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Pacific Railroad Surveys

An illustration of Fort Massachusetts, Colorado, made during the surveys

The Pacific Railroad Surveys (1853–1855) were a series of explorations of the American West designed to find and document 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."[1] 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, climatology[2] of the land as well as provided ethnographic descriptions of the Native peoples encountered during the surveys. Importantly, a map of routes for a Pacific railroad, was compiled to accompany the report.[3]


Exploration and surveys for the Pacific Railroad were carried out under the direction of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis

Starting in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, many Americans began a westward migration that would come to greatly influence the development of 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. In addition, cities and states competed for the route and terminus so no consensus was reached. 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."[4] 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.”[4] 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."[4]

The path of the first transcontinental railroad route was one of many proxy fights over the future of slavery in the United States exacerbated by capitulation and Mexican Cession resulting from the Treaty of Cahuenga and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The Compromise of 1850 which admitted California as a slave free state, defined the geographical boundary of Texas as a slave state, banned slavery in Washington DC, enhanced the Fugitive Slave Act, and most relevantly established Utah and New Mexico territories under popular sovereignty — meaning whether any future state from these territories would be free or slave would be decided by the constituency of migration at the time of the petition for statehood. The route of the first transcontinental railroad would determine whether slaves could be legally and efficiently trafficked into these geographically isolated territories.[5][6] So the route was not just ancillary to free soil policy, but could ultimately affect the balance of power between the north and south in Congress when new states were inevitably admitted into the Union out of these regional territories. Just three years after this compromise, Jefferson Davis strongly influenced the Gadsden Purchase to facilitate his preferred southern route which was not viable over the Colorado Plateau. A year after this purchase, Bleeding Kansas began on account of identical thematic tensions. The Kansas–Nebraska Act was intended to open up new lands to develop and facilitate the construction of the transcontinental railroad, however it effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The map of the Pacific Railroad Surveys would be published in 1855.[3][7]

The congressional inaction in the survey's aftermath is a reflection of the severity of this proxy fight. Despite the United States having common carrier railroad infrastructure since the 1830's, Congress was politically unable to enact any decision on an initial transcontinental railroad route until the south succeeded from the Union in December 1860 in response to the November 6th presidential election. That month[8] Theodore Judah, who himself had been engineering railroads since the 1840's, and California railroads in particular since the 1850's,[9] finally obtained the political opportunity for a central route with Abraham Lincoln party associate and elector Leland Stanford.[10][11][12][13] Slavery operative Jefferson Davis became President of the Confederate States of America. The Pony Express and then the first transcontinental telegraph were also initiated at this time out the urgency of the U.S. Civil War. Congress passed the first of the Pacific Railroad Acts and the major Homestead Act in 1862. The Central Pacific Railroad then broke ground on January 8, 1863. Though the last spike would not be driven into the transcontinental railroad until 1869, the second transatlantic telegraph cable was completed the year the Civil War ended.

Five surveys

Five surveys were conducted.

From surveys to construction

Although the Pacific Railroad Surveys (1853–1855) provided valuable information regarding the possible routes for the transcontinental railroad, they were not compelling enough to lead directly to construction. 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 or central route. Third, a growing population of railroad specialists allowed Congress several options to consider the most efficient and cost effective route to build a transcontinental railroad.

In particular, railroad engineer Theodore Judah, on 1 January 1857 in Washington DC, published "A practical plan for building The Pacific Railroad", in which he outlined the general plan and argued for the need to do a detailed instrumental survey of a specific selected route for the railroad, not a general reconnaissance of several possible routes that had been done in the Pacific Railroad Surveys.[14] After finding in Fall 1860 a practical trans-Sierra route from Sacramento over Donner Pass into the Great Basin of Nevada and after finding investors to incorporate the Central Pacific Railroad in June 1861, Judah was sent in October 1861 to Washington DC to lobby for the Pacific Railway bill to aid in the construction of the first transcontinental railroad along his trans-Sierra route.[15][10] The route followed much of John C. Frémont's 1845-1846 route through the sierra crest[16] made infamous by the Donner Party,[11] rather than the Madeline Pass route mapped by the Pacific Railroad Surveys,[3] or the intermediate Beckwourth Pass on account of political factors not included in the original surveys. Central Pacific Railroad entrepreneurs and engineers, who made much of their prior fortunes facilitating the mining on the Mother Lode as well as the Comstock Lode, had been involved in the Henness Pass Turnpike Company and would later invest in the Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road (DFDLWR) servicing Meadow Lake Mining District speculation in what would be popularly known as the "Dutch Flat Swindle" which politically threatened the timely completion of the railroad.[17][18][19][20][21]

In 1862, Congress passed the Pacific Railway Act. The newly chartered 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)[22][23] 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.[24] On May 10, 1869, the two rail lines joined with an honorary Golden Spike at Promontory Summit, Utah, after making a combined 1,774 miles (2,855 km) of railroad track.[25]

Natural history studies

"Red-tailed Black Hawk" from volume X of the War Department's report to Congress

Leading naturalists were attached to all the survey parties:

