Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroadby David Haward Bain, David H. Bain
After the Civil War, the building of the transcontinental railroad was the nineteenth century's most transformative event. Beginning in 1842 with a visionary's dream to span the continent with twin bands of iron, Empire Express captures three dramatic decades in which the United States effectively doubled in size, fought three wars, and began to discover a/b>… See more details below
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After the Civil War, the building of the transcontinental railroad was the nineteenth century's most transformative event. Beginning in 1842 with a visionary's dream to span the continent with twin bands of iron, Empire Express captures three dramatic decades in which the United States effectively doubled in size, fought three wars, and began to discover a new national identity. From selfmade entrepreneurs such as the Union Pacific's Thomas Durant and eradefining figures such as President Lincoln to the thousands of laborers whose backbreaking work made the railroad possible, this extraordinary narrative summons an astonishing array of voices to give new dimension not only to this epic endeavor but also to the culture, political struggles, and social conflicts of an unforgettable period in American history.
author of The Way To The Western Sea And The Great Persuader
author of The West, An Illustrated History and co-author (with Ken and Ric Burns) of The Civil War.
New York Times Book Review
We forget that the brutal, epic construction of America's transcontinental railroad owed as much to the goals of Columbus as to those of Lewis and Clark. The railroad was initially seen as an iron-and-coal update of the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, which had set out to forge access to Asia; indeed, Walt Whitman would celebrate the pounding of the final spike with a poem called "A Passage to India." In the early 1830s, when a visionary named Asa Whitney first broached the idea of building a railroad from "Michigan to the Pacific," it took well over a hundred days to sail from New York to China; with tracks stretching from New York to San Francisco, the total journey would require a mere 30.
Think of the money to be made! Oh -- and the accompanying moral beneficence: Hundreds of new towns would spring up along the railroad, civilization thus conquering the Western wilderness; and faraway Asian lands could be missionized as well. As David Howard Bain writes in Empire Express, Whitney "would annihilate distance, yes -- and with it, ignorance, want, and barbarism -- through the ineffably promising devices of American trade and American Christianity."
In the event, the building of the railroad -- which didn't commence until the Civil War had begun and wouldn't end until Grant was in office, by which time Whitney was all but forgotten -- was sooted through with corruption, shoddy workmanship, political maliciousness and such horrific catastrophes as frostbite, lethal sunburns, avalanches, misapplied explosives, Indian raids, snow blindness, smallpox and the viciousness of the new towns themselves. (The Cheyenne Leaderran a daily column titled "Last Night's Shootings.") Still, the completion of the railroad remains, after the saving of the Union, the great American triumph of the 19th century.
At its best, the sprawling Empire Express is a stunningly researched, prismatically written mix of Robert Caro, David McCullough, Shelby Foote and Connie Bruck. At its worst, it's a litany of dry documents and dull transactions that caves in upon itself; Bain, a Middlebury College historian and the author of numerous essays for Smithsonian and American Heritage, took 14 years to finish the tome, and at times he is clearly overwhelmed. The Nicholas Nickleby-size cast is impossible to keep straight. And do we need really to know the details of every bond offering?
But if you can make your way back from the spur lines, the main tracks of the narrative are fascinating. For instance, we learn that the Civil War both enabled construction to begin (the South, which had insisted that the new line cross through the slave states, had no say after secession) and impeded it (building materials were relegated to the war effort). Lincoln, once a lawyer for an Illinois rail line, comes off as shrewd and instrumental. (Bain's set piece on the Great Emancipator's railroad funeral procession is one of the highlights of his book -- so many flowers littered the tracks that the train had to stop repeatedly while the rails were brushed clean.)
The story shuttles between the Central Pacific line -- whose construction started in Sacramento and battled through the impossible Sierra Nevadas (there was no choice but to follow the Donner Party's route in reverse) on toward the Nevada and Utah territories -- and the decidedly more venal Union Pacific line (whose rococo record of corruption inspired Mark Twain's scathing The Gilded Age), which launched in Omaha, Neb., and had to cross voluminous Cheyenne, Sioux and Arapaho lands to meet up with the Central Pacific in Utah. Both companies were guilty of "bending truth and geography for years," as Bain cleverly puts it. The Central Pacific helmsmen (the famed old-money names of California: Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and Collis Huntington, who had "no more soul than a shark") weren't as egregious as their Eastern brethren, but they cut their share of corners. Trestles were hastily built on unstable gravel; cottonwood ties were substituted for iron and rotted accordingly.
