Corps Logo Vanguard of Expansion
Army Engineers in the Trans-Mississippi West, 1819-1879

Chapter VI

In 1853, with territorial expansion to the Pacific Ocean largely completed and railroads approaching the Mississippi River from the east, the time seemed ripe to consider building a transcontinental railway. A New York to Chicago line was completed in that year, and, in 1854, track reached the Father of Waters across the river from St. Louis. All the while, numerous railroad conventions—at Philadelphia in 1850, Iowa City in 1851, New Orleans in 1852—kept the matter before the people. Congress, urged by commercial interests and the general public to provide aid and encouragement for a Pacific railroad, began serious consideration of potential routes and forms of assistance. [1]

In the course of congressional consideration of three Pacific railway bills submitted during 1853, a limited consensus emerged. The legislators desired construction of a transcontinental line and agreed that substantial government aid was imperative. Rejecting as too costly the proposal of Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas for three routes, northern, central, and southern, the Senate concluded that only one line should be built. Here the general accord ended and the controversy began. [2]

The decision to support only one Pacific railroad precipitated a major sectional dispute. A Wisconsin newspaper stated the issue succintly: "Shall the upper West or shall the lower West be the great avenue of trade and commerce?" [3] Because the upper West was free soil and the lower West was slave, the choice of a route and its terminals quickly became a national issue, pitting North against South. Thus divided, Congress failed to settle on any route across the continent. [4]

The dispute over the proposed line was also local and regional, with numerous western cities vying for the terminal. Promoters from St. Paul, Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans, and other potential sites boosted their respective cities. Smaller towns, such as Fort Smith in Arkansas, also entered the lists. A German observer wryly noted: "Fort Smith, like every town in America, before it has well come into existence begins to think of establishing railroad connections...." [5]

Beset by so many contending interests, Congress finally abandoned the effort to settle on one best transcontinental route. Pennsylvania Senator Richard Brodhead's proposal for a reconnaissance of several potential lines by the Topographical Engineers, rejected early in the debate, was resurrected and passed as an amendment to the Army appropriation. The legislation took the difficult decision out of the hands of Congress and placed the burden on Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, who was charged with assigning survey teams to all prospective routes and selecting the best line based on the data compiled by field parties. Presumably, the topogs impartial analysis would succeed where partisan politics failed. [6]

Bypassing the Topographical Bureau, Secretary Davis established a new agency, the Office of Pacific Railroad Explorations and Surveys, to administer the massive program. Under Major Emory until he departed in 1854 to survey the Gadsden Purchase line and then under Captain Andrew A. Humphreys, the office was charged with assessing the data generated by the surveys. This was a complex assignment: each expedition was required to report on the numerous determinants of railroad construction, among them distances, grades, mountain passes, canyons, bridgesites, and tunnels. In addition, each survey had to consider natural resources, particularly timber, stone, coal, and water, all of them important for building and operating a railroad. With a number of scientists, including geologists, minerologists, and naturalists accompanying each party and participating in the detailed inquiry, the surveys provided an outstanding opportunity for science to influence national policy. [7]

Of many possible transcontinental routes, four that had substantial congressional backing were chosen for scrutiny. The northernmost survey, led by former Engineer officer Isaac I. Stevens, examined a route between the forty-seventh and forty-ninth parallels from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Puget Sound. Captain John W. Gunnison led a party over a central route along the thirty-eighth parallel by way of the headwaters of the Arkansas to the Great Salt Lake. Further south, Lieutenant Amiel W. Whipple commanded the thirty-fifth parallel survey from Fort Smith to California via Albuquerque. The southernmost route along the thirty-second parallel, through Texas and the Gadsden Purchase, was surveyed by two expeditions, one under Lieutenant John Pope and another under Lieutenant John G. Parke. Other parties under Parke, and Lieutenants Henry L. Abbot and Robert S. Williamson probed the mountains of Oregon and California for railroad passes.