  • Dr. James G. Cooper served as naturalist for the western division, and Dr. George Suckley for the eastern division of the exploration of the Northern Pacific route.[26]
  • Botanist Frederick Creutzfeldt accompanied the exploring party of the Central Pacific route but was killed with Captain Gunnison in Utah.[27]
  • Dr. Adolphus L. Heermann and Dr. Edward Hallowell accompanied the Parke's exploration of the Southern Pacific Route.[26]
  • Dr. Caleb B. R. Kennerly accompanied the Whipple expedition on the southern route.[28]
  • Heermann accompanied Lt. Williamson on the expedition up the West Coast from Fort Yuma to San Francisco[26]

Most of these men also served as the medical doctors for their exploring parties, and most were expert in only one or two areas of natural history. With limited time and expertise, their main charge was simply collection and preparation of plants and animals to be shipped back east for further study. They collected everything: plants, mammals, fish, insects, birds, mollusks, snakes, lizards, and turtles, both common and rare. This approach was described by geologist William P. Blake, who accompanied Lt. Parke's expedition:

The collections in this department of science were not restricted to what was new or undescribed, as I considered it quite as interesting to know that the flora of this region were the same as those common to other parts of the country, or that they were different. It was, therefore, established as a rule to collect everything; it being as easy at the conclusion of the survey to reject what was superfluous, as it would be difficult to replace what was wanting.[27]

Plants and animals were preserved as well as could be in the expeditions' camps, and shipped overland back to the Smithsonian Institution and other centers of expertise for evaluation. This trip often required months of rugged travel, and not all the collections survived. Heermann, in a letter of transmittal to Lt. Parke, commented on these difficulties: "Of the reptiles, in which these countries are very rich, I had succeeded in forming quite a handsome collection, but unfortunately the cans in which they were contained became leaky, and possessing neither the means to correct this mishap, nor the alcohol to supply that wasted, they were all lost with the exception of a few specimens which I preserved in bottles."[26]

Several of the expedition naturalists wrote reports on their areas of expertise which were included in the War Department's report to Congress. For example, Heermann wrote the report on birds, and Hallowell wrote the report on reptiles for Lt. Parke's exploration. Other leading naturalists contributed to the War Department's report by describing the collections returned from the exploring parties. These included Professor Asa Gray, Dr. John L. LeConte, William Cooper, Dr. Charles Girard, William G. Binney, and Dr. John S. Newberry. Most important of these was Spencer Fullerton Baird, who was at the time assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Baird not only wrote several sections of the report to Congress, but was responsible for many of the natural history illustrations. For example, the bird skins collected by the exploring parties were shipped to him. He had Smithsonian Institution artists produce engravings of the birds as they would appear in life, which were hand-tinted and included in the final report.[29]