I wish Bain had spent as much time on his proletarians as on his capitalists, but great details abound nonetheless. Just as the transcontinental railroad represented a grand link to vast Asia, so, too, did it bring Asia to America: By 1865, some 90 percent of C.P.'s workers were Chinese men, mostly from the famine-struck Kwantung province. Unlike their better-paid Irish coworkers, who drank cold water, the Chinese preferred boiled tea; thus they contracted much less illness and came to dominate the work force.
If Chinese workers and slipshod construction mark the tale of the Central Pacific, "wholesale robbery" and Indian battles stain the chronicle of the Union Pacific. The U.P. lends the book its biggest villain, the "inscrutable corsair" Thomas Durant, who cooked so many books, advanced so many unnecessary detours and bribed so many politicians that it's still impossible to fully trace his roundelay of felonies. But the passages on Indian battles make you far more heartsick. The U.P.'s lines bisected the hunting grounds of many tribes, and Cheyenne, Arapaho and Sioux, threatened by starvation, began raiding the new railroad towns, sabotaging the tracks, stopping the trains to steal food and supplies and scalping and killing passengers and settlers. Atrocities and reprisals proliferated on both sides.
Yet on May 10, 1869, the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific were finally joined in a "Mountain Wedding" in the tiny Gentile settlement of Promontory Summit, Utah. The site was a terrific snub to Brigham Young, a substantial railroad backer, whose Mormon followers had endured two years of drought and locusts while they wholeheartedly helped build the railroad, in the vain hope hat it would cross through a strategic Mormon town.
Synchronized by Morse code messages tapped across the nation's by-then-unbroken set of "eloquent wires" (as Whitman rhapsodized), the signal went out after the final hammer of the final, golden spike. Church bells peeled across the country; cannons boomed. At Promontory Summit, numerous dignitaries waxed lyrical. One of them cited a prophecy that "a granite statue of Columbus would be erected on the highest peak of the Rocky Mountains," then nodded to the great throng of workers gathered to celebrate their unparalleled accomplishment: "You have made the prophecy today a fact," he roared. "This is the way to India."
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"For All the Human Family"
Nine weeks out of New York and bound for Macao, the leaky and overburdened merchant barque Oscar struggled to round the Cape of Good Hope and was becalmed. Its captain cursed and swore at their slackened sails and abused his crew, while the vessel's sole passenger, a pious and sensitive man, tried to ignore a tirade made worse because it was the Lord's Day.
As was common on Sundays, he tried to pass the time in prayer and meditation. But he found himself brooding over his lot in life. It was at such a time that Asa Whitney, staring over the ship's rail at the bright green sea and brooding, most strikingly resembled Bonaparte. The similarity in physiognomy had caused him no end of trouble during business trips to France, when strangers would stop and annoy him on the street. Nonetheless his admiration for Napoleon knew no bounds; his empathy over losing one's entire world had never been stronger than on this poky, Asia-bound barquethere was nothing but loss behind him, little promise ahead. By forty-five years of age Whitney had buried two wives and a child and lost all his considerable worldly possessions, and now he had started life anew. Even if we could have told him that in a few years he would not only have regained his wealth, and discovered a cause worth making his life's work, but also would come to be considered a prophet of a new age, it is unlikely that such a prediction would have allayed his bitterness. Still, he struggled to retain his perspective. "It certainly is a great tryal at my time of life," hehad written in his diary, "to recommence the work, too in a strange foreign Land. Yet I hope it is Gods providence that guides me & I feel that I shall succeed. I hope above all things that I may yet be enabled to do some good to mankind & in some small degree make amends for the abuse of all Gods providences to me."
Within days of doubling the cape, Asa Whitney was afflicted with boils. He was the eldest child born, on March 14, 1797, to Sarah Mitchell and Shubael Whitney, near Lantern Hill in North Groton, Connecticut. For five generations in New England, Whitneys had engaged in farming or manufacturing. (Asa's fifth cousin, when not occupied by patent suits over his invention of the cotton gin, fabricated arms in New Haven.) Shubael, the son of an iron manufacturer, chose to coax corn from the rock-choked soil east of the Thames, raising nine children to help him in this effort. Meanwhile, he and his neighbors hired Indians from the Pequot reservation to hoe, paying them with rum. Apparently this arrangement pleased everybody, but as Asa grew into his teens he showed no interest in agriculture. He was likewise uninterested in going to sea on the countless whalers and sealers operating from the Connecticut coast. Before he was twenty he was in New York, engaged in that other great Yankee occupation, trade.
