Pacific Railroad Surveys

In order to settle the national debate over the best route for a transcontinental railroad line, the U.S. Congress authorized surveys of four different possible routes to the Pacific. The resulting surveys added to the controversy by finding all four possible routes suitable.

Summary of Event

On March 2, 1853, the U.S. Congress Congress, U.S.;and railroads[Railroads] passed the Pacific Railroad Survey Bill, which authorized Secretary of War Jefferson Davis to initiate exploration of possible railroad routes from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean and to report their findings within ten months. This legislation was designed to break a political and economic deadlock over the location of the first transcontinental railroad. Davis chose officers of the Army Topographical Corps to make the surveys and placed them under Major William H. Emory. Railroads;Pacific surveys
[kw]Pacific Railroad Surveys (Mar. 2, 1853-1857)
[kw]Railroad Surveys, Pacific (Mar. 2, 1853-1857)
[kw]Surveys, Pacific Railroad (Mar. 2, 1853-1857)
Railroads;Pacific surveys
[g]United States;Mar. 2, 1853-1857: Pacific Railroad Surveys[2910]
[c]Geography;Mar. 2, 1853-1857: Pacific Railroad Surveys[2910]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;Mar. 2, 1853-1857: Pacific Railroad Surveys[2910]
[c]Transportation;Mar. 2, 1853-1857: Pacific Railroad Surveys[2910]
Davis, Jefferson
[p]Davis, Jefferson;and Pacific railroads[Pacific railroads]
Emory, William H.
Beckwith, Edward Griffin
Stevens, Isaac
McClellan, George B.
Benton, Thomas Hart
[p]Benton, Thomas Hart;and railroads[Railroads]
Frémont, John C.
Gunnison, John W.
Judah, Theodore Dehone
Whipple, Amiel Weeks

For several years, Congress had considered a proposal for a northern railroad route from Lake Michigan to the Columbia River, with a branch line to San Francisco. Isaac Stevens Stevens, Isaac , a young army officer who had just accepted the governorship of Washington Territory, was placed in command of the northern survey, which covered the country between the forty-seventh and forty-eighth parallels. His party was divided into two sections: one group, led by Stevens himself, ascended the Missouri River to its confluence with the Yellowstone River at Fort Union and explored westward. A second party, led by Captain George B. McClellan McClellan, George B. , explored eastward from Puget Sound, seeking suitable passes through the Cascade Mountains.

Numerous supposedly satisfactory passes across the Continental Divide Continental Divide;and railroads[Railroads] were located, but no pass over the Cascades was found, because McClellan erroneously concluded that the snow of Snoqualmie Pass and elsewhere was too deep. Snowdrifts forty feet high could bury railroad workmen’s cabins. Nevertheless, in 1853, Stevens Stevens, Isaac enthusiastically reported that two practical routes through different passes over the Cascade Mountains were available. Citizens around Puget Sound were not convinced however, and the legislature of Washington Washington State;railroads Territory commissioned Frederick West Lander, a civilian engineer, to survey another route from Puget Sound to South Pass.

South of Stevens’s survey was a route near the thirty-eighth parallel along a line proposed by Thomas Hart Benton, a U.S. senator from Missouri, with its starting point at St. Louis St. Louis, Missouri[Saint Louis, Missouri];and railroads[Railroads] and its terminus in San Francisco. In 1848, Benton’s son-in-law, John C. Frémont, Frémont, John C. had explored a portion of this route, named the Buffalo Trail. Buffalo Trail However, while seeking a satisfactory pass through the mountains in southern Utah, he had failed dramatically and disastrously by getting his group trapped at an altitude of twelve thousand feet in the Rocky Mountains Rocky Mountains;and railroads[Railroads] in mid-December. Ten of his men starved or froze to death. When Lieutenant John W. Gunnison Gunnison, John W. was subsequently placed in command of the official survey along the thirty-eighth parallel in place of Frémont, Benton Benton, Thomas Hart
[p]Benton, Thomas Hart;and railroads[Railroads] , in disappointment, promoted two privately sponsored explorations along the same route. One, led by Frémont, was accompanied by newspaper reporters who were recruited to publicize the route.