See also


  1. ^ "Pacific Railroad Surveys 1855-1861". Archived from the original on March 8, 2012. Retrieved December 16, 2011.
  2. ^ "Isothermal chart of the region north of the 36th Parallel &c. &c. between the Atlantic & Pacific oceans; compiled under the direction of Isaac I. Stevens, Govnr. of Washington Territory". Library of Congress.
  3. ^ a b c "Map of routes for a Pacific railroad, compiled to accompany a report of the Hon. Jefferson Davis, sec. of war". Library of Congress. 1857.
  4. ^ a b c Winter, Rebecca Cooper. "Eastward to Promontory". Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum. Retrieved December 16, 2011.
  5. ^ Schubert, Frank N. (August 1980). "IV". VANGUARD OF EXPANSION Army Engineers in the Trans-Mississippi West, 1819-1879. National Park Service. 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.
  6. ^ Goodrich, Carter (August 1960). Government Promotion of American Canals and Railroads, 1800–1890. Columbia University Press. p. 179. ISBN 978-0837177731. [E]ast-west railroads were being pushed forward in the hope that they might serve as the "first links" of the transcontinental. The question, according to a Wisconsin paper, was: "Shall the upper West or shall the lower West be the great avenue of trade and commerce?" As the Civil War approached, the bitterest controversy was between those who wished a road to serve the North and those who wished a road to serve the South.
  7. ^ "Pacific railroad surveys. Letter from the Secretary of War, transmitting reports of surveys, &c., of railroad routes to the Pacific Ocean. February 6, 1854. -- Referred to the select committee on the subject of the Pacific railroad, and ordered to be printed". Library of Congress. 1854.
  8. ^ "Railroad Route Discovered". Nevada City, California: The Nevada Journal. November 9, 1860. p. 2.
  9. ^ "Map showing the location of Sacramento Valley Railroad, Cal. Sacramento, Septr., 1854; T.D. Judah, Chief Engineer". Library of Congress. 1854.
  10. ^ a b "Pacific railroad. Memorial of the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California. December 9, 1861. -- Referred to the Select Committee on the Pacific Railroad, and ordered to be printed, with report of Chief Engineer". Library of Congress. 1861.
  11. ^ a b Elliott, S. G. (1860). "Map of central California showing the different rail road lines completed & projected". Library of Congress. Archived from the original on January 1, 1000. The original proposed CPRR route ran through Nevada City and Blue Tent uphill along San Juan Ridge to the speculative Excelsior mining district between Henness Pass and Donner Pass, the latter of which is aptly labeled "starvation camp" in reference to the ill-fated Donner Party. The proposed route appears to tunnel through the pacific crest in the vicinity of the gap between White Rock Creek and Upper Independence Creek. CPRR engineers and investors were involved in Henness Pass Turnpike Company and the Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road (DFDLWR). "Truckee Pass" and "Big Truckee Lake" were later renamed Donner Pass and Donner Lake. Likewise, "Lake Bigler" which had been named by John Calhoun Johnson in honor of California's third governor—a Free Soil Democrat who became an ardent Confederate sympathizer—was renamed Lake Tahoe. "Meadow Lake" appears to depict Lake Van Norden which is a large vernal pool deceptively adjacent to the Serene Lakes at the top of the North Fork of the American River, rather than the dammed reservoir at the former Excelsior/Summit City settlement which currently carries this name. "Eureka South" was later renamed Graniteville. Other sierra crest landmarks that have contemporary names include Round Top which is labeled on the map as "Highest Summit," Caples Lake which is labeled "Clear Lake," Kyburz which is labeled "Slippery Ford," Woodfords which is labeled "Cary's Mill." The latter locale is shown east of the juncture between Johnson's Cut-off, the Mormon Trail, and Major John Ebbett's route over the sierra via Ebbetts Pass and Pacific Grade Summit of which surveyor G.H. Goddard referred to as a promising route for a transcontinental railway circa 1853. The "Old Johnson Route" is shown crossing the Carson Range at Spooner Summit. "Proposed Route" apparently attempts to connect Boca with Franktown through a col below Rose Knob Peak and Relay Peak; it is currently a high-elevation pack trail. This 1860 map was made to gain interest from prospective investors, and shows they were trying to secure capital before they had even settled on the actual Donner Pass route which also bypassed Nevada City. The elevation profile at the bottom is extrapolated to Henness Pass. The proposed rail line is even labeled "Central Pacific Railroad" despite the fact that this company would not even be chartered by U.S. Congress until 1862. This is consistent with the view that the impetus of building the CPRR was newfound political feasibility indicated by the tumultuous presidential election conventions in the spring of 1860 and the seemingly inevitable election results the following November, rather than a sudden breakthrough engineering "discovery" for a Donner Pass railroad route in an otherwise well-explored mountain range. While the terrain surrounding Donner Lake and Independence Lake presented dueling challenges, spanning the South Yuba River gorge near Relief Hill would have been formidable on account of height, rather than length in the 1860's. It would have outmatched the Union Pacific's Dale Creek Crossing or its Omaha Bridge.
  12. ^ "Railroad map of the central part of California, and part of Nevada. 1865". Library of Congress. 1865.
  13. ^ "Map of the central portion of the United States showing the lines of the proposed Pacific railroads". Library of Congress. 1862.
  14. ^ Judah, T. D. (1 January 1857). "A practical plan for building The Pacific Railroad". Virtual museum of the City of San Francisco. H. Porkinhorn, Washington DC. Retrieved 21 October 2019.
  15. ^ Rodgers, J. David; Spinks, Charles R. (May 5, 2019). "Theodore Judah and the blazing of the first transcontinental railroad over the Sierra Nevada" (PDF). Sacramento, CA: ASCE Golden Spike 150th Anniversary History Symposium. Retrieved 21 October 2019.
  16. ^ "Map of wagon routes in Utah Territory". Library of Congress. 1859.
  17. ^ McLaughlin, Mark (Jul 28, 2004). "The Big Four and the 'Dutch Flat swindle'". Sierra Sun. Retrieved 21 May 2024.
  18. ^ "THE PEOPLE OF SAN FRANCISCO ASK TO BE DEFENDED AGAINST THE DUTCH FLAT SWINDLE". No. 16:5386. Daily Alta California. December 2, 1864.
  19. ^ French v. Teschemaker, 24 Cal. 518 (Supreme Court of California 1864).
  20. ^ People ex rel. Central P. R. Co. v. Coon, 25 Cal. 635 (Supreme Court of California 1864).
  21. ^ People ex rel. Central P. R. Co. v. Board of Supervisors, 27 Cal. 655 (Supreme Court of California 1865).
  22. ^ 12 Stat. 489 §8
  23. ^ 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
  24. ^ 12 Stat. 489 §9
  25. ^ "Ceremony at "Wedding of the Rails," May 10, 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah". World Digital Library. 1869-05-10. Retrieved 2013-07-20.
  26. ^ a b c d "Reports of explorations and surveys, to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean v.10". Washington, D.C.: War Department. 1859. Retrieved 2020-12-09.
  27. ^ a b "Reports of explorations and surveys, to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean v.2". War Department. 1855. Retrieved 2020-12-09.
  28. ^ "Reports of explorations and surveys, to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean v.3". Washington, D.C.: War Department. 1856. Retrieved 2020-12-09.
  29. ^ "Reports of explorations and surveys, to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean v.12:pt.2". Washington, D.C.: War Department. 1860. Retrieved 2020-12-10.

Further reading

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Pacific Railroad Surveys
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