Beginning as a clerk with one of the city's largest importers of French goods, Whitney was promoted, and spent most of the decade between 1824 and 1834 in Europe as a purchasing agent. By 1832 he was a well-rewarded merchant who was about to be made a partner in the firm; that year he also acquired a wife abroad. Little is known about Herminie Antoinette Pillet Whitney except that she was French and that she died in New York City shortly after their marriage, on March 31, 1833, and that she was buried in the Trinity Churchyard in New Rochelle, close to where Asa had purchased seventy acres of land for their new home.
Whitney kept a lock of her hair for some years thereafter, but it was not long before he married again. Sarah Jay Munro was the daughter of a wealthy landowner and grandniece of the former chief justice and governor of New York, John Jay. The early years of the Whitneys' marriage were comfortable ones, for there was a great demand for French goods and Asa prospered. In 1835 he purchased two more tracts of New Rochelle land, and in 1836 he not only left his firm to begin a new importing partnership but bought a large commercial plot in Lower Manhattan, upon which he erected five wholesalers' buildings. Soon he had begun to build an imposing brick house in the Greek Revival style, in New Rochelle, completed in 1837.
It was around this time that Asa Whitney's upward-tending graph became a downward spiral, for as the Whitneys settled into their new home and the merchant saw to his expanded commercial interests, banks were closing, businesses were failing, crowds were rioting in the streets of New York and breaking into food warehousesthe beginning of that tribute to rotten banking and frenetic speculation, the seven-year misery known as the Panic of 1837not a propitious time to find oneself overextended. Although he was not immediately affected, Whitney found it increasingly difficult to get by. His import business naturally required hard capital; moreover, he owed some $80,000 and interest on his Manhattan real estate, though tenants' rent came nowhere near his mortgage. Like a juggler whose arms grow weak from effort despite his skill, Whitney refinanced his commercial mortgage in March 1838 and took out a loan on the New Rochelle property in the December following but was still unable to make timely payments. In September 1840, he was faced with foreclosure.
An even greater tragedy struck while the merchant's case was before the magistrates. On November 12, 1840, Sarah Whitney died"after a few days illness," as her obituary notices reportedwhich, one may surmise from family papers, occurred either after a miscarriage or following an unsuccessful childbirth.
Asa Whitney buried her beside his first wife and in his grief turned to face the courts. After foreclosure, his New York property went to auction, was bought by his mortgage holder for $80,000 (the amount of principal owed), and left Whitney holding a bill for over $10,000 in unpaid interest. He sold his house and remaining land, beginning to be, certainly, in an antipodal frame of mind, with but one word in his head: China, a place of dawning commercial promise where one could start anew.
Thus, as the Oscar was towed from the Pike Slip Wharf out to Sandy Hook and cast loose on Saturday, June 18, 1842, its heavily disappointed passenger could not be blamed for keeping his sight on the horizon, not back toward home. Whitney had put pride away, secured himself an appointment as purchasing agent for several firms trading in the Orient, and hoped to do a little business of his own on the side. For the long voyage he had packed a trunk full of booksincluding George Tradescant Lay's new guide, The Chinese As They Are; the life and writings of John Jay; a biography of Napoleon; a French grammar; the good Reverend William Wilberforce's Family Prayersand several cases of wines.
But such would provide only limited diversion and small solace on a voyage whose misery would become memorable in that closing era of snail-paced, square-bowed, wooden-hulled sailing vessels, for the Oscar was loaded down like a coal bargeworse, even, for its cargo consisted mostly of lead ingotsand it was afflicted by the most adverse weather. Gales, calms, rough seas, and contrary winds followed the barque across the Atlantic in dreary procession. Whitney, a seasoned voyager, suffered from seasickness for the first time in his life, to which was added sleeplessness, rheumatism, his plague of boils, and growing dismay at the behavior of his only social companion, Captain Eyre.