Hoping to deflect charges of bias toward his native South, Secretary of War Davis chose the survey leaders with great care. Davis had already come under fire for his appointment of Major Emory to head the administrative office. Senator Benton, who had strong commitments to the thirty-eighth parallel route, attacked the selection as proof of a predisposition toward Emory's own favorite route along the thirty-second parallel. Benton claimed that the red-whiskered Marylander, whose brother-in-law was president of a company planning a railway from Vicksburg to San Diego, owned shares in a San Diego real estate venture. As to the southernmost route itself, Benton thought the very idea absurd. Heaping ridicule on Emory, the topogs, and the Military Academy, he told his Senate colleagues that "it takes a grand national school like West Point to put national roads outside of a country and leave the interior without one." [8] With such opposition, Davis had to tread cautiously. Except for Lieutenant Pope, a native of slave-holding Kentucky, the leaders of the surveys were northerners all. [9]

George B. McClellan
George B. McClellan. National Archives.

Exploration began in the spring of 1853, when Stevens, the newly appointed governor of Washington Territory, led his expedition west from St. Paul. Able and energetic but biased toward the route that would serve Washington and the Pacific Northwest, Stevens controlled the largest and most elaborate of the surveys. The 240 men—11 officers, 76 enlisted men, and the rest scientists, teamsters, guides, and herders—faced the most difficult task of all the parties. Much of the vast region between St. Paul and Puget Sound had not been examined since Lewis and Clark crossed the continent in 1804-1806. Moreover, the susceptibility of the mountain passes to heavy snowfalls early in the autumn made speed essential. Stevens needed the large force assigned to him in order to complete the survey before winter. [10]

Stevens divided his men into several detachments, each with its own assignment. While he started westward across the plains, Captain George B. McClellan left Puget Sound to search for railroad passes through the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. Another party under Lieutenant Rufus Saxton established a depot at the western base of the Rockies and later surveyed a large portion of the region between the Columbia River valley and Fort Benton on the Missouri. Lieutenants Andrew Jackson Donelson and John Mullan went up the Missouri to create a supply base at Fort Union, a fur trading post far upstream, and examine the country. [11]

Still another small independent party under naturalist George Suckley spent a frigid month in the mountains. Sometimes eating roots to stay alive and huddling at night under eleven blankets and a buffalo robe to keep warm, Suckley accumulated a collection of natural history specimens nearly equal to that obtained by Stansbury's 1850 expedition to the Great Salt Lake. He and four companions built a canoe, packed the notebooks crammed with data on the courses of rivers and the specimens into the craft, and pushed off to rejoin their comrades at Fort Vancouver on the coast. They completed the remarkable journey of 1,049 miles in fifty-three days. [12]

Captain McClellan, assigned to investigate the passes through the Cascade Range, did not share Suckley's enthusiasm for winter in the Rockies. Characteristically cautious, McClellan halted operations when snow began to fall. "We must not," Stevens exhorted, "be frightened with long tunnels or enormous snows, but set ourselves to work to overcome them." [13] But no amount of urging could compel McClellan to brave the wintry mountains. Consequently, the survey never managed to determine the depths of snow in the Cascade passes. [14]

Skipping lightly over the problems presented by the mountains and severe north-country winters, Stevens called his route ideal. The extensive prairie, "easy character of the passes of the Rocky Mountains," good passes further west through the Couer d'Alenes and Cascades, and the connection with oriental markets (Shanghai was only 5,000 miles from Puget Sound) made the northern line highly advantageous. [15] Some members of the expedition disagreed with the Governor of Washington regarding the desirability of the route through his Territory. Naturalist Suckley accused Stevens of outright puffery. The route was about as practicable as one through the Himalayas, he told his brother, adding that even most Washingtonians thought the most likely path was through South Pass. [16] For his uncle, Suckley had blunt advice: "If anybody should ask you to take stock in the road you had better decline. . . ." [17] The truth lay somewhere between Steven's boosterism and Suckley's ridicule. The northern route would be possible but not easy.

The central route from St. Louis to the Pacific, strongly supported by St. Louis businessmen and Senator Benton, was examined by experienced and disinterested Captain John Gunnison. A veteran of eleven years service, Gunnison already had ample experience in the trans-Mississippi West, in the Indian Territory in 1841 and with Stansbury eight years later. Gunnison's assistant, artillery Lieutenant Edward G. Beckwith, was no tenderfoot. In 1849, after Captain Herman Thorn drowned in the Colorado, Beckwith had taken command of the detachment escorting the first collector of the Port of San Francisco across the Southwest. [18] Topographer Richard Kern and botanist Frederick Kreutzfeldt, both experienced frontiersmen, and geologist Jacob Schiel, a novice explorer, also accompanied Gunnison on his survey.

