Modern history

The Kansas prairie was largely treeless and trodden mostly by Plains Indians and vanishing buffalo herds when the Union Pacific, Eastern Division, pushed west of Hayes, Kansas; the date is October 19, 1867. (Kansas State Historical Society, Alexander Gardner photo)

Part I

Opening Gambits


If the section of which I am a citizen has the best route, I ask who that looks to the interest of the country has a right to deny to it the road? If it has not, let it go where nature says it should be made.



Lines upon the Map

The wind makes a mournful moan as it roars through the canyons and arroyos of West Texas. But on the afternoon of September 28, 1858, a new sound pierced the air. The tinny call of a bugle announced the impending arrival of the first westbound Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach at the Pinery Station near the crest of 5,534-foot Guadalupe Pass.

Eighteen months earlier, Congress had authorized the postmaster general to establish regular overland mail service between San Francisco and the Mississippi River. When bids were opened, the route was awarded to John Butterfield for the then staggering sum of $600,000 per year. The New York Times promptly termed the entire enterprise a waste of government money.

Butterfield’s contract required twice-weekly service and a transcontinental schedule of twenty-five days or less. The 2,795-mile route converged from St. Louis and Memphis at Fort Smith, Arkansas, and then dipped south across Texas, the Gila River country, and Southern California before swinging north to San Francisco. The Pinery was but one of 141 stations that Butterfield initially constructed to accommodate the numerous horses, mules, stagecoaches, and men required to put the line into operation.

When the coach creaked to a halt at the Pinery that September day, a sole passenger alighted and brushed the alkali dust from his clothes. If the station workers eyed him as an eastern dude, they were right. His name was Waterman Lily Ormsby III, and he was a twenty-three-year-old special correspondent for the New York Herald. He had been enticed west by John Butterfield to record the glories of transcontinental mail service. Butterfield himself had elected to depart the inaugural run at Fort Smith.

While four fresh mules were attached to the coach, Ormsby wolfed down a hasty meal of venison and baked beans. Then the young newsman climbed back inside. The driver and conductor remounted their swaying perch, and with a flick of the reins they bounced westward across Guadalupe Pass.

That evening, as Ormsby’s coach descended the pass, there was a commotion on the trail ahead. The first eastbound coach from San Francisco came into sight and pulled to a stop alongside its westbound twin. After historic pleasantries, both drivers urged their teams forward in their respective directions at speeds averaging five miles an hour.1

Brief though it was, this encounter proved that the American coasts had been joined—however tenuously—and the neophyte Butterfield Overland Mail unleashed a huge national appetite for transcontinental connections. Whether by stagecoach, Pony Express, or iron rails, this obsession with bridging the continent would consume the American nation for the next century.

Only a half century before John Butterfield’s enterprise, the American West was largely unmapped. Native Americans in much of the region lived a seminomadic lifestyle with fluid territorial boundaries. These changed over the years with intertribal warfare and pressures stirred by newcomers chased out of their indigenous homelands east of the Mississippi.

By the 1820s, the rivers flowing eastward from the Rocky Mountains had become trails into their midst. Mountain men trapping beaver were followed by traders—the risk-taking entrepreneurs of their day—who forced groaning wagons loaded with goods along the river valleys. Among the earliest and most famous of these routes was the Santa Fe Trail linking Independence, Missouri, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

But as the Santa Fe trade swelled during the 1830s, the problem in the eyes of many Americans was that Santa Fe and the entire Southwest, from California to Texas, belonged to Mexico. Once the Republic of Texas was born in 1836, this decidedly American presence looked covetously at Santa Fe and the land beyond.

The tide of American expansionism running westward along the Santa Fe Trail soon exploded under the banner of Manifest Destiny. When the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, the Mexican provinces of Upper California and New Mexico—essentially, the future American states of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and more than half of Colorado—belonged to the United States.