The captain filled their quarters with cigar smoke. ("I cannot in anyway escape it," Whitney confided to his diary. "In consequence I have much of the head ache. What a vile practice, so useless, yes worse, so injurious to health & habits, for I have always found it creates a disposition to drink, if not to drunkenness, & so disagreeable to those who dislike it: that I sometimes think no real Gentleman can smoak.") The captain was prone to tearing, profane rages aided by the seaman's astonishing vocabulary. ("Very disagreeable, presumptuous & wicked.") The captain seemed to take satisfaction from flogging transgressors in his crew, particularly the Chinese steward who appeared to be drunk one breakfast. "I did not see it & could not & I cannot bring my mind to believe in the necessity of such a discipline anywhere," Whitney wrote. "It is too humiliating, too degrading, too beastly, poor fellow I do feel for him.... these poor Chinese seem to be considered but dogs only fit to be kicked and flogged; this our Americans have learned from the English." Besides, Whitney added in afterthought, a steward punished thus could wreak revenge by poisoning all who dined in the captain's cabin.
Still, being an affable man, Whitney took comfort from his books, from good weather, from sightings of other ships and of various inhabitants of the deep. "Thus far on our long voyage," he admitted with relief, "we are without an accident & all in good health."
From New York to the Cape of Good Hope the sailing distance is eight thousand miles; from the cape to Dutch Anjier (Java Head), the gate between the Indian Ocean and the China Sea, another six thousand miles; from Anjier to the Portuguese colony of Macao on the Chinese coast, some two thousand more. When Asa Whitney was but a boy, the voyage between New York and China normally took six months, with runs of 125 days considered good, and by the 1830s this had been shortened to 100 days or less; in the year Whitney sailed, fast new China packets made the trip as short as 79 days. On the drawing tables of naval architects were plans for even speedier clippers, for a new era dawned.
Nevertheless, a leaky relic with a tyrant for a master and a hopeless case for a passenger, the barque Oscar plodded eastward across the Indian Ocean, making land at Java for provisions after all of 107 days at sea. In port, Whitney could not bear to watch the Dutch subjugation of Javanese, and it moved him to philosophize. "Oh how long must the mighty oppress & brutalize the weaker," he wrote. "When I see human beings in such oppressive ignorance & servitude, I cannot but feel that they were created for a more noble & exalted purpose & that the purposes of a wise Creator are turned by the ambition & lust of Man or preparation of Nations perhaps for their eternal destruction, look at Spain, look at Portugal, & even Look at England too her time is allmost come. Her starving millions will not be willing to starve much longer, her wailing day must come & awful must be that day."
He was relieved when the Oscar weighed anchor and proceeded northward into the torrid Java and China Seas, "full of fish and snakes," and "little wind & excessive heat." Passing Borneo, Palawan, and Luzon, evading reefs and Malay pirates, sustaining some damage and more delays due to typhoons, the Oscar cast anchor at Macao. It was Sunday, November 20, 1842. They had been at sea for 153 daysperhaps a record for slowness that year.
* * *
Asa Whitney's business in China was to last for a year and four months. He arrived amid that Sino-British dispute recalled as the Opium Warsa dispute characterized for three years by Chinese riots against the barbarians who had insisted on their imperial right to free trafficking in all commodities, especially opium, and by retributory British naval attacks upon heathen ports. A treaty had been signed in Nanking three months earlier, in August. A typically lopsided document it wasgranting the British the island of Hong Kong, a cash indemnity, access to five ports, and license to profitably addict as many Chinese as they could manage. Whitney had little sympathy for the British and their imperial ways. ("Oh England," he wrote in one typical diary entry, "thine arrogance cannot be endured & thy pride must have a fall.") His sentiments were hardly improved when, immediately after he arrived in Canton, angry mobs plundered and torched some British businesses and cornered many Westerners (including Whitney and a group of fellow Americans) in their establishments. A tense night passed as the merchants could do little but peer out at the massed Chinese and at the firestorm raging toward their factory, but in the morning the Americans (and British posing as Americans, an irony not lost on Whitney) were allowed to evacuate.
Affairs in China would settle down. As other foreign nations began to press for similar commercial access, Whitney found himself among a select few Americans arranging exportation of teas, spices, and other Chinese goods. There is no evidence that he trafficked in opium, as did many others; that would seem to have gone against his grain. He was a good businessman, though, dividing his time between Canton and Macao, and his profits mounted. Indeed, on April 2, 1844, when he rejoined Captain Eyre on the deck of the Oscar for its return voyage, he had assured himself of enough money to make further labors unnecessary for the rest of his life.
Any sort of idleness was not in his nature, however. Sometime during the grief-ridden year when Whitney had lost his family, home, business, and wealth, he had sworn to devote the remainder of his life to a higher purpose. "I hope above all things," he had confided to his diary, "that I may yet be enabled to do some good to mankind & in some small degree make amends for the abuse of all Gods providences to me."
