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

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This final part of our look at the July 1846 report, “Railroad to the Pacific Ocean,” issued by the Committee on Roads and Canals, through its chair Robert Smith of Illinois, to the House of Representatives, focused mainly on a detailed excerpt of “the memorial of George Wilkes, esq.,” though there is no date, indication of to whom the petition was sent, or who Wilkes was.

Born in New York City in 1817, Wilkes’ origins are murky and it was not until he became a law clerk that definite information about him could be located, though he made his mark in journalism, including his co-founding of one paper, the Sunday Flash, that led to his prosecution for obscenity and another trial held against him for libel. He pled guilty to the latter and stood trial on the former, getting a suspended sentence on promise he’d stop working for “sensational” newspapers.

Wilkes violated that pledge and got a one-month trip to the infamous Tombs, the source of a pamphlet he wrote on the prison. Upon release he returned to the law, though whether he was an attorney admitted to courts is not clear, but, in 1845, he formed another paper, the Police Gazette, which focused on the lurid aspects of crime. The same year, however, he wrote a history of Oregon, and though it is basically forgotten as an inaccurate work, it did have components repackaged as Project for a National Railroad from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean and it seems obvious that this extract, which went through several editions, is the source for what is in the report.

George Wilkes, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Frederick Hill Meserve Collection.

Having achieved some fame with his novel about the notorious 1836 killing of prostitute Helen Jewett and her alleged murderer Richard P. Robinson, Wilkes joined the hordes of Gold Rush seekers to California by the early 1850s and was a close friend of David C. Broderick, who became a state senator, lieutenant governor and United States Senator until he was killed in a famous 1859 duel with former state Supreme Court justice David Terry. After a falling out with Broderick, Wilkes left California for a sojourn in Europe (that becoming the topic for another book), returned briefly before another fight led him to leave the Golden State permanently, and joined the ill-fated filibustering adventure of William Walker in Nicaragua.

Back in New York, having inherited Broderick’s estate of some $75,000, Wilkes purchased another paper, the Spirit of the Times, building into a successful sheet during the Civil War with his in-depth coverage of the conflict. He was involved in horse-racing and pari-mutuel betting, boxing and other sports, writing about the like of Shakespeare, and a colonization effort in Baja California. Known for his habitual fighting with enemies and former friends who became those, Wilkes died in the Big Apple in 1885.

Wilkes’ memorial began with an echo of what Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton hammered home in his many remarks, including in the report, about the great length of travel required from the east coast of the United States to Asia over the Atlantic, around Africa and through the India Ocean. After the exertions of Columbus, and other explorations that “pryed [sic] into every sinuosity of shore” up and down both sides of the Americas, as well as early endeavors to cross the isthmuses of central America, this latter was actively being pursued at the end of 1844 by a promoter in London seeking British capital.

Aside from some interest by the French, though, Wilkes, naturally, rallied for America’s “fair start with the best, and a superior chance over most other nations for the Indies” through a isthmian canal, with the writer proclaiming

Through her geographical position, the United States, from whose wonderful energies and fearful strides toward maritime equality we have everything to fear, can more readily avail herself of the benefits of the isthmus passage than any other nation. Her fleets, clustering toward the new avenue, would stream in one unbroken line through the gulf of Mexico, her naval power would overawe our settlements on the northwest coasts, and her impertinent enterprise, of which we have had a late evidence in China, would soon extend itself throughout our Indian [Asian] possessions.

Short of finding the elusive Northwest Passage through the Arctic (and climate change seems likely to open up some form of this whatever the other costs may be) or if the United States was to “monopolize a Mexican route to the shores of the Californias,” Wilkes did caution against America pursuing a canal through Panama unless Cuba was taken from Spain first. Instead, the journalist wondered “if we have not within our own boundaries the means and facilities of effecting [a passage to Asia] ourselves.”

Wilkes went as far to assert that it was a part of Providence and “the grand scheme of the creation,” with “a thousand combining influences [to] tell us the time has come” for “a new IDEA” with the results leading to the fact that “their principle is intercourse, and their spirit progress” and this was to be realized by “the railroad—for the final accomplishment of its destiny!” Playing up the competition America had with Britain, the writer observed, “we are the only power that ever baffled her arms, and he course of things has marked us as the heir of her strength, and the successor to her trident.” He added that France was a better ally as “the spirit of her people is akin to ours; their natural bent of mind inclines them for democratic institutions, and their hearts beat toward us with sentiments of warm affection.”