Gunnison's first few weeks in the field, from Westport Landing on the Missouri across the "graceful grassy swells of the Kansas prairie," resembled a pleasure trip. Two St. Louis sportsmen accompanied the expedition "for the recreation and sports of the chase." Not far behind, a small party of California-bound entrepreneurs drove their sheep and cattle along the trail blazed by the survey. Meanwhile, Gunnison amused himself and his men with efforts to obtain prairie dog specimens. He poured water into their holes and dug deep into the earth, but to no avail. Others in the party pursued the marmotlike rodents with rifles but also failed. The hunters from St. Louis, the herders, and the persistent efforts to capture the elusive prairie dogs all gave the expedition the atmosphere of a lark rather than a serious exploration. [19]

John W. Gunnison
John W. Gunnison. National Archives.

In August, 1853, as the party approached Sangre de Cristo Pass, the journey became increasingly difficult. Geologist Schiel, glad to leave the "eternal grass" of the plains as well as the mosquitoes, rattlesnakes, and other pests of the prairie, echoed innumerable travelers in his delight to see "the gigantic summits" of the Rockies. His pleasure was short-lived. Soon he joined the others, cursing and gasping for breath in the rarified atmosphere as they hacked their way over the timbered slopes of Sangre de Cristo in a daylong downpour. Finally, they put the crossing behind them and stopped for a well-earned rest at Fort Massachusetts in the San Juan valley. [20]

In need of a skilled guide for the rest of the journey, Gunnison left the party at Massachusetts and rode to Taos. Meanwhile, the men improved the road through the gap and fished the clear mountain streams for trout. In a few days Gunnison returned with experienced and well-known Antoine Leroux. A rarity among the mountainmen, this literate and wealthy New Mexico landowner and sheep rancher, scarred on scalp, arm, and wrist by arrow wounds, had already served as a member of the convention that organized New Mexico Territory. He still accepted jobs as guide, but his prosperity showed. Where Leroux went, his personal valet followed. [21]

Fort Massachusetts
Fort Massachusetts, Colorado, in 1855. Nationat Archives.

The crucial question about the central route was whether a suitable pass existed between the San Juan valley and the plateau cut by the Grand and Green branches of the Colorado. Cochetopa Pass was known but unexplored. The approach to the pass was even more difficult than the climb up Sangre de Cristo. The party took four days to make the thirty miles to the top of the gap, bridging streams and hacking a wagon path through an aspen forest that extended to the crest. Geologist Schiel compared the task to "a continuous crossing of the Alps," without the comforts of mountain-climbing in such a populous region. He recalled some of the details of the arduous journey: "The wagons had to be dragged up steep mountains and be letdown the steeper slopes with ropes; rocky roads had to be cut through, ravines gone around, and strong mountain streams crossed..." Despite such obstacles, the party succeeded, and in the second week of September stood looking out over the valley of the Uncompahgre River (later renamed the Gunnison), the heart of Ute country. [22]

During the next four weeks Gunnison and his men crossed the divide between the Grand and Green rivers, then the Green itself. Green described the river, but not the valley. The plateau was barren and bone-dry, except for the soft shifting bed of the river that sped toward the Colorado. Lieutenant Beckwith saw problems for railroad construction: the porous sand would shift during the wet season and undermine the railbed. [23] Botanist Kreutzfeldt called the country alternately Sahara and Arabia and disliked it consistently. And he liked the sturdy, round-faced Ute warriors only a little more. Astounded and disgusted, he watched Gunnison establish what appeared to be a cordial understanding with the Indians, sometimes giving them gifts and other times trading for horses. [24] The Utes seemed peaceable enough and warned Gunnison that "across the mountains are bad Indians who kill white men...." [25]