Some thought the new territory quite worthless. Others who had been in the vanguard to Santa Fe or lusted in a similar vein for California knew better. Now the race to build an empire here would not be between Americans and Mexicans but among Americans themselves.

Mountain men and traders found the routes into the Rockies, but it was a succession of military topographers who put those routes down on paper as lines upon the map of the West. It did not take long for visionaries to see those lines as logical extensions of the railroads that were beginning to extend their spidery webs about the East.

To show the importance the federal government placed on such mapping, the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers was established in 1838 and put on equal footing with the army’s other departments. Its first major project was the survey of the new border between the United States and Mexico after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War. The man who knew this country as well as anyone was Major William H. Emory, who had ridden west as a topographical engineer at the war’s outbreak.

Even then, Emory was thinking far ahead. “The road from Santa Fe to Fort Leavenworth [Kansas],” Emory reported, “presents few obstacles for a railway, and if it continues as good to the Pacific, will be one of the routes to be considered over which the United States will pass immense quantities of merchandise into what may become, in time, the rich and populous states of Sonora, Durango, and Southern California.”2

Reaching California, Emory confirmed that as a transportation corridor, the route west from Santa Fe did indeed “continue as good to the Pacific.” His resulting map of the Southwest showed a moderate, all-weather railroad route linking the Great Plains and Southern California along the still-nebulous U.S.-Mexican border.

Such a railroad was deemed by many to be essential to holding on to the fruits of the recent war. “The consequences of such a road are immense,” Colonel John J. Abert, the taciturn, no-nonsense chief of the Topographical Engineers, asserted. “Unless some easy, cheap, and rapid means of communicating with these distant provinces be accomplished, there is danger, great danger, that they will not constitute parts of our Union.”3

But as the boundary survey neared completion, Emory and certain southern politicians argued that the most promising railroad route to California lay along the 32nd parallel—decidedly south of the proposed international border. One of the southern politicians who held that view was among Emory’s closest friends, both from their family connections and from their days together at West Point. His name was Jefferson Davis.

In 1845 Davis had won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat from Mississippi. When war with Mexico broke out, he resigned from Congress and accepted command of a regiment of Mississippi volunteers. Davis returned wounded but a hero and was appointed to a vacancy in the United States Senate. But Davis supported states’ rights so staunchly that he soon tendered another resignation and returned to Mississippi to run unsuccessfully for governor as a States Rights Democrat.

When Democrat Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire won the presidency in 1852, he appointed Davis his secretary of war in an effort to balance his cabinet geographically and reunite the Democratic Party politically. As secretary of war, Davis was immediately involved in two controversies: remedying the geographic deficiencies of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and surveying routes for a transcontinental railroad.

Driven by proponents of Emory’s recommended railroad route along the 32nd parallel, U.S. ambassador to Mexico James Gadsden succeeded in purchasing from Mexico the southwestern corner of New Mexico and the southern watershed of the Gila River in what is now southern Arizona. The Gadsden Purchase stoked political controversies on both sides of the border, but at least it was a decisive event. The railroad surveys would prove to be an entirely different matter.

Even before the dust of the Mexican-American War settled, railroad conventions with all the best chamber-of-commerce trappings had been held in key cities up and down the Mississippi Valley. Each would-be metropolis espoused itself the only logical choice for the eastern terminus of a transcontinental railroad. In reality, the competition among Mississippi Valley locales was already round three of America’s railroad sweepstakes.

When the iron horse was new in the 1830s, the East Coast cities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, and Savannah competed to become the first railroad hubs. In the 1840s, with railroad technology here to stay, the inland cities west of the Appalachian Mountains—Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Wheeling, Cincinnati, Chicago, Detroit, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Atlanta—lobbied hard to become the next hubs in the spreading web of steel. By the 1850s, it was the would-be Mississippi Valley hubs of Minneapolis, Davenport, St. Louis, Cairo (Illinois), Memphis, Vicksburg, Natchez, and New Orleans that all wanted to sit astride railroads leading still farther west.4

Each city and corresponding geographic route had its particular political champion. Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois liked the idea of the Great Lakes as an eastern terminal and wanted the rail line to run west from Chicago to Davenport, Council Bluffs, and across the plains to Wyoming’s South Pass. The Memphis Railroad Convention of October 1849 wholeheartedly declared its support for a route from that city west across Arkansas and Texas. A Missouri faction led by Congressman John S. Phelps wanted Springfield in the southwestern part of that state as the gateway to a route that would run west across Indian Territory to Santa Fe.

