Road to War: The 1871 Yellowstone Surveys

Road to War: The 1871 Yellowstone Surveys

by M. John Lubetkin (Editor)
Road to War: The 1871 Yellowstone Surveys

Road to War: The 1871 Yellowstone Surveys

by M. John Lubetkin (Editor)


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By 1870, only one group of American Indians in the 300,000 square miles of the Dakota and Montana Territories still held firm against being placed on reservations: a few thousand Teton Sioux and Northern Cheyennes, all followers of the charismatic Sitting Bull. It was then that Philadelphia’s Jay Cooke, “the financier of the Civil War,” a man who believed that he was “God’s chosen instrument,” funded a second transcontinental railroad. This line, the Northern Pacific, would follow the Yellowstone River through Montana, separating the last buffalo herds from Sitting Bull’s people and disrupting their way of life.

Road to War tells the fascinating story of the inevitable clash of wills between a fierce, proud people fighting to retain their traditional way of life and a devout man who, with the full support of President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration and the U.S. Army, was intent on carrying out what he believed to be God’s will and America’s destiny.

The chronological first of three volumes documenting the Northern Pacific’s Yellowstone valley surveys between 1871 and 1873, Road to War tells its story through excerpts from unpublished letters, diaries, official reports, and period newspapers that reflect the never-ending intrigue, corruption and profiteering, politics, and unanticipated physical hardships. Lubetkin shows the railroad’s drive west, along with the rough humor and profanity of railroad managers, alcoholic army officers, apprehensive Indian agents, and especially the young surveyors working in intolerable heat, swamps, and arctic cold. All these details tell the real story of building a railroad while keeping an eye open for Sitting Bull’s warriors.

Road to War shows history as it really unfolded on the western plains. Although the Indians’ former way of life was coming to an end, it would not come quietly.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806156675
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 11/17/2016
Series: Frontier Military Series , #36
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 312
File size: 12 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

About the Author

M. John Lubetkin, is a retired cable television executive and the author of Before Custer: Surveying the Yellowstone; Custer and the 1873 Yellowstone Survey; Jay Cooke’s Gamble: The Northern Pacific Railroad, the Sioux, and the Panic of 1873, winner of the Little Big Horn Associates John M. Carroll Award (Book of the Year) and a Spur Award for Best Historical Nonfiction from the Western Writers of America; and the novel Custer’s Gold.

Read an Excerpt

Road to War

The 1871 Yellowstone Surveys

By M. John Lubetkin


Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5667-5


The Northern Pacific Is Launched

The Northern Pacific Railroad, headquartered in New York and operated from St. Albans, Vermont, was created as part of the Pacific Railway Act of 1864. The company was a wartime sop to New England and northwestern states that felt that they would be shut out by the Sacramento-to-Omaha route of the transcontinental railroad. Unlike the first transcontinental railroad act (1862), the 1864 act was generous in giving away "empty" land — some 50 million acres (about equal to New England and Long Island) — but provided no financial incentives or guarantees as it had for the Union Pacific and Central Pacific's transcontinental efforts.

The actual grant was open-ended, but subject to completed federally certified miles. The acres were allocated in a checkerboard pattern parallel to the road. Track would stretch from Lake Superior to Puget Sound, with the assumption being that a community on St. Louis Bay (Superior, Wisconsin, or Duluth, Minnesota) would be one starting point, Tacoma or Seattle, Washington Territory, the other. The route was estimated at 2,000 plus or minus 50 miles, although most of Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Dakota had never been examined for railroad construction.

The most important thing to realize was that the Northern Pacific made absolutely no business sense in 1864 or even 1870. The blunt Cornelius Vanderbilt correctly described the Northern Pacific as a railroad that "ran from nowhere to nowhere." Certainly no large American railroad was less rooted in financial logic. No large cities were connected, and the railroad's route contained not a single community above 10,000.

The planned track ran through 250 miles of Minnesota with fewer than 10,000 white people within 50 miles of it. From Brainerd, Minnesota, to Bozeman, Montana, the line crossed 900 "vacant" miles excepting army posts, a few trappers, and Indian traders. Montana numbers were slightly better; over half of its 21,000 people lived within 50 miles of planned track. From Missoula, the railroad took a 415-mile triangular route before reaching the Columbia–Snake River junction near Oregon. Excepting Walla Walla (1870 population 1,394), these miles were unsettled. In short, despite significant gold and silver strikes in Montana and Idaho, and the large Canadian fur trade, the land contained less than one person every 20 square miles; nowhere near the 600,000 skyrocketing population of California and Nevada.