His return trip was tediously long, marred further by his cabin-mate's "segars" and rages and fondness for flogging seamen, but it gave Whitney all the time he needed to consider an idea that had been growing inside him for some time, perhaps encouraged by events at home reported in months-old newspapers. What began to take shape was a plan he thought would consign such long and uncomfortable voyages to history, put an end to the sort of unChristian, colonialist abuses he had witnessed in the Orient, and place his little nation on a more equal footing with the great powers.
Perhaps fittingly for such world-shaking aspirations, the Oscar put in for a few days at the island of St. Helena, where Whitney was outraged to discover that the British had allowed the quarters of his departed, "misunderstood," illustrious doppelganger to be used as a stable. It is not recorded whether Bonaparte's living double excited any comment on St. Helena when he strode about the island, probably muttering under his breath at "English pride English Tyranny & oppression" as he committed those fulminations to his diary"the settling day must, will come," he added, "& awful must be that day." Staring from the heights beyond Jamestown to the sea, he thought that "the imagination almost pictures a Napoleon on every ridge, on every peak, a kind of awful supernatural sensation ... different from any thing before experienced, like the child in the dark expecting any moment to meet a Spectre." But any ghosts Whitney may have encountered belonged, instead, to his own time and his own worlda world to which he was returning with a steadily developing agenda.
Five months and nine days after departing Canton, Whitney stepped ashore at New York with joy and purpose. He tarried in the city for some weeksprobably disposing of a shipful of Chinese imports and counting his moneybefore moving onward to another Canton, some fifteen miles from the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York. It was there, as winter began its descent, that Asa Whitney put away his diary in favor of another document. It was a memorial addressed to the United States Congress. As he began working on it, his travel-stained little account book, consigned to history in his trunk, offered a hint and a caution about "the great purpose" to which he would devote himself. He had taken a steamboat to Albany, his diary recorded, from where he boarded a westward-bound railroad. "I was anxious to see the towns & villages through which we passed," he continued,
but, alas, in vain, time & space are annihilated by steam, we pass through a City a town, yea a country, like an arrow from Jupiters Bow. Schenectady, I can only say I passed through it because it is on the rout.... At Utica we stopped to dine, had only time to pass from the Cars to the Hotel & dined on the high pressure plan, they told me it was Utica but I have no memorial, I know nothing of it....
Oh, this constant locomotion, my body & everything in motion, Steam Boats, Cars, & hotels all cramed & crowded full the whole population seems in motion & in fact as I pass along with Lightning speed & cast my eye on the distant objects, they all seem in a whirl nothing appearing permanent even the trees are waltzing, the mind too goes with all this, it speculates, theorizes, & measures all things by locomotive speed, where will it end.
"Can it be happy," that diary entry had concluded in late 1844, "I fear not." Fatigued and out of sorts the merchant might have been, and not in step with the American pace after two years abroad. But if Whitney was truly fearful of an unhappy end he showed no other evidence of itonly industry and the most intense single-mindednessin setting forth to harness the very contrivance that had set his head to spinning, in a plan he hoped would at once bring the world down to manageable size and make it a better place to inhabit. Asa Whitney, with no previous experience and having nothing but his faith and self-assurance to tell him he was not pursuing a chimera, began to outline how he would get a railroad across the vast, uninhabited middle of the American continent to the Pacific shores, where the lure of Asia beckoned, within reach. He would annihilate distance, yesand with it, ignorance, want, and barbarismthrough the ineffably promising devices of American trade and American Christianity.
Whitney's attention was first called to the importance of railroads as a means for the transportation of commerce as well as of passengers as early as 1830, he recalled later. It was only a year after British crowds had beheld the world's first steam-powered locomotive, George Stephenson's Rocket, draw a train of cars faster than a horse could haul a carriage. The Rocket trials in 1829 attained a top speed of twenty-nine miles an hour; a year later, when Asa Whitney paused during a buying trip to ride the newly formed Liverpool and Manchester Railroad, the locomotive sped them over a distance of thirty-four miles of solid English roadbed in forty-two minutesa little over forty-eight miles an hour, he thought, though he may have been exaggerating. The merchant saw clearly, he said later, "their present importance and predicted their future importance to us as a means of communication with the Pacific." During his sojourn in the Orient, as the British secured commercial rights in China and it seemed that America would soon follow (as it did in July 1844), he foresaw "the importance to us if we could have a more ready, frequent, and cheap communication than the present long and dangerous voyage around either of the capes."