St. Louis interests were well represented by Senator Thomas Hart Benton, who for decades had trumpeted Missouri as the logical gateway to the West via the central Rockies. The St. Louis Railroad Convention heard the indomitable Benton urge Congress to build a western railroad and do so in order to have “the Bay of San Francisco at one end, St. Louis in the middle, and the national metropolis and great commercial emporium at the other end.”5 And on it went.

With such hometown boosterism and concomitant sectional rivalries, it was little wonder that a national railroad bill got nowhere in the United States Congress. This was despite the presumption—often rebutted in antebellum days—that national interest should come first in such matters. Part of the reason for the strong sectional rivalries that attached themselves to the vigorous debate about a transcontinental route was that even the most visionary assumed there would be only one western railroad—one railroad that would make or break the geographic section it embraced or bypassed.

So when after lengthy debate Congress finally passed the Pacific Railroad Survey Act on March 2, 1853, it was not to designate one grand railroad to the Pacific but to authorize extensive explorations along the contested routes. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis was charged with ordering army expeditions into the field and completing the gargantuan task within eleven months.6

By looking at the routes through the eyes of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, Congress hoped—as did Davis—that one route would emerge with qualities so apparent as to stifle sectional rivalries. Thus, the surveys “promised to substitute the impartial judgment of science for the passions of the politicos and the promoters.”7

The great equalizer in this impartial judgment was to be grade, the yardstick by which all railroad routes are ultimately measured. Grade is a critical limiting factor in railroad operations because locomotives simply stagger to a halt if they are unable to pull their load up a particular incline. The lower the grade, the more efficiently loads can be moved along it. Consequently, finding the most direct route with the lowest possible grade was the key to building a competitive railroad.8

Jefferson Davis couldn’t be sure, but based on everything that William Emory had already reported, there was an excellent chance that their favored southern route would outshine them all. Davis promptly tapped Emory to oversee the surveys. Given the unrealistic timetable and the vast terrain to be covered, these efforts became general reconnaissance surveys rather than mile-by-mile grade surveys. Still, by the standards of the day, they were costly undertakings. Congress appropriated an initial $150,000, added $40,000 a year later, and then put another $150,000 on the table to complete the work and publish the reports.9

Emory saw to it that in addition to army topographers and engineers, each contingent included a wide array of scientists: anthropologists, botanists, cartographers, geographers, geologists, meteorologists, paleontologists, and zoologists, as well as illustrators and artists. “Not since Napoleon had taken his company of savants into Egypt,” historian William H. Goetzmann later observed, “had the world seen such an assemblage of scientists and technicians marshaled under one banner.”10

Initially, four parties were dispatched along specific parallels of latitude: the northern route between the 47th and 49th parallels leading west from St. Paul, Minnesota, to the upper Missouri; a south-central route up the Arkansas River through the central Rockies to the Great Salt Lake along the 38th parallel; the 35th parallel route from Fort Smith, Arkansas, to Albuquerque, northern Arizona, and California; and investigations in California for passes through the Sierras between the 32nd and 35th parallels.

