The Proposed Routes of the Pacific Railroad in Antique Maps

Johnson's 1866 Map of the Southwest

Johnson's 1866 Map of the Southwest

Many mid 19th century maps of the American west show several “proposed routes” for a transcontinental Pacific Railroad. The challenge was in finding a practical and economical route through or around the Rocky Mountains, the Great Basin, and the Sierra Nevada Range. The development of the Pacific Railroad was fraught with challenges relating to slavery, politics, geography and gigantic egos. The powers at the time were keenly aware of the wealth and prosperity that would follow the Railroad. The powerful Illinois senator Stephan Douglas who famously lost his presidential bid to Abraham Lincoln advocated for a northern route via Chicago. On the other side of the debate, Mississippi plantation owner and Secretary of War Jefferson Davis advocated for a southern route from Vicksburg Mississippi roughly following the 32nd parallel. Other powers advocated for a extreme northerly route roughly following the Canadian border and terminating near Seattle, Washington. Still others pushed for a more central route. In 1853 the government ordered several expeditions and eventually five potential routes were surveyed:

  1. The Stevens Route: Governor Isaac Stevens was a brave, handsome, and egotistical West Point valedictorian with a distinguished military record in the Mexican American War. He was a fierce advocate of Franklin Pierce’s presidential campaign and following the victorious election, was awarded for his support by being named Governor of the newly created Washington Territory. As a veteran of the U.S. Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Coast Survey, Stevens was keenly aware of the pressing need of a transcontinental railroad to unite the rapidly expanding nation. As he traveled westward toward Olympia, Washington, the seat of this territorial government, Stevens surveyed what he believed was the best and most practical route for the Pacific Railroad. Starting from St. Paul Minnesota, Stevens surveyed and proposed a route that roughly followed 47th – 49th parallels westward to terminated at the Puget Sound. He boasted that the harsh winter conditions of the northern territories would “not present the slightest impediment to the passage of railroad trains”. To this the expedition’s naturalist George Stuckley responded, responded, “A road might be built over the tops of the Himalayan mountains – but no reasonable man would undertake it.” Though the Stevens route appears on many early maps, it was not seriously entertained by any respective party other than Stevens himself. Following Steven’s death in 1862 during the Civil War Battle of Chantilly, the campaign for a far northern route lost it only champion and consequently its momentum.
  2. The Whipple Route: Amiel Weeks Whipple was an American Military Engineer, West Point graduate, and U.S. Coast Survey veteran. Whipple was commissioned to explore a possible route for the transcontinental Pacific Railway along the 35th Parallel. Leaving from Fort Smith, Arkansas, Whipple surveyed a route that passed through modern day Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico and Arizona before crossing the Mojave Desert and terminating at San Bernardino. Despite Whipple’s assertion that, “there is not a doubt remaining that for construction of a railway the route we have passed over is not only practicable but in many respects eminently advantageous,” this route never attained popularity due to lack of serious support by the political luminaries of the period. Like Stevens, Whipple died while serving as Brigadier General in the Civil War.
  3. The Parke-Pope Route: An extreme southerly route for the Pacific Railroad running along the 32nd parallel and terminating in San Diego was always a strong contender. Under the Presidency of Franklin Pierce and advocated by Jefferson Davis, the feasibility of this route strongly influenced the Gadsden Purchase. The route was finally surveyed by Lieutenant John G. Parke and Captain John Pope. Starting from opposite extremes Parke and Pope worked toward each other and finally met near El Paso. Parke, starting from San Diego surveyed a route that roughly corresponded to the southern U.S. Mail route, passing south of the Salton Basin and crossing the Colorado River at Fort Yuma then heading east to Tucson and Fort Fillmore, and onwards to El Paso. Pope Started at Fort Belknap, Texas, crossed the Staked Plain and the Guadeloupe Mountain to meet Park near El Paso. Though highly feasible and supported by powerful government leaders, the outbreak of the American Civil War and the comparative poverty of the Confederacy put a halt to plans for the southernmost route. However, years after the fact, in 1877, this railroad, called the Southern Pacific, did materialize.
    1855 Gunnison-Beckwith Survey

    1855 Gunnison-Beckwith Survey

  4. The Gunnison Route: In 1853 the Corps of Topographic Engineers was commissioned by Congress to identify a central route. Led by Captain John W. Gunnison, with Lieutenant E. G. Beckwith as his assistant commander, the expedition set off on May 3rd of 1953 from St. Louis, Missouri. The expedition roughly followed the 38th parallel and the route traversed by “The Pathfinder” John Fremont in the 1830s. Gunnison pushed the expedition through Kansas and Colorado well into the land claimed by the Ute Nation. Near Lake Sevier Gunnison’s camp was attacked by Ute Warriors who believed that a transcontinental railroad would infringe upon their sovereignty. Gunnison and most of his men were killed. Gunnison’s wife advocated the belief that the Ute Warriors were encouraged by Bringham Young and several militant Mormon settlers in the region. Having camped elsewhere, Gunnison’s second E.G. Beckwith, took command of the remaining expedition and retreated to Salt Lake City, where they spent the winter.
  5. The Beckwith Route: E. G. Beckwith, continuing westward from Salt Lake City in 1854, surveyed a route across the Great Basin, passing south of the Mud Lakes, to the Sierra Nevada Mountains which he crossed at “Beckwith’s Pass” thus descending into the Sacramento Valley. Beckwith composed a series of reports on this proposed route ultimately offering three variants. The northernmost route crosses the Green River near Black’s Fork and continues past Fort Bridger (now Wyoming) and along the Weber River to Ogden City where it turns south. The middle route leaves the Wasatch Mountains via Timpanogas Canyon. The southernmost route runs westward from the Oquirrh Mountains. The northernmost route, which was advocated by Beckwith in his report, was chosen and it is roughly along this path that the transcontinental railroad was eventually built.

Following the expeditions the decision regarding ultimate route of the Pacific Railroad was deadlocked in congress between the southern states, who preferred the Parke-Pope route, and the northern states, who advocated for a central route. The issue was finally decided by the outbreak of the American Civil War. The Confederacy, lacking the finances and industry of the north, was not in a position to pursue their dream of a southerly Pacific Railroad. The Union on the other hand quickly pushed forward with their plans for a railroad roughly along the Gunnison-Beckwith route. The Pacific Railroad officially opened in 1867.

Related Maps:

REF: Golay, M. and Bowman, J. S., North American Exploration, p. 371-2.