In China Whitney had gathered much commercial information on "that ancient, numerous, and most extraordinary people," he would write. The principal object of inquiry was how to increase Sino-American commerce, for Whitney had chafed at the time and expense involved and at how limited the return was in comparison to the "almost boundless" possibilities. He also considered "the vast commerce of all India, of all Asia, which has been the source and foundation of all commerce from the earliest ages to the present day, possessed and controlled by one nation after the other, each fattening upon its golden crop, till proud England at last holds it in her iron grasp." This did not have to continue, Whitney noted. "She holds on, and will hold on until our turn comes, which will be different, and produce different results from all. We do not seek conquest, or desire to subjugate. Ours is and will be a commerce of reciprocityan exchange of commodities."
Whitney had much more in mind than mercantile mattershis plan fairly shone with global promise. His argument would grow fervent, a near-religious preoccupation for him as time passed, for the Pacific railroad idea, he would write, would not merely hold benefits for its projectors but for every American and a multitude beyond:
for the destitute overpopulation of Europe, without food and without homesfor the heathen, the barbarian, and the savage, on whom the blessings and lights of civilization and Christianity have never shonefor the Chinese, who, for want of food, must destroy their offspringfor the aged and infirm, who deliberately go out and die, because custom, education, and duty, will not permit them to consume the food required to sustain the more youthful, vigorous, and usefuland for all the human family.
For a merchant with no engineering ability, no political contacts, no experience in mounting any campaigns, especially of such national scope, Whitney had embarked on a project that seemed ambitious, quixotic, chimerical. However, in his absence from the United Stateseven before, when Whitney's whole energy had been directed at salvaging his business from creditorsthe nation had begun a monumental transformation. "The mind too goes with all this," he had written, addressing not only his project but also the strange new American pace to which he had returned, "it speculates, theorizes, & measures all things by locomotive speed."
As he set forth to make his congressional memorial for a railroad to the Pacific as comprehensive as possible, a nation stirred.
* * *
It was a nation which, in 1844, some mossbacks believed had grown as far as nature and man's treaties would allow, and beyond which lay a dangerous overextension that threatened dissolution of the Union itself.
The stage of North America: Thirteen free and thirteen slave states extended westward from the Atlantic seaboard to the Missouri Riverthe sum of the United States. The two free territories of Iowa and Wisconsin waited in the wings for admittance, as did Florida. Another great chunk of the continentMexico, her medieval promise long fadedstretched improbably from the Gulf of Tehuantepec and Guatemala away to the Oregon border, all scattered, desultory rancheros and huddled mission settlements. There were the disputatious Oregon and Texas. The former extended from the Pacific to the Rocky Mountains and from Mexico to well north of Vancouver Island, being sparsely settled and occupied jointly by Britain and America; the latter had been for some eight years the independent Republic of Texas. If both were understudies, their parts awaited them.
The United States, British Canada, Oregon Country, Mexico, the Texas Republicall encircled a vast and mysterious land, the subject of much speculation and not much careful thought. Call it Indian Territory for now, for it contained survivors of the displaced, decimated eastern tribes and the great unmolested, unsuspecting Plains Indians. As limitations to American growth, man's treaties had already proved to be the expedient instruments that they were intended to be by the enforcing party. But nature, the other great limitation, was not as malleable to national destiny, or so at least it seemed in 1844 as America stood on the eastern bank of the Missouri River and looked across to a hallucination known for thirty years as the Great American Desert.
Thomas Jefferson, who knew much, was ignorant about most of the territory he purchased unseen in 1803 at a bargain-basement price. The few settlements of the Louisiana Territory, he reported to Congress, "were separated from each other by immense and trackless deserts." Three years after this hearsay, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis returned from their examination of the country; they had found the plains to be simply dry and barren, though not desertlike. In that year, however, young Lieutenant Zeb Pike traveled the Far West and returned with the most fanciful impressions. "This area in time might become as celebrated as the African deserts," he wrote of the territory sitting between the meridian of the great bend of the Missouri and the Rockies. "In various places [there were] tracts of many leagues, where the wind had thrown up the sand in all the fanciful forms of the ocean's rolling wave, and on which not a spear of vegetable matter existed." Pike's visions of sand dunes, pathless wastes, and sterile soils were reported, widely read, and faithfully believed by geographers. The myth became innocently embellished by subsequent visitors, especially those in the party of Major Stephen H. Long, who traversed the whole area in 1820. It was reported to be "an unfit residence for any but a nomad population ... forever [to] remain the unmolested haunt of the native hunter, the bison, and the jackall."