Gunnison’s expedition, which including topographer Richard H. Kern Kern, Richard H. and a German botanist named Frederick Creutzfeldt Creuztfeldt, Frederick , left Fort Leavenworth Fort Leavenworth in June, 1853, and explored several new routes across the Great Plains. In October, Gunnison himself was killed by Paiute Paiutes Indians on the Sevier River in Utah. Before his death, he had reported that the railroad route along the thirty-eighth parallel was far inferior to the one along the forty-first parallel that had been used by emigrants in covered wagons. The death of his party closed the Buffalo Trail Buffalo Trail . Gunnison’s Gunnison, John W. party was the only one of the four government survey expeditions to end in death.

Central route surveys were resumed the following spring, when Lieutenant Edward Griffin Beckwith Beckwith, Edward Griffin moved westward along the forty-first and forty-second parallels. His first responsibility was to reexamine the path traversed in 1850 by Captain Howard Stansbury Stansbury, Howard , from Fort Bridger westward to Salt Lake. Beckwith found two satisfactory routes into the Great Basin through the Weber and Timpanagos Canyons. This route passed over elevations ranging from nine thousand to twelve thousand feet. Up to this point, contact with American Indian tribes had been peaceful, except with the Paiutes Paiutes , who seemed to resent the intrusion onto their lands.

After it was authorized to continue the forty-first-parallel survey into California in February, 1854, Beckwith’s Beckwith, Edward Griffin party followed the customary emigrant route along the Humboldt River Humboldt River across Nevada, Nevada;railroads but upon reaching the sink of that stream, the party turned north to explore new passes across the Sierra Nevada Sierra Nevada;exploration of and was successful in locating the Madeline and Nobles Passes.

The third party, under Lieutenant Amiel Weeks Whipple Whipple, Amiel Weeks , was ordered to explore the thirty-fifth-parallel route through Albuquerque and the Zuñi villages. This route was championed by California senator William H. Gwin Gwin, William H. , who hoped for a railroad from San Francisco San Francisco;and railroads[Railroads] to Albuquerque, from which several branches would go to Independence, Missouri; Fort Smith, Arkansas; Austin, Texas; and elsewhere. West of Albuquerque, the surveying group examined a route, later adopted by the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad . Whipple crossed the Mojave Desert to the Cajon Pass and continued into San Bernardino. He reported that this pass, which had long been used by traders and emigrants, was practical for railroad construction.

The southern, or thirty-second-parallel, route had already been explored by Emory, first when he was serving the Army of the West during the Mexican War and later as a member of the United States-Mexican Boundary Commission. Emory’s survey Emory, William H. of the boundary was accepted to bridge the gap from the Pima villages to the Colorado River Colorado River , and Lieutenant R. S. Williamson Williamson, R. S. was assigned the exploration in California. After extensive examination of the mountains of southern California California;railroads , Williamson and his associates concluded that Walker Pass, long thought to be the southern gateway into California, was impractical for a railroad because of its difficult westward approach. Nearby Tehachapi Pass was found to be superior.

John G. Parke Parke, John G. recommended a route from the mouth of the Gila River via the San Gorgonio Pass into Los Angeles Los Angeles;and railroads[Railroads] , rather than a more southerly line to San Diego. From Los Angeles, a railroad northward into the San Joaquin Valley could easily cross Tejon Pass. These politically inspired routes were not properly engineered. The government surveys did not address the fact that railroads required grades no steeper than 116 feet to the mile and bends with at least three-hundred-foot radiuses to keep locomotives on track.

