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

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Continuing with our look at a July 1846 report by the House of Representatives Committee on Roads and Canals concerning concepts for a “Railroad to the Pacific Ocean,” we turn next to portions of a speech delivered on the floor of the Senate on the “Oregon Question,” concerning disputed claims to the Far Northwest with Britain, by Missouri’s Thomas Hart Benton, a very enthusiastic proponent of a transcontinental railroad, especially because he believed it should emanate from the Show Me State, centralized as it is in the Midwest.

Beginning with the statements, which we saw in part two, that “the trade of the east has always been the richest jewel in the diadem of commerce,” Benton added that “all nations, in all ages, have sought it” and those who were successful in tapping it, “attained the highest degree of opulence, refinement, and power.” While obviously an exaggeration, this characterization fit the senator’s oratorical style and his method of argument, as he went to note the “dazzling attraction of this commerce” including through the efforts of Columbus to find India and the ever-elusive Northwest Passage.

A section of an 1846 map, from the Homestead’s holdings, of “Oregon and Upper California From the Surveys of John Charles Frémont.” At the upper left is the Columbia River draining into the Pacific at Astoria. Note the upper right and the Missouri Territory.

In the first years of the 19th century, President Thomas Jefferson, “that man of rare endowments and common sense, of genius and judgment, philosophy and practice” and who was “following up the grand idea of Columbus,” sent Lewis and Clark out to seek a practicable path to the Pacific, with the Missouri and Columbia rivers essential to such a route, used by such entities as the Hudson Bay Company and its army of fur-trappers and others. Benton lauded the navigability of the Columbia and the beauty and fertility of the country through which it flowed, while also noting the importance of Clark Fork in what became Idaho and Montana and the North Pass through the Rocky Mountains.

Benton observed that it was a mere sixty miles from that pass to the “Great Falls of the Missouri,” northeast of the Montana city of that name and just 150 miles from the Clark Fork to those falls, so that it was 210 miles of land carriage between the two great rivers. He went on that the foregoing was “the sum of my best information” over some three decades “and believed to be correct,” though he acknowledged the need for “an accurate topographical survey of the country between the two rivers” and other investigations which “would solve every question” as well as “be a large contribution to the science of the age and to the future transaction of business.” Even if snow was a major obstacle, the senator held, there was always “the basis for the next best land conveyance after the steam car—the sleigh.”

Once “the East India merchant,” that is, an American, got to the Missouri, he could exclaim, “my voyage is finished!” as the “downward navigation of two thousand five hundred miles carries him to St. Louis” and there would be “a thousand markets” available. Benton waxed poetic about the great watercourse and asserted that the Asian trader would “find himself at home, and amongst his countrymen, and under the flag and the arms of his country” within not much more than two weeks after sailing from Canton, or Guangzhou, China. This was quite a difference from the current eastward route that could take a half year across the Atlantic around Africa and through the Indian Ocean. Moreover, through connections with the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, it was an easy extension to New Orleans and Pittsburgh and all the markets between, with land carriage to Philadelphia taking three days and, therefore, only 40 from China to the City of Brotherly Love.

Benton, rising to the acme of his rhetoric, proclaimed,

This is the North American road to India, all ready now for use, except the short link from the mouth [headwaters] of the Columbia to the Great of [the] Missouri—all the rest now ready—made ready by nature, aided by private means and individual enterprise, without the aid or even countenance of government!

Benton looked back to the Convention of 1818, and its renewal a decade later, between Britain and the United States that established boundaries between “British North America,” or Canada, and America and which the senator called “the error of 1818” and duly noted his “solitary” opposition. Given that there were still disputes about the Oregon Territory, also including what became Washington, Idaho and parts of Montana and Wyoming, that nearly led to war between the two nations in 1846, while the U.S. also precipitated a war with México that included the seizure of California, Benton insisted that “there is an order in the march of human events which the improvidence of governments may derange, but cannot destroy” as “individuals will accomplish what governments neglect, and events will go forward without law to guide them.”

Benton expounded next on the history of the American Northwest and the work of those like John Jacob Astor outside the bounds and restrictions of government, along with unnamed others who conducted business and, in some cases, settled in these regions, either abandoned or ignored by government officials. He went on that “if no more John Jacob Astors shall arise to commence the trade upon a great scale, it will proceed upon a small one—grow up by degrees, find an emporium in the mouth of the Columbia, and spread itself all over North America, though the line of the Columbia and of the Missouri.” The “North America road to India will be established by the people, if not by the government.”

Warning President James K. Polk, who was as enthusiastic about American expansion, through the so-called “Manifest Destiny,” to the Pacific as Benton and others, that the British had designs on the Columbia and environs as part of their plans to secure Asian trade, the senator provided more history there and reasserted the primacy of the Columbia as critical to this “this intercourse between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.” Control of the fur trade, which was nearly exhausted by that time, but also of fishing and, as he mentioned elsewhere, the importance of bread in Asian trade, were cited as vital in fending of Britain from the Northwest and asserting American interests.