Returning to the specifics of a transcontinental line, Wilkes affirmed, “it is true there is much that is startling in the proposition of a national railroad from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean, and much that will strike the hasty observer as chimerical.” Citing the pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China (a semi-barbarous people, he insisted), he admonished his readers, “let us not insult the enterprise of this enlightened age, by denouncing the plan of a simple line of rails , , , as visionary and impracticable.” Reflecting that there were already railroad and steamboat passages from New York City to Chicago, Wilkes added that it was “a smooth and gently rolling plain,” lacking serious obstructions until the “Great Southern Pass” through the Rockies into Oregon.

Wilkes then cited an 1829 report to the government, in which it was claimed that “wagons could easily have crossed the Rocky mountains, it being what is called the SOUTHERN PASS, had it been desirable to do so.” Moreover, it was asserted that with the area between the mountains and St. Louis being relatively easy to cross and this being the first instance of wagons making it to the Rockies, it was claimed that “the ease and safety with which it was done prove the facility of communicating overland with the Pacific ocean.” Also cited was Thomas J. Farnham, who traveled much through the west and, in 1840, claimed he saw the remains of a single horse-drawn wagon at Fort Boise that missionaries abandoned thinking it could not surmount the Blue Mountains to the west in Oregon, though he wrote that “a safe and easy passage has been discovered” through to Walla Walla, where Fort Nez Percé was situated.

Then there was Peter H. Burnett, then a member of the Oregon legislature (serving from 1844-1848), but, who, after going to California during the Gold Rush, became the Golden State’s first civilian governor, serving from the end of 1849 to early 1851. Wilkes cited a letter from Burnett during his 1843 migration to Oregon, in which the latter claimed “I have shown—indeed the result of our general expedition proved—that the route from the rendezvous in Missouri to this point is practicable for any description of conveyance.” Burnett also noted that there were expeditions in 1828 and 1836 that included wagons traveling far into the western portion of the continent and concluded that it anyone who traveled from Kentucky to Missouri could make the western trip without “dread of difficulties” and thought it important to note that “several of the female emigrants” were willing to make a second trip.

The evidence cited, Wilkes asserted, “must convince the most skeptical that a railroad to and through this district of country is practicable beyond a doubt and a footnote recorded that “the recent published journal of Lieutenant Fremont,” Senator Benton’s son-in-law, covering his three explorations of the west under the authority of the federal government, “furnishes still more abundant proofs of the feasibility of the plan we recommend than any of the above” because the account was “by far the most able, scientific, and reliable work yet published in relation to the topography, resources, and present condition of the far west.”

The Pacific’s name heralded great success for access to Asia, so that with 25 days at sea in addition to the 8 projected for the railroad’s journey. Given this, Wilkes continued that “the view that this opens to the mind, independent of its internal benefits, staggers speculation with its immensity, and stretches beyond all ordinary rules of calculation.” As Benton did, the journalist expostulated that “the riches of the most unlimited market in the world would be thrown open to our enterprise . . . [and] our commerce would increase till every ocean billow between us and the China sea would twinkle with a sail.” England would not long be master of the seas and America fairness in trade meant “we are deserving of one special advantage as a premium for conferring this benefit upon the world.”

The safety and speed of the new route would encourage more American men to pursue the avocation of a sailor, especially with the technological advances of the steamship. Cotton, flour and other agricultural exports would flow to Asia and the tropical products of Oceania, where islands could be used for supply, rest stops and military outposts, be imported to the United States. Whaling would also be more secure and grow accordingly, while “our relations with China would be guarded and strengthened,” though Wilkes meant that, if there was a need “to redress a wrong, resent an insult, or resist an aggression,” a military response would be so much quicker.

Countering any suggestion that some might consider these reflections an unnecessary aggression, Wilkes insisted that “we are a new people, in a new era, acting on new principles, and working out a new and grand problem for the benefit of mankind.” He observed that Greece and Rome did not rise to ancient greatness “by building fences around their original limits, and resolving never to go beyond” and he continued that “nations do not die in a moment.” It was not expansion that determined the fall of those empires, but “the vices which crept into their constitutions,” from growing corruption and ignorance of right government and resulting inequalities. It was Rome’s “debasement” that secured its collapse, but another difference was postulated: railroads, steam engines and other inventions that meant that “our dominion stretched throughout the boundaries of this hemisphere, with the elements for our agents, and the lightning of heaven for our slave,” would make America an unprecedented empire not susceptible to what happened to earlier ones.