Then why, the reader should ask, did Northern Pacific construction begin in 1870? Why not wait until the frontier had pushed farther west and hostile Indian tribes had disappeared? The answer, in fact, came from a man who literally believed he was "God's chosen instrument." Just as he had helped save the Union through the sale of war bonds, Jay Cooke (1821–1905) believed he had been selected to "build" the railroad. This was no cinema-mythical Iowa cornfield where a farmer is "told" to build a baseball field and "they will come." This was to be the longest railroad in the United States and possibly the entire world (Trans-Siberian construction was still twenty years away), and Jay Cooke, the "Financier of the Civil War," felt God was pointing the way for him.

Cooke could not have existed today. Slightly mad by current standards and clearly eccentric 150 years ago, he was nevertheless a hugely successful banker who as a teenager had arrived penniless in Philadelphia from Sandusky, Ohio. By skill, common sense, and hard work — and never resorting to the ethically dubious — he made a small fortune before the Civil War. After the war began, the super-patriotic Cooke began selling war bonds to the rich, realized he had a formula, and in 1862 began selling to the middle class. By war's end he had raised over one quarter of every dollar spent without a hint of dishonesty.

But with Cooke's sales commissions miniscule, how did he obtain his sudden wealth? Cooke had access to military information before any other banker. He knew when to buy or sell. As his success mounted, more insiders banked with and fed him information. By 1865 Cooke was America's leading banker, one of its richest men, and venerated by the public and military alike.

Cooke, who was exceptionally youthful looking until his mid-forties, was nevertheless stubborn and doctrinaire — not surprising qualities from one who believes he is obeying God's will. After one two-hour meeting with him in 1862, Lincoln avoided him whenever possible. In his unpublished autobiography, Cooke told the story of how, speaking to a congressional committee, he actually stood during his testimony and chastised the congressmen, waving his finger at them like an Old Testament prophet. It was something unusual then and impossible to contemplate today, but it nicely illustrated the power he commanded.

Nevertheless, by 1869 Cooke was bored simply making money. He wanted and needed intellectual challenges. With Grant's 1868 election Cooke, who felt he was close to the president-elect, appears to have assumed — like many others — that he would be selected treasury secretary. Then on March 5 came a bombshell: Grant's nominee was a dry goods merchant. I believe that Grant passed over Cooke because, since God trumped Grant, Cooke couldn't be counted on as a "team player."

Had Grant selected Cooke, the Northern Pacific would have quietly disappeared, becoming little more than a historical footnote. There would have been no Yellowstone surveys and, in turn, Sitting Bull's followers would have lived in relative peace until their ecological world imploded. While Yellowstone National Park had just been "discovered," without Cooke's pushing it through Congress, it would have been years or decades before — if ever — it became a national park. And George Custer, sitting in Grant's doghouse? He would not necessarily have disappeared from sight, but he might not have reemerged until the Spanish-American War. And, without Cooke, it's difficult to conceive of large-scale northern European immigration in the 1870s and '80s.

What did happen was that Yellowstone became our first national park; warfare with the Sioux broke out; millions of acres in Minnesota, Dakota, Montana, and central Washington were converted to agriculture; and Scandinavian, German, and Russian migration began. For Canada, the British secured the financing for its transcontinental road, linking Vancouver to Halifax every bit as securely as San Francisco to New York.

* * *

Within a month of Grant's decision, Cooke was cautiously approached by Northern Pacific president John Gregory Smith (1818–91). Smith combined an attractive personality, an especially strong education for his era (University of Vermont, Yale Law School), and a tendency to make quick decisions. He became Vermont's two-term war governor and its leading Republican figure for three decades. In 1851 his father took over the Vermont Central Railroad (VC) on a fluke, after selling his tiny feeder railroad to the larger VC under an agreement that stipulated that if certain annual obligations couldn't be paid, Smith would take over. Between the president's fraudulent expense accounts and the treasurer's selling stock that he printed himself, Smith Sr. took possession. Then father and son cooked the books for a decade, fighting off lawsuits until the war began. After his father's 1858 death, Smith gradually grew the VC. By purchasing a feeder line here, building a dozen miles there, VC became one of the nation's top ten railroad systems, reaching 734 miles in 1871.