While the expedition, with fresh horses and a Ute guide, struck westward toward the Great Basin, a sense of impending doom came over Kreutzfeldt. Well acquainted with mismanagement from his travels with Frémont during 1848-1849, Kreutzfeldt did not like what he saw. Several times Gunnison overrode Leroux's recommendations on campsites, only to spend the night at dry bivouacs. The captain, whom the botanist called "our uppermost scoundrel," "our ass of a captain," "the old dog," and worse, quarreled with Leroux the day before he left to fill a commitment to another expedition. Despite the argument, sparked when Gunnison ignored Leroux's advice to remain encamped while he reconnoitered the route ahead, the guide gave the topog directions to the Great Salt Lake. On September 24, Leroux departed. With Gunnison left to his own devices, Kreutzfeldt's anger became despair. Following a route he could not comprehend, "circles, curves, angles, and all kinds of figures, the theoreums of a Pythagoras could be enriched with," the botanist gave vent to extreme bitterness: "one is inclined to believe that this ass has lost his senses to lead us randomly through this unknown desert, which will probably lead us to misery...." [26]

Lieutenant Gouverneur K. Warren's sketch of the Robideaux Pass vicinity, based on data acquired by the Gunnison expedition. Nationl Archives.

On the night of October 24, Kreutzfeldt, shivering with cold, prepared to accompany Gunnison, Kern, guide William Potter, and eight others on an exploration of Sevier Lake. In the morning, the expedition split, Beckwith taking the main party northeastward while Gunnison camped along the Sevier River in a nook sheltered by the high bank and thick willows. A guard was posted over the bivouac, the men rested, and Kreutzfeldt contemplated "the captain's favorite project," the examination of "the damned Sevier Lake and river." [27]

As dawn broke on the 26th and the party breakfasted, a large band of Paiutes crept to within twenty-five yards of the small camp. Then, with a volley of rifle fire and a shower of arrows, they charged the sleepy encampment. Gunnison stepped from his tent and was cut down by a hail of arrows. Kern fell dead with a rifle ball in his heart. Six others, including Kreutzfeldt, also died in the surprise attack. Four men managed to get to their horses, flee the slaughter, and find Beckwith. [28]

Lieutenant Beckwith took command, regrouped his forces, and laid over for the winter in Salt Lake City. After backtracking to Fort Bridger in the spring, he finished the examination of the Great Basin along the forty-first parallel, and searched the Sierra Nevada for a suitable pass to California. His survey linked Captain Stansbury's discovery of a pass through the Rockies near Lodgepole Creek to Captain William Warner's California survey through Madeline Pass. The route he traced anticipated the path of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads, the first transcontinental line actually built. His conclusion also verified the opinion Gunnison did not live to test, that the forty-first parallel offered a route more suitable than the thirty-eighth. [29]

Golden Spike ceremony
Completion of the first Pacific railroad in 1869. Library of Congress.

To the south of the lines explored by Gunnison and Beckwith, Lieutenant Whipple led a party across the continent from Fort Smith to Los Angeles. Lieutenant Joseph C. Ives, less than a year out of West Point, accompanied him as assistant. Whipple had done his homework, studying the accounts of previous explorations by topogs Long, Abert, Simpson, and Sitgreaves. Moreover, like botanist John Bigelow, Whipple was a veteran of the boundary survey. Topographer Heinrich Möllhausen also came to the party with good credentials. He brought recommendations from the German scientist Alexander von Humboldt and Assistant Secretary Baird of the Smithsonian Institution. Möllhausen shared Whipple's enthusiasm and interest in the Indians, and praised the topog for his "special professional qualifications united [with] particularly pleasing manners which inspired confidence in all who approached him." [30]

The survey was perhaps the smoothest and most efficient of the several undertaken in 1853-1854. Whipple followed the Canadian River across the Indian Territory and the Texas panhandle, and left the river to cross the Pecos and Rio Grande near Albuquerque. The Rio Grande surprised Möllhausen, who expected a broad navigable stream with luxuriant vegetation but found "a shallow, muddy river [in] a treeless, clay-covered flat...." Antoine Leroux, fresh from the Gunnison debacle, led Whipple over the San Francisco Mountains. Then two Mohaves showed the way through the Colorado basin into the Mohave Desert, which Whipple crossed to Cajon Pass through the Coast range. [31]

According to railroad engineer A. H. Campbell, who accompanied Whipple, only three points presented any difficulty. Even these, the crossings of the Pecos and Rio Grande and the route through Cajon Pass, were no more serious than the problems involved in building such trans-Allegheny lines as the Baltimore and Ohio from Cumberland, Maryland, to Wheeling, in western Virginia. Moreover, Whipple concluded that the thirty-fifth parallel route was particularly favored by precipitation. Both he and Campbell were well satisfied with the result of their exploration. [32]

wagon train
Lieutenant Whipple's Pacific railroad survey party camped in the Mohave Valley.

