Iron Horses Over the Ruts

The end of the wagon train on the Oregon Trail

There was clearly a need to explore the West more fully. There was just as clearly a need for a transcontinental railroad system.

While American emigrants were traveling the Oregon Trail, American soldiers were fighting a war with Mexico. Lessons learned from that war would lead to the end of the Oregon Trail as a major migration route. In November of 1845, while Sam Barlow was seeking permission from Oregon’s Provisional Government to build his toll road, America was attempting to purchase California and New Mexico but being rebuffed by the Mexican government.

On May 12, 1846, while the Donner Party was still in Kansas, Congress declared war against Mexico. In September of 1846, while the Donner Party was approaching their fate in the high Sierras, General Zachary Taylor was capturing Monterey. A year later, while the Mormons were founding Salt Lake City, General Winfield Scott was capturing Mexico City. On February 2, 1848, less than two weeks after gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, the Treaty of Guadaloupe Hidalgo was signed, officially ending the war.

The army learned two valuable lessons from the war: first, there was clearly a need to explore the West more fully; second, there was just as clearly a need for a transcontinental railroad system, if for no other reason than to ensure the swift transportation of troops across the vast American West.

In 1853, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis ordered Colonel John James Abert of the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers to make a series of explorations to determine viable transcontinental railroad routes. Six survey teams crossed the United States that year, and each surveyor proclaimed his route to be the best. Davis, a southerner and the future leader of the Confederate States of America, favored a southern route.

Isaac I. Stephens, already named the first Governor of the new Washington Territory, and Captain George B. McClellan, future Civil War general and presidential candidate, surveyed between the 47th and 49th parallels. They went from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Puget Sound, where Stephens took over as governor.

Lieutenant John Gunnison worked along the 38th parallel from Fort Leavenworth to the Rockies. In the Great Basin, he was killed in a skirmish with the Ute Indians and replaced by Lt. Edward G. Beckwith.

Lieutenant Amiel Whipple surveyed the 35th parallel from Fort Smith, Arkansas, to Santa Fe and then on to Los Angeles.

Lieutenants John Park and John Pope surveyed from Texas to San Diego along the 32nd parallel. They started at opposite ends and met in the middle. Lieutenant Park then went on to survey a route to San Francisco while another Army lieutenant, Henry L. Abbott, scouted the terrain from Fort Vancouver to California and back again. He surveyed two possible routes, one in the Willamette Valley and the other east of the Cascades.

Before the Civil War, no railroad company wanted to take on the cost of building a transcontinental railroad. During the war the federal government decided to back five companies: the Union Pacific; the Central Pacific; the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe; and later the Southern Pacific and Northern Pacific. The Pacific Railroad Bill was signed into law on July 1, 1862, and the rush was on.

Subsidies of public money and land were needed to make the effort desirable to the railroads: for every mile of track laid, the companies got a square mile of public land to sell to future settlers. Federal and state governments gave away 170 million acres in this manner. This massive influx of wealth was the beginning of the fortunes of the great railroad tycoons of the era, such as Leland Stanford and Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Omaha was the eastern terminus of the Union Pacific, which was building westward across the plains. James Evans, working for Col. Grenville Dodge, discovered Evans Pass in 1866. As the UP moved westward, paralleling the Oregon and California Trails, the new terminals became jumping off spots for both the overlanders and stagecoach lines.

Sacramento was the western terminus of the Central Pacific, which was building eastward through the mountains. The CP initially enjoyed rapid progress, but construction soon bogged down at the edge of the Sierras. Most of the men had left to search for gold or silver, and the terrain made for extremely tough going. Charles Crocker of the Central Pacific decided to try an experiment, and one day in February, 1865, fifty Chinese workers arrived on a flatcar. They worked twelve hours that same day without complaint. Crocker immediately sent for more Chinese, and 3000 Chinese laborers pushed the CP through the mountains.

The Chinese took jobs no one else wanted, and hundreds died as a result: they hung over cliffs from ropes to tap holes in the rock; they inserted dynamite and were lucky to clear the explosion on their way back up; they used the new liquid explosive nitroglycerin when others balked. Surviving on a diet of oysters and vegetables rather than red meat and whiskey, they did not take sick working at high altitude.

The photograph of the golden spike ceremony on May 10, 1869, at Promontory, Utah, has plenty of Irishmen, Civil War veterans, and tycoons, but no Chinese are to be seen. Legend has it that as the last rail was being carried in someone yelled to the photographers, “Take a shot!” The Chinese dropped the rail and ran.

It took another fifteen years before the state of Oregon had its first direct rail links to the rest of the country. The Oregon & California Railroad built south to Sacramento, and despite its name, the Oregon Short Line made a connection to the Union Pacific main line at Granger, Wyoming. It was now possible for an emigrant from the Midwest or the East Coast to board a train at Omaha and travel in relative comfort and safety all the way to the Willamette Valley. The Oregon Trail was obsolete.