Reports of Explorations and Surveys, to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economical Route for a Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.
by Bruce C. Cooper
With the unexpected discovery of gold in California in 1849, its admission to statehood in 1850, and the resulting explosion in emigration to the West, the interest of the Government in exploring the establishment of a rail link to the Pacific became serious in the early 1850s. Not only would a Pacific railroad help build population and expand commerce, it was also recognized to be an important element in defending the nation’s expanding borders by providing a means to economically and rapidly transport the Army and its provisions to the remote posts beyond the Mississippi.
In his summary of the causes which led to the building of the Pacific Railroad, the Commissioner of Railroads described the situation as follows in his 1883 Annual Report to the Secretary of the Interior:
On March 3, 1853, the 32nd Congress, 2nd Session, approved “The Military Appropriations Act of 1853” (Chapter 98) of which Sections 10 and 11 authorized the expenditure of $150,000 by the War Department to conduct “explorations and surveys ... to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.” Within two months the surveys were underway, and in December the War Department submitted its Annual Report to the President containing an extended section describing the scope and progress of the surveys. Also included with the Report were the Secretary of War’s detailed written instructions to the various survey parties which were drawn from the Army under the direction of the Corps of Topographical Engineers.
Two of the names which appear prominently in these documents are of particular historical interest — Secretary of War Jefferson Davis and Brevet Captain George B. McClellan of the Corps of Engineers. Not only did both men do much in 1853 to help promote the idea of a Pacific Railroad, but a decade later each would play a central role — on opposite sides — in the Civil War.
Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, an 1828 graduate of West Point, hero of the Mexican War, and Senator (1847-51) from Mississippi, served as President Franklin Pierce's Secretary of War from 1853 to 1857 after which he returned to the Senate. Davis was always a strong advocate of building a Pacific Railroad — by a Southern route — and this advocacy helped, among other things, to bring about the 1853 Gadsden Purchase through which a southern rail route would have to pass. While as a Senator he discouraged the idea of secession, when Mississippi withdrew from the Union in 1861 Davis was obliged to resign from the Senate and was immediately commissioned a Major General in the Mississippi Militia. A short time later he was named provisional President of the Confederate States of America at the convention in Montgomery, Alabama, and was formally elected to that office in October, 1861.
As was Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, Captain George McClellan, a native of Philadelphia, PA, was also a West Point graduate (1846) who had fought with distinction in the Mexican War. After returning to West Point to teach engineering from 1848 to 1851, McClellan worked on a number of important Army engineering projects over the next six years including his survey of the Cascades for Gov. I. I. Stevens' explorations of the Northern route which eventually became the basis of the Northern Pacific Railroad. In 1857 McClellan resigned his Army commission to become Chief Engineer of the Illinois Central Railroad where his organizational skills caught the eye of the railroad's attorney, Abraham Lincoln. In 1860 McClellan became President of one of the Illinois Central's subsidiary lines, the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad. (This was the same road for which Lewis M. Clement worked in 1861 and 1862 as a telegrapher and station agent before heading to California and his career with the Central Pacific.)
With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, McClellan returned to the Army as a Major General in command of the Department of Ohio, and in July of that year he took over the Department of the Potomac. In November, 1861, President Lincoln — his former colleague with the Illinois Central — appointed the 35-year old McClellan to succeed General Winfield Scott (on whose staff he had served as a young Lieutenant in the Mexican War fifteen years earlier) as General-in-Chief of the Union Armies. While as superb an organizer as Lincoln had recalled from their railroad days in Illinois, McClellan often showed a great reluctance to press the attack which finally led to his being sacked by the President in November, 1862. Two years later McClellan ran unsuccessfully against Lincoln as the Democratic nominee for President. After his defeat the General resigned form the Army and spent the next three years living in Europe. McClellan spent the final years of his life living in New Jersey which he also served as Governor from 1878 to 1881.
ABOUT THE LITHOGRAPHS
by Robert Taft
Preliminary reports were published from time to time but the complete reports with revisions and additions of the work of subsequent surveys were published in a magnificent and comprehensive twelve volume work with the imposing title, Reports of the Explorations and Surveys to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economic Route for a Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. These volumes, published by the Federal Government between 1855 and 1861, 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. Ironically enough, the publication of this monumental work cost the government over $1,000,000; the surveys themselves $455,000.
These reports, with earlier versions, are invaluable firsthand sources for the historian of today, and created tremendous interest at the time they were published. They were discussed in the newspapers, talked about in Congress, in homes, on the street, and were reviewed at length in the contemporary magazines.
The illustrations in the Report which we shall consider are the so-called "views"; these are of greatest general interest. But it must be kept in mind, as indicated by Senator Harlan, that many scientific (geological, zoological, botanical) illustrations were also included. Many of the illustrations for the geological reports are woodcuts reproduced in the text and a few of these are of sufficient general interest to mention specifically, as has been done later. The "views" are for the most part full page lithographs and are printed in two or three colors on heavy paper, much heavier than the paper used for the text. Many are printed in brown and black, some in green and black and in still others, a third color—blue—has been added. The lithography was done by A. Hoen Co. (Baltimore), J. Bien (New York), Sarony and Co., or Sarony, Major and Knapp (New York), and T. Sinclair (Philadelphia). Evidently, because of the large number of plates required, the same illustration was occasionally lithographed by different firms. As a result, slight differences in views occur, as the lithography was all hand work. Impressions from the same stone vary also, depending upon the number of impressions and on the amount of ink present at each impression.
The illustrators for the volumes, all of whom were members of the various survey parties, were eleven in number and included: John C. Tidball, Albert H. Campbell, Richard H. Kern, James G. Cooper, John M. Stanley, John Young, Gustav Sohon, F. W. von Egloffstein, H. B. Möllhausen, W. P. Blake, and Charles Koppel. The artist of the northern survey route, John M. Stanley, deserves more than mere mention for at least two reasons: he is represented by more plates than any other artist employed in any of the surveys, and no early Western artist had more intimate knowledge by personal experience of the American West than did Stanley.