It eventually took the genius of Theodore Judah Judah, Theodore Dehone to engineer the first workable cut through the Sierras between California’s American and Yuba Rivers, making possible the linking of east with west at Promontory Point Utah;railroads
Promontory Point , Utah, in 1869. Meanwhile, the final phase for field operations of the Pacific Railroad surveys was that of Williamson and Lieutenant H. L. Abbott Abbott, H. L. , who sought the best routes from California into the Pacific Northwest. They located two practical coastal routes, one to the east and one to the west of the Cascades.


Between 1853 and 1857, officers of the Topographical Corps located most of the accessible routes through the mountain barrier to the Pacific Slope that would later be followed by modern railroads and highways. Their numerous reports, published in a series of quarto volumes at the direction of Congress in 1857, plainly showed that there was no unsurmountable difficulty in building a railroad to the Pacific. However, because they found that at least four routes were practicable, instead of settling the sectional deadlock over a transcontinental route, as originally intended, their surveys stimulated new discussion. However, all their surveys would eventually prove useful when multiple transcontinental railroad routes were built.

Each of the survey groups met some of the many Native American Native Americans;and railroads[Railroads] tribes indigenous to the areas traversed. Using interpreters who had been captives of these tribes lessened the possibility of social error. Thus, the survey groups met with chiefs on equal terms. Gifts and goods were exchanged, and each side could make only good reports of any encounter. Some survey groups collected tribal lexicons. Whipple’s group noted that nearly all the wealthy American Indians of central Native Americans;slaves
Slavery;and Native Americans[Native Americans] Oklahoma and western Arkansas had Mexican or African slaves. In a letter dated June 30, 1855, to Jefferson Davis Davis, Jefferson
[p]Davis, Jefferson;and Pacific railroads[Pacific railroads] , Whipple wrote,

The quiet and peaceful manner in which we passed through the various tribes of Indians, usually hostile toward Americans is a proof of the sound discretion of those officers, and the good discipline of the men composing their command. Whipple, Amiel Weeks

Only after the intrusion of the wagon trains, the railroads, and white settlements did the Native Americans rise up in arms.

Further Reading

  • Albright, George L. Official Explorations for Pacific Railroads. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1921. Well-organized compendium based almost totally on government documents. Summarizes plans by Whitney and Benton and the actual surveys.
  • Chaffin, Tom. Pathfinder: John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire. New York: Hill & Wang, 2002. Comprehensive, engaging, and balanced biography, covering Frémont’s varied life and career, during which he played a major role in explorations of the West.
  • Devine, David. Slavery, Scandal and Steel Rails: The 1854 Gadsden Purchase and the Building of the Second Transcontinental Railroad Across Arizona and New Mexico Twenty-Five Years Later. Lincoln, Nebr.: iUniverse, 2004. Examination of the complex politics, diplomacy, and economic forces behind the building of the southern transcontinental railroad route.
  • Ogburn, Charlton. Railroaders: The Great American Adventure. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1977. Discusses U.S. railroads and the people who built them, ran them, and made their fortunes by owning them.
  • Robertson, Donald B. Encyclopedia of Western Railroad History. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Books, 1986. Includes facts on the rise and decline of the railroad in the West, from the earliest times.
  • Strom, Claire. Profiting from the Plains: The Great Northern Railway and Corporate Development of the American West. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003. Detailed scholarly study of the forces behind the construction of the northern transcontinental railroad.
  • United States War Department. Reports of Explorations and Surveys to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economical Route for a Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1855. Comprehensive government report, covering all visible aspects, including various tribal vocabularies. Diaries and lithographs bring history to life.
  • Wheeler, Keith, and the editors of Time-Life Books. The Railroaders. New York: Time-Life Books, 1973. Presents interesting facets of the development of the railroad in the United States. Many photographs.
  • Williams, John H. A Great and Shining Road: The Epic Story of the Transcontinental Railroad. New York: Times Books, 1988. Provides a dramatic history of the building of railroads across the United States and discusses what it meant to the states they crossed.

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