There were two obvious omissions. No work was ordered on Stephen Douglas’s proposed north-central line from Council Bluffs to South Pass or on Davis and Emory’s favored line along the 32nd parallel. In the final report of the surveys, Davis himself brushed off the absence of work on the South Pass route and merely referenced the earlier reports of surveyors John C. Frémont and Howard Stansbury through that general vicinity.11

As to the southern route, perhaps Davis thought that Emory’s work had already identified the merits of the 32nd parallel. Perhaps he simply delayed sending a contingent to this area while negotiations for the Gadsden Purchase were under way. Davis may even have wanted to demonstrate some measure of sectional impartiality by dispatching the northern expeditions first. Whatever the reasons, it was October 1853 before Davis ordered a two-prong look at the 32nd parallel. So, amidst the politics, the parties took to the field in the summer of 1853 to see if science could declare a sure winner in the transcontinental sweepstakes.

• • •

If there was any survey commander apt to be overly biased in favor of his appointed route, it was Isaac I. Stevens, formerly an officer in the Corps of Engineers but now, thanks to political connections with President Pierce, the freshly appointed governor of newly created Washington Territory. Stevens was charged with examining the northern route and ultimately linking the watersheds of the Missouri and Columbia rivers. While the governor’s main party moved westward from St. Paul across Minnesota, the Dakota plains, and the headwaters of the Missouri, a detachment under Captain George B. McClellan probed the Cascade Mountains at the western end of the route.

Following in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, Stevens located possible passes across the Continental Divide and then met up with McClellan’s troops in the Bitterroot Valley south of what would later become Missoula, Montana. Young McClellan, who would go on to frustrate Abraham Lincoln as his dilatory commander of the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War, showed his lifelong disposition to glory without risk when he decidedly overestimated the snow depth on passes through the Cascades and twice refused to cross them. Civilian engineers subsequently made the trips without incident.12

Stevens’s command numbered more than two hundred and was by far the largest of the parallel surveys. And, as might have been expected, given his political appointment, the governor’s report was the most enthusiastic. When it came to reporting any negatives, Stevens was decidedly understated if not outright misleading. The new governor went so far as to assert that the snow here “would not present the slightest impediment to the passage of railroad trains.”13

In the end, this unbridled boosterism hurt the credibility of the Stevens survey, and many agreed with the expedition naturalist George Suckley, who noted, “the Governor is a very ambitious man and knows very well that his political fortunes are wrapped up in the success of the railroad making its Pacific terminus in his own territory.”14 It would be a while before railroads followed the Stevens route to the Northwest.

Governor Stevens’s large entourage was definitely the exception and not the rule. Captain John W. Gunnison, an 1837 graduate of West Point and one of Colonel Abert’s topographical engineers, led a company west along the 38th parallel that numbered several dozen men, among them Lieutenant E. G. Beckwith and civilian artist R. H. Kern.

This was the south-central route so ardently championed by Thomas Hart Benton and the one upon which Benton’s son-in-law, John C. Frémont, had already met with disaster when his party got lost in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado in the winter of 1848–49. Gunnison’s key goal was to find a railroad pass through or around the San Juans in the vicinity of Frémont’s wintry ordeal.

Gunnison was no stranger to the West. In 1849 he had accompanied Captain Howard Stansbury along the Platte River trails from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Bridger in the western reaches of Wyoming. Stansbury was under orders to survey the area between Fort Bridger and the Great Salt Lake, giving particular emphasis to the gold rush trails leading westward across the Great Basin to California.

On their return east the next year, Stansbury and Gunnison struck a beeline across southern Wyoming, well south of their outbound trace along the established trails over South Pass. In the process, they crossed the wide open flats of the Great Divide Desert, snaked between the Laramie and Medicine Bow mountains, and emerged on the high plains near the upper reaches of Lodgepole Creek, a tributary of the South Platte.

Stansbury and Gunnison didn’t know it at the time, but in extensively mapping the Great Salt Lake Basin and investigating a transportation corridor directly eastward from there, they had done on a small scale what the topographical engineers would soon be ordered to do throughout the West.15

In 1853 Captain Gunnison was supervising harbor improvements in Milwaukee when he received orders to head west again. He led his men from Fort Leavenworth and up the Arkansas River, eventually crossing Sangre de Cristo Pass into Colorado’s San Luis Valley. The view from the crest of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains made it clear that any route directly west led into the labyrinth of the San Juan Mountains. Frémont had already been there and floundered.