Twenty-four years later the Santa Fe trader Josiah Gregg issued his Commerce on the Prairies, a book based on extensive experience on the plains. "These steppes," he wrote, "seem only fitted for the haunts of the mustang, the buffalo, the antelope, and their migratory lord, the Prairie Indian." Soon young Francis Parkman would see sand dunes along the Platte River, in his imagination extending this "bare, trackless waste" for hundreds of miles. Thus the future states of Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado existed in the American minds of 1844 in hopelessness and sterilityfitting continental leavings for the aborigines.
Little as the Great American Desert interested politicians and pioneers alike, temptations lay on its western and southern frontiers. As Asa Whitney composed his Pacific railroad memorial in the closing months of 1844, the upstate New York countryside rumbled with political activity, as was true all over the nation, with much attention being paid to the issue of expansion. Six months earlier in Baltimore the convened national Democratic Party plodded through seven deadlocked ballots before finally rejecting its obvious choice, Martin Van Buren. As former senator, governor, secretary of state, vice president, and president, Van Buren had, by 1844, served his country perhaps too well, but his failure this time around had less to do with his shopworn self than with his disinclination to invite war by annexing new territorya position that was then at distinct variance with prevailing sentiments. Two canvasses later the Democrats acclaimed a dark horse, James Knox Polk. He had twice failed to be re-elected governor of Tennessee, but when he appeared in Baltimore, his proprietary urges toward hitherto disputed lands plainly in sight, Polk prevailed. In the ensuing presidential contest the opposing Whig party could muster little more than the slogan "Who is James K. Polk?" for their own candidate, Henry Clay, who was otherwise silent on the great issue of the day. That issue lay at the heart of the Democratic platform, but more important, it had already been accepted as a fait accompli by most Americans: the annexation of those title-clouded expanses known as Texas and OregonMexico and England be damned.
Exactly a decade had passed since our neighbor to the south had reopened its Texas lands to American immigration after some years of nervous border restriction. Likewise, it had been ten years since the first Methodist missionaries had drifted to the bank of the Willamette River in Oregon Country, seeking Flatheads with a hankering for the Good Book (there were none). The latter territory had an agreeable climate and an excess of lush farmlands, and though it was jointly occupied with Britain there were relatively few British.
Oregon's emptiness beckoned. So did the equally virginal lands of Texas. By 1836, the number of American settlers in Texas had grown to nearly thirty thousandten times the resident Mexican population and more than enough to enforce a nascent Republic of Texas only weeks after the tragedies at the Alamo and at Goliad. President Andrew Jackson, in formally recognizing Texas sovereignty in March 1837, had less influence on encouraging further settlement than did the other great event of that season, which overshadowed it. The Panic of 1837 sent thousands of bankrupt and debt-ridden farmers of the Mississippi River valley flooding into Texas to join those who had preceded them. Others, their hopes dashed no less by the deepening depression, began to weigh the odds of the longer, more hazardous route to Oregon, across the Great American Desert. By 1839 some five hundred Americans had sunk their plow blades in the Willamette bottomland and a new destination had entered the dreams of would-be migrants: Mexican California.
* * *
Texas fever! Oregon fever! California fever! Rare was the American newspaper or magazine that did not carry a rhapsodic letter from a newly arrived settler in those and subsequent years. Farmers seemed to be spending as much time urging their fellow Americans to join them in paradise as they did in raising cropsthat is, when they were not deluging Washington with petitions urging annexation.
If for many the lure of a new purchase on life was balanced by the numerous threats to life during the overland journey, news from those who had survived the ordeal was persuasive. Especially so were reports of the Bidwell-Bartleson party, which in the summer of 1841 followed the West's lure from Missouri, eventually splitting into two groups which attained Oregon and California after much hardship. Then, in 1843, young Lieutenant John Charles Frémont issued a report on his army exploration of the Oregon Trail from the Mississippi River through the South Pass and into the Wind River range of the Rockies. Published obligingly by the government, the path-follower's book was an instant success, with its descriptions and maps both a Bible and a Baedeker for thousands of potential migrants. And when the Democrats rallied behind James Knox Polk, with Texas and Oregon (andwho knowsCalifornia) at the forefront of their minds, the expansionist party prevailed, albeit narrowly, in the electoral college. Those faraway settlements seemed at once closer and more alluring. Meanwhile, an obscure merchant, recently returned from China, signed his name to a document which was handed to an upstate New York legislator, the Honorable Zadock Pratt of Prattsville, who packed it away for his trip to Washington and the second session of the Twenty-eighth Congress.
