sea” and “cover from the storm.” He added that defense of a harbor was assured by a nearby cape and point, the former Cape Disappointment at the north end of the mouth in Washington state and the latter Point Adams, just inside the river bar on a peninsula at the south edge in Oregon. He reiterated that “the harbor of the Columbia river, as a seaport, is inferior to none, except Newport [Rhode Island[, on the east coast of the United States” and “in the hands of a maritime power . . . it will be found one of the best harbors in the world.”

John Maginn, a licensed pilot at New York City harbor and asked by Benton to examine the chart that Blair worked on, stated, in his reply of 26 April, that “the mouth of the Columbia is the better harbor, and has manifest advantages over the harbor of New York in all the essential points which constitute a good harbor. After going into some significant detail about the conditions from the chart, he concluded, “taking the mouth of the Columbia as it now is . . . I deem it a good harbor” and, with the necessary improvements, “I would deem it a far better harbor than New York . . . in fact, I have never seen so large a river, with its water all so well enclosed . . . and making so commodious a bay . . . and at the same time small enough to be easily defended . . . and be better under the protection of forts and batteries.”

With this, we are going to pause and take up the third part of this post tomorrow, so be sure to check back for more of this very interesting and informative report.

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