Like so many New Englanders, Smith looked west. If railroads excited him, the construction of a northern transcontinental railroad was his holy grail. Smith played a key role — as a Republican governor he was in a position to do so — in the maneuvering that led to Lincoln's signing the legislation creating the Northern Pacific. A year later Smith became the Northern Pacific's president when its founder, Josiah Perham, resigned after failing to raise money, all records fortuitously destroyed in an office fire. Besides the Northern Pacific and politics, Smith managed his Vermont Central and a railroad equipment manufacturing company on a hands-on basis, looked after his St. Albans hotel, newspaper, and two banks, and fulfilled his Episcopalian leadership obligations. Smith's two banks are of singular interest, becoming the 1864 target of the Great St. Albans Bank Raid by Confederate irregulars. Smith, then governor, lost over $125,000 in cash and securities, recovering only some of the money. In hindsight, it appears that he never fully regained his financial equilibrium — with disastrous, compounding consequences when Northern Pacific's construction began.

After the war Smith also failed at raising ample money for the Northern Pacific. Although directors and friends contributed $250,000, progress dragged. Smith hired the respected but aging railroad engineer Edwin F. Johnson (1803–72), a longtime northern transcontinental advocate. Johnson's 1867 contribution was a "practical" route, a distillation of previous Corps of Engineers studies, but his 1,775-mile estimate proved 15 percent too low, illustrating how little was actually known.

By 1867 Northern Pacific surveying began in Minnesota west from Thompson Junction. Minnesota's surveyors were led by Ira Spaulding (1818–75), a well-known and thoroughly able wartime combat engineer. Spaulding, however, had been badly wounded in 1862 and like so many others he continued to suffer, seldom appearing in the field. To what extent Spaulding had real influence in selecting the Northern Pacific's final route across Minnesota is unknown, but I believe it unlikely.

With Cooke's interest and the success of initial 1869 negotiations, Northern Pacific activity dramatically increased. In Minnesota some $25,000 was spent on a mostly public relations junket that included authors (one book resulted), newspapermen, possible investors, Minnesota's governor William Marshall, and the (likely) husband-hunting daughters of some participants. When this "survey" reached the Red River, most turned back, although some, Marshall included, went as far as Fort Stevenson on the Missouri, some 275 miles to the northwest.

Additionally important work was conducted at Cooke's request: an "eyeball" survey from Puget Sound to the eastern side of Bozeman Pass. This "reconnaissance" was to ascertain the feasibility of Johnson's route or any other, for that matter. This work was directed by Milnor Roberts, an acclaimed railroad engineer who had previously consulted for Cooke. The group was led by local guides and, as necessary, protected by modest army contingents. If Cooke had harbored any doubts, Roberts's final report that fall erased them. Significantly, it raised the estimated mileage to be built but lowered estimated construction costs to $85.6 million.

Cooke quickly agreed to proceed, and the contract was officially signed January 1, 1870. Such was the confidence in Cooke that railroad historian Robert Riegel would write, "No one doubted but that if Cooke took hold of the project, its success was assured." However, what Cooke did not realize was that Minnesota's route had not been selected. Despite Cooke's enthusiasm quickly becoming known, Smith failed to make decisions that would be critical in 1870. Apparently beset by Vermont Central problems, Smith postponed selecting a final Minnesota route, choosing construction contractors, and ordering ample equipment — strategic errors of the highest magnitude.

Until 1870, Smith's record was one of continual success, his problems invariably caused by events beyond his control. Yet his railroad experience had been on a small stage, and he had suffered few defeats from which to learn. Smith had never faced well-financed, knowledgeable business competition or the management problems associated with large-scale construction. Intelligent, but apparently unaware of his limitations; ambitious, but not having sufficient time for all his endeavors, Smith, like the public, vastly overrated Cooke's wealth.