Wilkes was concerned that America was far behind other nations in its naval strength, especially Britain of which it was “well said, that the sun never sets upon her dominions” and “she is now, doubtless, intriguing for the prize of Cuba and the Californias. Excepting the “astonishment of falling suddenly into the possession of 2,000,000 square miles sixty eight years ago,” that is, from the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the United States “folds her unassuming hands, and with an amiable bow, which betrays her modesty of her character, exclaims, ‘Thank you, gentlemen powers, no a bit more if you please.'”

Insisting that liberty had progressed to such a degree that 500,000 Americans were better equipped than those “knuckling to precedent and old opinion” among outmoded leaders in Washington, D.C., as they were poised to supersede those persons “claiming to be free, who have absolutely signed away freedom’s main component in the liberty of mind.” Moreover, Asia awaited “the civilizing influence of such a scheme as we propose, to throw down their barriers of prejudice and superstition, and embrace, with the rest of mankind, the social blessings of the world.” Cited especially in this context was Japan, still then closed off to outside contact, so Wilkes inquired, “ought it to be too much for American diplomacy to effect its commercial and social redemption, and to throw its rich markets open to our enterprise?”

Having laid out his position, the journalist proclaimed that

The Oregon route, should this project be carried through, would, for its shortness, for its safety, for its comparative comfort, and the accuracy with which the duration of its travel could be calculated, be selected in preference to any other by all travellers [sic] to the east, or the regions of the Pacific . . . [With the opening of Asian markets discussed,] the sources of all this vast income would be surplus profit, for a short experience would prove that our own internal trade, communications, and postages, would not only pay the current expenses of the road of themselves, but would afford a liberal per centage [sic] on the amount of capital invested.

A brief excerpt from a 4 February edition of what was cited as “Wilcox and Smith’s Times,” reported that a French scheme for a Panama canal was published that showed the concept for one 47 miles long, of about 23 feet depth and more than 146 across, with almost one hundred locks to reach the summit. There was discussion of a tunnel that would have to allow 120-foot masts passage and which would be more than three miles long, with a projected cost of 50 million francs but the advantage of significantly reducing the number of locks. In all, the estimate for the canal was 125 million francs.

As mentioned in part one, the United States seized Monterey in northern California six days before the date of this report and Los Angeles was taken a month late on 13 August. Though Californios reasserted control over the pueblo, a renewed conquest took place early in January 1847, with William Workman involved in amnesty discussions and in bringing out the white flag of truce as American forces marched into Los Angeles to end the war in California. When the war ended in September 1847, negotiations led to the taking by the United States of 55% of Mexican territory, while America expanded by a quarter.

The following year, nine days prior to the ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the war, by the Mexican Congress, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, which not only brought large numbers of Mexicans, Central and Southern Americans, and Americans and Europeans to California, but a great many Asians as well. In 1853, three years after California’s admission to the Union and six years prior to Oregon’s joining, the Department of War (Defense Department now) was tasked with conducting surveys for a transcontinental railroad route—and that July American naval forces demanded Japan open its ports to trade with the United States.

Those railroad surveys included several alternative routes from the 32nd parallel to San Diego up to the 49th to Seattle, but the worsening sectional divisions between the northern and southern portions of the United States guaranteed that any southern route, these favored by engineers because of easier construction and lower costs as well as by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederate States of America, were not to be approved. Once the southern states seceded with the onset of the Civil War, the Union approved a line roughly along the 42nd parallel from Omaha, Nebraska to the Bay Area of northern California.

In May 1869, the last spike was driven to complete the transcontinental from Omaha to Sacramento (and then by September to Oakland), with the eastern part built by the Union Pacific and the western by the Central Pacific. There was significant corruption, huge cost overruns, shoddy construction and overly rosy predictions about the financial viability of the lines, but probably one of the first greater Los Angeles residents to ride the rails on the transcontinental was F.P.F. Temple, who took the train for his only return trip home to Massachusetts in 1870.

This report is an important one in the ongoing debate and discussion about the viability of a transcontinental railroad route to the Pacific and assumptions about what it would mean with the inevitable taking of land from the indigenous people of central and western America and from México, as well as overstated beliefs about the wealth that would accrue from Asian trade, exports and imports. The Workman and Temple family, being in this region at the time, would see how, over roughly three decades, the increasing importance of the railroad would materially affect their lives, as well as those of others in this area. Look for more “Point A to Point B” posts about greater Los Angeles transportation on this blog, including about railroads.

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