The survey of the southwesternmost route along the thirty-second parallel also concluded satisfactorily. Two separate parties, both under topogs, examined this route. Lieutenant John Parke explored the western portion of the line, while Lieutenant John Pope, veteran of the 1849 reconnaissance of Minnesota and an 1851 survey of the Fort Leavenworth-Santa Fe road, probed the eastern section. His part of the survey included the greatest single obstacle, the Llano Estacado ("Staked Plains") that straddled the Texas-New Mexico border.

The Staked Plains severely tested those bold enough to attempt a crossing. Treeless and dry, the high, flat tableland stood a thousand feet or so above the rolling country to the east and west. Pope thought the region had excellent potential for cotton culture, and the tapping of underground sources of water in later years verified his evaluation. However, in early 1854, the Staked Plains was a formidable obstacle, and Pope's journal noted several nights spent at dry camps. [33]

Pope believed artesian wells would provide water for a railroad across the Llano Estacado. Alternate layers of hard and permeable rock, which trapped ground water, could be reached somewhere between 60 and 150 feet beneath the surface, and Pope recommended digging four wells to span the tableland. Four years later he was allowed to attempt drilling, but failed to develop reliable sources of water, due mainly to difficulties with his machinery. Geologist John Newberry still supported Pope, arguing that the experiment had good prospects for success. Events eventually proved them correct, but in the 1850's the Staked Plains refused to give up its water. [34]

To the west of Pope's section of the survey, Parke confronted similar problems. He first visited the territory acquired in the Gadsden Purchase in early 1854, before ratification of the treaty by the Senate, and returned in the spring of the following year and improved his survey. Like Pope, he concluded that artesian wells would compensate for the lack of free flowing water between the Gila and the Rio Grande. [35]

Lower half of a cross section of one of Lieutenant Pope's artesian wells. National Archives.

The four main route surveys, from the Parke-Pope explorations through the southwest to the Stevens expedition in the North, all probed east-west lines from the Mississippi River. In the far West a final pair of surveys ranged up and down the coast, examining mountain passes and possible connections between cities in California, Oregon, and Washington. These expeditions were conducted by three young topogs, Robert Williamson, John Parke, and Henry Abbot.

Williamson and Parke led one survey from San Francisco Bay down to San Diego. They examined the passes across the Sierra Madre eastward to the routes along the thirty-fifth and thirty-second parallels. Their expedition was far shorter than the cross-country treks but still difficult. Spending much of the time in the mountains, climbing steep slopes and crossing along narrow paths, they found that Cajon Pass and several others needed tunnels. More important, they did not find a practicable pass connecting San Diego to the Gila River along the thirty-second parallel. Williamson followed the Mohave River toward the Colorado, but gave up "with a mountainous country between and neither wood, water, nor grass that we know of." Meanwhile, Parke crossed the Coast range at Cajon Pass. All of the gaps except San Gorgonio, due east of Los Angeles, were too steep and required tunnels or roads cut along hillsides. [36]

The other coastal expedition set out from Sacramento with two goals. Led first by Williamson and later Abbot after Williamson took ill, the party sought a suitable crossing of the Sierra Nevada near the source of the Carson River. In addition, their orders called for a survey of possible routes to Oregon and Washington. Because the Indians of northern California and Oregon were hostile, a large escort under Lieutenants John B. Hood, Philip Sheridan, Horatio Gates Gibson, and George Crook, accompanied the topogs. Williamson and Abbot were in good company as they started north to Klamath Lake. [37]

The surveyors also had some less-welcome companions. The country near Klamath was full of rattlesnakes. On the morning of 14 August 1855, "some excitement was created in camp by the discovery of a huge rattlesnake coiled up under a blanket." The men killed the reptile but remained uneasy for some time. As Abbot said, his men "all slept without tents on the ground, [and] unpleasant ideas were suggested by the incident." [38] Lest any of the party easily forget the rattler in the blanket, several more had to be killed at the evening's camp as well.

survey party
Lieutenant Williamson's survey party at work near the entrance of Livermore Pass.

