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From the early days of our Nation's life,
From the time of the first steam train,
Farsighted men had seen the need
Of rails from coast to coast.
Long years of debate: What's the best route?
Surveys of western wilds
From northern plains to deserts south
Four paths for the rails were known.
But the Nation was spinning,
Was tearing,

Early Sentiment

As early as 1832, seven years after the successful run of British engineer George Stephenson's steam locomotive in England, an Ann Arbor, Mich., newspaper, The Emigrant, sounded the first call for a railroad to the Pacific. Even earlier, in 1819, John Mills of Virginia had suggested connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans with a "system of steam-propelled carriages." The idea spread, and in 1836 John Plumbe, civil engineer of Dubuque, Iowa, held a public meeting to discuss such a project—the first of uncounted meetings to be called throughout the Nation in the next 25 years.

During the decade of the 1840's the widely publicized western explorations of John C. Fremont and the stirring events of the Mexican War focused attention on the West and helped to popularize the idea of a transcontinental railroad. Equally effective were the promotional activities of Asa Whitney, a New York merchant active in the China trade whose obsession was a railroad to the Pacific. He wrote articles, lectured constantly, and expounded his views to the foremost public figures of the day. He conceived the first definite plan for a road and laid it before Congress with the endorsement of 16 State legislatures and many public conventions and boards of trade across the country.

Although Congress failed to sanction his plan, Whitney had made the Pacific Railroad one of the great public issues of the day. Throughout the 1850's numerous railroad conventions were held at major cities of the East, and one convened at San Francisco. Leading statesmen—John C. Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, Stephen A. Douglas, and others declared their support. Both the Republican and Democratic Parties wrote the Pacific Railroad into their platforms, although the Democrats, still skeptical of Federal participation in internal improvement, made Government aid contingent on its constitutionality. The project inspired such enthusiasm that Sen. Andrew P. Butler of South Carolina was moved to complain: "It was said of the Nile that it was a god. I think that this Pacific railroad project comes nearer being the subject of deification than anything else I have ever heard of in the Senate. Everyone is trying to show his zeal in worshiping this great road."

Politicians might agree on the necessity for a Pacific Railroad and on the impossibility of constructing one without Federal aid, yet each year legislation introduced in Congress for this purpose came to grief. The lawmakers could not agree on an eastern terminus because the section that captured the terminus would gain immense political and economic benefits. Aside from these considerations, Congressmen knew almost nothing of the comparative merits of the possible routes across the country. To remedy this, they appropriated money in 1853 for the Army's Corps of Topographical Engineers "to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean."

Between 1853 and 1855 the Engineers surveyed two northern and two southern routes. They discovered that a railroad could be built on any one of the four, although the 32d parallel, along which the Southern Pacific later built, would be the least expensive. This route was, of course, as politically objectionable to Northerners as the northern routes were to Southerners. The Pacific Railway Surveys thus failed to resolve the issue; the principal result was a set of handsomely illustrated volumes that contributed enormously to knowledge of the American West. When the first transcontinental railroad was finally built, it followed none of these four routes.

The failure to agree on a Pacific railroad route was only one aspect of a larger and more important disagreement. By mid-century the people of North and South had grown more firmly entrenched in their sectional views, and compromise, the hallmark of the American political scene, became a word without meaning. In this atmosphere there was no hope for a Pacific railroad, in fact little hope for the Nation to continue as before. The only certainties were debates more acrimonious than the day before. And then—civil war.


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