* * *

Northern Pacific groundbreaking ceremonies occurred February 15, 1870, in a snow-covered Minnesota field. Nevertheless, the ceremony was a sham: no real construction began until August. I do not feel I am being overly cynical by speculating that the delay was caused by land speculation motives: the desire for "insider" profits from the development of new communities. The selection of Duluth over Superior is but one example, and then came the all but comical shenanigans that went into selecting Brainerd — literally like the old shell game — which should dispel any thoughts that engineers had a final say. The eventual road, a 250-mile arc swinging south from Duluth to Fargo-Moorhead, might have been 25 miles shorter over easier-to-build terrain. Later Smith wrote to Cooke admitting that "there may have been very grave mistakes in the location of the road," but by then it was far too late. Large speculative profits were made in Duluth, Brainerd (named for Smith's in-laws), smaller communities, and both Fargo (named for William Fargo of Wells Fargo fame and an NP board member) and Moorhead (named for William Moorhead, Cooke's partner and brother-in-law).

Competitive construction bids were not requested until mid-April. After a suspiciously short evaluation period, winners were announced, but then the companies had no available work crews. Not until mid-August, with two-thirds of the construction season over, did crews from the just completed St. Paul–Duluth line (Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad) become available.

Almost immediately, workers were caught flatfooted by Minnesota's swamplands. Minnesota has almost 12,000 lakes over 10 acres in size and an unknown number of smaller ones predominantly located in a 150-mile-wide belt scraped flat by glaciers. Here the gradient per mile was measured in inches, not feet, leaving no perceptible movement of ground water. The land was interwoven with soft woods, underbrush, moss, vines, and overhead canopies blocking sunlight. Underneath "solid" ground were invisible networks of faster moving streams; lakes and Tamarack bogs could be crystal clear from bubbling springs or black with foul-smelling, pestilence-ridden standing water. Cornelia Meigs, daughter of a surveyor, wrote:

Sometimes stretches [of bog were] three to five miles wide, but all ... [were] depressions in the root entangled ground, filled with black muck which was not water, for no one could swim in it, nor land, for no one could walk upon its surface. ... [When a] wind blew over it [one] could see great heaving ripples, sinister and unbelievable, go across the surface ... a dark expanse ... with stunted evergreens [and] bright insects hovering in the damp air.

If the work was unpleasant, for the few dozen, mostly younger, upper-class surveyors came enjoyment from the physical challenge of being tested by nature. Letters show adventurous humor in the face of life-threatening situations, despite one surveyor's life being lost in a sinkhole. Equipment and supplies were lost or rotted; horses were useless; only lighter Indian ponies could assist at the "front." Campfires were often impossible, and sleep was difficult. Another unhappy discovery: the geography was an ideal breeding ground for flies and mosquitoes in the stagnant water that came with hot, humid summers. This contrasted with winter, when Minnesota is bitterly cold.

Based on the company's pre-1870 surveying, one would have assumed that the Northern Pacific's construction crews knew what they would be facing. However, on a practical basis, there is no reason to believe that contractors were prepared for the problems they would face. In April 1870, as if speaking to Northern Pacific officials, respected railroad engineer Benjamin Latrobe, Jr., wrote in the Railway Gazette:

Construction of road bed over boggy ground is often an interesting problem for the engineer. ... [R]ailways crossing our western prairies [in] deep, swampy spots have been successfully crossed by various expedients. The principle on which they all ... depend begins [in] provid[ing] a wide surface of bearing upon the yielding quagmire which will in fact float the superincumbent weight of track and trains [just] as a vessel is buoyed up by the water under and around it.

The basic requirement for heavy ballasting was shoring up the sides with stout wood, best driven by pile drivers. Here the Northern Pacific seems almost criminally negligent, for it purchased only one pile driver and four steam shovels, the latter of limited use in swamps. In 1870 the railway paid contractors by "certified" track miles. While one assumes there were inspections, with Spaulding frequently ill, how often did he visit and how carefully did he scrutinize the work? Work crews had little incentive to wait for rock to arrive, and all too often, ballasting consisted of trees, brush, soil, and likely even pressed-down leaves. While most remained in place during 1870–71's winter, it should have surprised no one that sections of roadbed sank or entirely disappeared during the spring thaw. Among other disasters, there is the (perhaps) apocryphal story of a locomotive sinking into the muck before finally disappearing.


Excerpted from Road to War by M. John Lubetkin. Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
List of Maps,
List of Tables,
Part I. The Northern Pacific Railroad,
Part II. The Yellowstone Surveying Expeditions,
Part III. Aftermath,
A. Early Railroads,
B. Management's Misfeasance and Malfeasance: Some Secondary Sources,
C. Jay Cooke and the Great Chicago Fire,

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