Benton concluded his remarkable oration with the claim that

The British government would fight the world for such a line [control of the Northwest and the Columbia, North Pass and upper Missouri] as that, and spent unnumbered millions in its improvement and protection; yet we have turned our backs upon it—left it for thirty years a derelict in the hands of our competitors; and I am now listened to with some surprise and incredulity when I represent this grand commercial route to India . . .

The next part of the report concerned notes sent to the committee’s chair, Representative Robert Smith of Illinois, by John James Abert, head of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers from 1829 to 1861 in reply to a request “about the survey and probable cost of a railroad from the Missouri to the navigable waters of the Columbia.

Dated 22 January 1844, the notes proceeded with the observation that “the usual point of departure for persons emigrating to Oregon is on the Missouri, in the vicinity of the mouth of the Kanzas [sic] river,” this being in the area of the two Kansas City metropolises in the states of those names. More specifically, emigrants tended to leave from places like Westport Landing (in the southern part of Kansas City, Missouri) and Sapling Grove (in what is now Overland Park, Kansas), including the Bidwell-Bartleson Party of 1841, the first wagon train of emigrants to reach California overland, while a few men who missed that group went to New Mexico and joined the Rowland and Workman Expedition, which arrived in greater Los Angeles at about the same time that November.

Abert noted that John C. Frémont’s famed explorations identified the distance from the mouth of the Kansas to South Pass in the Rocky Mountains as 1,000 miles, with that same distance taken from the pass to Fort Nez Percé, along the Columbia just west of Walla Walla, Washington. This was reported to be the place of embarkation on that river and “about 350 miles above the outlet of the Columbia into the Pacific,” though there were some falls with which to contend, so that “to extend the road to a point on the Columbia, of uninterrupted navigation with the Pacific, would add about 230 miles to the length of the route described.”

The topographical chief went into some detail about the route, but added that, as “the great object to be accomplished is a connexion [sic] between the navigable waters of the Pacific with those of the Atlantic; and whichever route shall establish this connexion with the least land way, will have the preference and be the predominating route; and also be the cheapest to construct.” The problem was that knowledge of the vast areas in question were not well enough understood as well as “whether our present possessions admit of a choice of the best.”

For example, from the navigable portion of the Río Grande to the Gulf of California was 450 miles, but “we know but little of the intermediate country, nor have we a right to pass over it,” though by the time the 1846 report was passed, America’s invasion of México was well underway. Abert did state, though that

it is evident that should this right [of ownership over the land] ever be obtained, and a road be made in that locality, the one from the Missouri or the Mississippi would become comparatively useless.

Lacking precision in understanding the southern route, Abert went on to suggest that “at least, the two routes indicated between the Missouri and the Rocky mountains should be surveyed” and whatever route chosen should be protected for a chain of military forts or posts. There would little problem with a route to the Rockies, where there would be the usual issues “and the necessity of numerous and extensive surveys.” Beyond that mountain range, there would be only one choice, this being through the areas traversed by the Columbia. Allowing for contingencies, experimental lines, and other aspects, he recommended nearly 4,200 miles be allotted for the work, with only three miles per day a safe estimate.

Given this, Abert calculated costs for a party of 15 men, including engineers; road, chain and axe-men; a property master; two hunters for food; a blacksmith; a mechanic for repairs; and a guide/interpreter. Using eight parties over six months would cost just north of $42,000. With Army personnel as guards and the costs of instruments, wagons and horses, contingencies, and “Presents to Indians,” and a 33% addition “for loss time getting to and from the work,” the survey work total was pegged at just shy of $75,000.

With the caveat that “the probable cost of such a road is extremely difficult to state, for a country so little known, and so destitute of all resources for the construction,” Abert ventured a rough estimate that for 2,200 miles and a low average of $20,000 per mile, the total cost would be $44 million, though in a footnote he added,

California might, probably, be bought, and the railroad from the Rio del Norte [Rio Grande] be made, for less than half this amount for both purchasing the country and for making the road.

It was added that maintenance would likely run about 4% of the total cost (though he cited an experience in Massachusetts where it might run above 5%) or not quite $1.1 million annually and that for the road to pay its costs to the tune of 5%, income should be about $3.1 million each year. Abert added that the problem of sufficient water and wood between the Missouri River and the Rockies was significant and would add to maintenance costs.

We will return tomorrow with the fourth and final part of this post, which will almost completely deal with part of a “memorial” from journalist and newspaper editor George Wilkes, as well as a very brief, but notable newspaper extract concerning the idea of cutting a canal through the isthmus of Panama. Check back with us tomorrow!

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