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The subject of railroads seemed remote in the opening weeks of the congressional session. Only the prospect of admitting the Republic of Texas to the Union held any interest. But three days after the House passed a joint annexation resolution and a month before it joined the Senate in approving an amended measure, Zadock Pratt rose in the chamber. The title of the document he presented for consideration was Railroad From Lake Michigan to the Pacific: Memorial of Asa Whitney, of New York City, relative to The construction of a railroad from lake Michigan to the Pacific ocean.
All of the states east and north of the Potomac River, Whitney had written, were or soon would be connected with the waters of the Great Lakes by rivers, railroads, and canals. At that moment a chain of railroads was projectedin some places, already under constructionalong the 840-mile route between New York and the southern shores of Lake Michigan. It was entirely practicable to extend the railroad from there across the unsettled lands of the West, through the Rocky Mountains, to the Pacific Ocean, some 2,160 miles. "To the interior of our vast and widely-spread country," he said, "it would be as the heart to the human body; it would, when all completed, cross all the mighty rivers and streams which wend their way to the ocean through our vast and rich valleys from Oregon to Maine, a distance of more than three thousand miles."
The importance of such a route was incalculable, he said. Military forces could be concentrated at any point east or west in eight days or less. A naval station near the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon, "with a comparatively small navy, would command the Pacific, the South Atlantic, and Indian oceans, and the China seas." Using a combined rail and steamship route between New York and China, which would require only thirty days, the products of American factories could be exchanged for Asia's rarities. Compare this to the round-trip sailing distance between New York and China (nearly thirty-four thousand miles, requiring up to three hundred days). World commerce would be revolutionized, with Whitney's Pacific route its channel. Each state and every town "would receive its just proportion of influence and benefits," he wrote, "compared with its vicinity to, or facility to communicate with, any of the rivers, canals, or railroads crossed by this great road."
Such easy and rapid communication, he argued, "would bring all our immensely wide-spread population together as one vast city; the moral and social effects of which must harmonize all together as one family, with but one interestthe general good of all." Moreover, because the destitute overflow population of Europe was beginning to clog the cities of eastern America, the railroad would attract throngs of hopeful farmers and workers to settle along its route,
where they will escape the tempting vices of our cities, and where they will have a home with their associates, and where their labor from their own soil will not only produce their daily bread, but, in time, an affluence of which they could never have dreamed in their native land.... Their energies will kindle into a flame of ambition and desire, and we shall be enabled to educate them to our system, to industry, prosperity, and virtue.
All that was required to set this in motion, Whitney reasoned, was an elementary exchange. He asked that the United States set aside out of its public lands a strip of land some sixty miles wide and the length of his proposed route. Beginning at Lake Michigan, Whitney would sell this landwhich would be settled and the proceeds of which would finance construction of his railroad. Section by section, the rails and their supporting population would leapfrog westward "so far as the lands may be found suited to cultivation." The cost of planting the railroad he estimated at $50 million, with a further $15 million for maintenance of the road until completion. The cost of building across uninhabitable terrain would be offset by this maintenance fund and by sale of the public landsall proceeds to be "strictly and faithfully" applied to railroad construction, subject to whatever checks and guarantees Congress required. To determine the route he asked the legislators to order a survey between the forty-second and forty-fifth degree of north latitude from lake to ocean.
Only when the route was finished, when the travelers and commerce of the world crossed the nation in comfort and security, would the New York merchant collect his compensation. Whatever unsold land remained in that sixty-mile-wide belt would be deeded to Asa Whitney. It was that simple. Finally, tolls along the road should be kept low, to a level just above what was required for maintenance. The excess would "make a handsome distribution," he reasoned, "for public education."
Thus set forth before the House of Representatives, Asa Whitney's remarkable railroad proposal was referred to the Committee on Roads and Canals.
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Meet the Author
David Haward Bain is the author of four previous works of nonfiction, including Empire Express and Sitting in Darkness, which received a Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Award. His articles and essays have appeared in Smithsonian, American Heritage, Kenyon Review, and Prairie Schooner, and he reviews regularly for The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, and Newsday. He is a teacher at Middlebury College and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.
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