Pacific Railroad Surveys
The Pacific Railroad Surveys (1853–1855) consisted of a series of explorations of the American West to find possible routes for a transcontinental railroad across North America. The expeditions included surveyors, scientists, and artists and resulted in an immense body of data covering at least 400,000 square miles (1,000,000 km2) on the American West. "These volumes... constitute probably the most important single contemporary source of knowledge on Western geography and history and their value is greatly enhanced by the inclusion of many beautiful plates in color of scenery, native inhabitants, fauna and flora of the Western country." Published by the United States War Department from 1855 to 1860, the surveys contained significant material on natural history, including many illustrations of reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals. In addition to describing the route, these surveys also reported on the geology, zoology, botany, paleontology of the land as well as provided ethnographic descriptions of the Native peoples encountered during the surveys.
Starting in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, many Americans began a westward migration that would come to greatly influence the development American history. However, water travel remained the most common and most efficient form of transit available. Soon, the development of the steam engine became an invaluable contribution to this westward expansion. As railroads gained popularity in the eastern United States during the 1830s, Americans felt an increased incentive to expand this new technology to the western frontier.
Beginning in the 1840s, several government sponsored expeditions hoped to find potential railroad routes across the west. However, no consensus route emerged due to the selfish economic motives of rival companies. Brigham Young, President of LDS Church, wrote, "We never went through the canyons or worked our way over the dividing ridges without asking where the rails could be laid." On March 3, 1853, Congress appropriated $150,000 and authorized Secretary of War Jefferson Davis “to Ascertain the Most Practical and Economical Route for a Railroad From the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.” Davis ordered Brevet Captain George B. McClellan and the Corps of Topographical Engineers (TOPOGS), a division in the United States Army established to “discover, open up, and make accessible the American West,” to fulfill this obligation.
The most important concern for the United States Congress involved the location of where to build the railroad. With government involvement, lobbyists attempted to influence the selected locations because of the important social, political, and economic consequences. In addition, a transcontinental railroad would become a very costly endeavor. In fact, “Even the least expensive proposed routes would equal the federal budget for one year.” Despite these obstacles, a developing urgency clearly indicated the need for a transcontinental railroad. On August 16, 1856, Mr. Denver of the House Select Committee on the Pacific Railroad and Telegraph reported that: "the necessity that exists for constructing lines of railroad and telegraphic communication between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of this continent is no longer a question for argument; it is conceded by every one."
Five surveys were conducted.
- The Northern Pacific survey followed between the 47th parallel north and 49th parallel north from St. Paul, Minnesota to the Puget Sound and was led by the newly appointed governor of the Washington Territory, Isaac Stevens. Accompanying Stevens were Captain George B. McClellan with Lt. Sylvester Mowry out of the Columbia Barracks from the west and Lt. Rufus Saxton with Lt. Richard Arnold out of St. Marysville from the east.
- The Central Pacific survey followed between the 37th parallel north and 39th parallel north from St. Louis, Missouri to San Francisco, California. This survey was led by Lt. John W. Gunnison until his death by the Utes in Utah. Lt. Edward Griffin Beckwith then took command. Also participating in this survey was Frederick W. von Egloffstein, George Stoneman and Lt. Gouverneur K. Warren.
- There were two Southern Pacific surveys. One along the 35th parallel north from Oklahoma to Los Angeles, California, a route similar to the western part of the later Santa Fe Railroad and to Interstate 40, which was led by Lt. Amiel W. Whipple. The southernmost survey went across Texas to San Diego, California, a route which followed the Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach trail where Southern Pacific RR completed the second transcontinental railway in 1881. This survey was led by Lt. John Parke and John Pope .
- The fifth survey was along the Pacific coast from San Diego to Seattle, Washington conducted by Lt. Robert S. Williamson and Parke.
From surveys to construction
The Pacific Railroad Surveys provided valuable information to determining the best location of the transcontinental railroad. In addition, three important trends also influenced Congress’ final decision. First, the California Gold Rush and the discovery of silver in Nevada led to a dramatic increase in population in the west. Second, the secession of the South from the Union during the beginnings of the American Civil War discounted southern politicians from interfering with a plan to build a northern route. Third, a growing popularity of railroad specialists allowed Congress several options to consider the most efficient and cost effective route to build a transcontinental railroad.
In 1862, Congress passed the Pacific Railway Act. The Union Pacific Railroad Company would build continuous railroad and telegraph lines west from the Eastern shores of the Missouri River at Council Bluffs, Iowa (opposite Omaha, Nebraska) which would meet railroad and telegraph lines build east by the Central Pacific Railroad from the navigable waters of the Sacramento River in Sacramento, California. On May 10, 1869, the two rail lines joined with an honorary Golden Spike at Promontory Summit after making a combined 1,774 miles (2,855 km) of railroad track.
- "Pacific Railroad Surveys 1855-1861". Retrieved December 16, 2011.
- Winter, Rebecca Cooper. "Eastward to Promontory". Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum. Retrieved December 16, 2011.
- 12 Stat. 489 §8
- Executive Order of Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, Fixing the Point of Commencement of the Pacific Railroad at Council Bluffs, Iowa, March 7, 1864 38th Congress, 1st Session SENATE Ex. Doc. No. 27
- 12 Stat. 489 §9
- "Ceremony at "Wedding of the Rails," May 10, 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah". World Digital Library. 1869-05-10. Retrieved 2013-07-20.
- Jefferson Davis, George Mcclellan and the War Department's Pacific Railroad Explorations and Surveys of 1853-54
- Pacific Railroad Surveys 1855-1861
- Ann Shelby Blum (1993). Picturing Nature: American Nineteenth-Century Zoological Illustration. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 403 pages. ISBN 0-691-08578-1.
- Herman J. Viola (1987). Exploring the West. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books. 256 pages. ISBN 0-8109-0889-1.
- Edward S. Wallace (1955). The Great Reconnaissance—Soldiers, Artists and Scientists on the Frontier 1848-1861. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company. 288 pages.
- Smithsonian Institution—role of Spencer Fullerton Baird in United States and Mexican Boundary Survey and Pacific Railroad Surveys
- Digitized version of the complete survey reports from the Library of Congress and the University of Michigan
- Oklahoma Digital Maps: Digital Collections of Oklahoma and Indian Territory
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