In spite of the snakes, the party continued northward for the examination of Oregon. Abbot's delight at "a magnificent lunar rainbow, and a beautifully tinted halo around the moon; both of which appeared at the same time in different quarters of the heavens," soon gave way to deep concern as news of Indian warfare reached him. [39] His Columbia River party numbered only seventeen, and a difficult and unknown country separated them from the settlements of the Willamette valley. Abbot made the dangerous ten-day trek with the help of an Indian guide, Sam An-ax-shal, whose skill saved him and his men from almost certain annihilation.

When he arrived at Oregon City near Fort Vancouver, Abbot received more bad news. Major Gabriel J. Rains, commander of the District of Puget Sound, had detained the entire escort at Fort Dalles for an operation against the Indians. Abbot's route lay through the Rogue River valley, the heart of the conflict, and his party had a mere five rifles. Letters of protest fell on deaf ears, and much of the survey had to be abandoned. Escorted through the Umpqua Canyon by a company of Oregon volunteers and later accompanied by Captain J. A. Smith's dragoons, Abbot managed to return to Fort Reading near Sacramento in mid-November. The last of the surveys had come to an end.

Captain Humphreys, assisted by Abbot and Lieutenant Gouverneur K. Warren, evaluated the data brought back by the field parties, and prepared cost estimates based on distances, terrain, and the experience of railroad builders east of the Mississippi. Calculations showed that all the proposed lines would be tremendously costly. Even the thirty-second parallel line, considered least expensive, would require $69 million, a sum equal to the entire federal budget of 1856. Then came the forty-first parallel route ($116 million) examined by Frémont and Stansbury in the previous decade as well as by Beckwith; Stevens's northern trail ($131 million); and finally Whipple's route ($169 million). No estimate was made for the thirty-eighth parallel route, generally conceded to be impracticable. [40]

Although the cost estimates indicated that the southernmost route was least expensive, the results were inconclusive for two reasons. In the first place, Lieutenant Williamson's inability to locate a pass between San Diego and the Gila River cast some doubt over the suitability of that line. More important in light of the political character of the problem of route selection, the surveys revealed that the three more costly paths were nevertheless practicable. Indeed, after the Civil War transcontinental lines were built on or near all four routes. For the time, the congressional deadlock persisted, and the surveys, designed to clarify the issue, only clouded it. [41]

As a scientific enterprise, on the other hand, the Pacific railroad project had remarkable and enduring results. The naturalists, collectors, and artists who accompanied the field parties amassed a vast quantity of specimens and scientific data. With the help of scholars in eastern cities, this accumulation was assessed and organized into a comprehensive record of the trans-Mississippi region's fauna and flora, geological structure, and geographical features. The thirteen-volume final report, along with four preliminary volumes, became immediately famous. The huge compendium was widely discussed in the daily press, popular magazines, and in the streets and homes of America. [42] The report is still well known to naturalists. As A. Hunter Dupree concluded in his study of the federal government and science, "to the student of the fauna, flora, and geology of the West, the volumes still seem as live and as important as they seem futile to the political historian." [43]

An important result of the railroad surveys was Lieutenant Warren's map of the trans-Mississippi West. Interrupted twice so that he could complete western explorations of his own, Warren toiled long hours when he was in his Washington office. Lieutenant Abbot, who worked with Warren in the Office of Pacific Railroad Surveys and Explorations, later recalled "how the midnight hour often found him hard at work comparing and reconstructing his preliminary tracings, or poring over the old reports for missing data." [44] The completion of this cartographic milestone marked the close of an era for the Engineers. The white spaces on Warren's map still remained to be filled and new questions would arise and demand answers, but an essential task was now complete. For nearly forty years, since Long's expedition of 1819-1820, Engineer parties had charted portions of the vast West. Some of the maps, most notably those done by Preuss after his travels with Frémont, were themselves highly significant. But they were also part of the overall effort to understand and record the shape of the new country. In 1858, the basic contours of the enormous region were at last known and the information readily available. [45]

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Last Updated: 17-Mar-2005