Instead Gunnison and his party followed a Ute Indian trail that ran toward the low hills between the northern end of the San Juans and the high points of Mount Antora and Mount Ouray. At first it seemed too good to be true. The approach “by the Sahwatch creek,” noted the expedition report, “opens very favorably for the construction of a railroad.” The gentle grades continued, and the column crossed the Continental Divide atop 10,032-foot Cochetopa Pass, said to mean “pass of the buffalo” in Ute. But the ease of this crossing on September 2, 1853, was deceptive of the terrain that lay ahead.16

From Cochetopa Pass, the route led down the river that would soon bear Gunnison’s name. When the river disappeared into a deep and dark canyon—“Black Canyon” would be an apt description—the party crossed the Blue Mesa and Cerro Summit divides and descended into the arid Uncompahgre Valley.

By now Gunnison had his doubts about the feasibility of a railroad through such terrain. “For a railroad route,” Gunnison wrote of his course through central Colorado, “it is far inferior to the Middle Central [route] by Medicine Bow River and the Laramie plains” and would require an “enormous expense” of tunneling, bridging, and spanning gullies. So skeptical did Gunnison become of the Colorado route that he noted it would have been “a waste of labor to add even a crude estimate of the cost of so impracticable an undertaking.”17

But an even deadlier blow than Gunnison’s frank assessment struck Benton’s 38th parallel dream as the Gunnison party crossed the deserts of Utah. Early on the morning of October 26, in the valley of the Sevier River, Paiute Indians, who had recently been victimized by a California-bound wagon train, attacked the survey party. Gunnison, Kern, and six others were killed.

Lieutenant Beckwith did an admirable job of salvaging the expedition, but the tragedy overshadowed its results. After wintering in Salt Lake City, Beckwith surveyed passes through the Wasatch Mountains to the Wyoming plains, tying into the route that Stansbury and Gunnison had taken east in 1850. Then Beckwith continued westward across the Great Basin along the 41st parallel all the way to California.

Combining this route with Stansbury and Gunnison’s earlier reconnaissance across southern Wyoming and comparing it to the eventual route of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads shows Beckwith to be about as prescient as anyone could possibly be. His achievement, however, caused little stir at the time.

For one thing, the expedition’s star topographer, Captain Gunnison, lay dead. For another, the strongest proponent of the 38th parallel route, Thomas Hart Benton, was not pleased that the party detailed to confirm his choice should end up espousing a route so far north. Finally, Beckwith was an artilleryman with little topographic training, and he did not include construction cost estimates in his final report because Gunnison himself had questioned their worth.

So with Gunnison’s own words damning the Cochetopa Pass–38th parallel route through Colorado, and with Beckwith lacking the political and scientific clout to champion the southern Wyoming–41st parallel route, this survey, too, failed to rise above the others.18

Command of the third major survey—the 35th parallel between Fort Smith and California via Albuquerque and the pueblos of the Zuni Indians—was given to another topographical engineer, Lieutenant Amiel W. Whipple. Initially this route may have been more important politically than it was geographically. If the topography of this route proved at all acceptable, it might offer the perfect political compromise between north and south.

The 35th parallel route was far enough south that the various southern interests championing Springfield (Missouri), Memphis, Vicksburg, and New Orleans might be willing to rally behind it. Stephen Douglas and the Chicago crowd might be placated because the Illinois Central Railroad running from Chicago to points south would likely connect with any eastern terminus as a north-south feeder line. Senator Benton would grumble and thunder, of course, but even he would find it preferable to a more northerly route than the one he advocated. What might convince supporters of the extreme northern route to support it was evidence that Governor Stevens’s assessment of snow conditions in the Northern Rockies and Cascades was overly optimistic.

So Lieutenant Whipple’s party traipsed west from Fort Smith, Arkansas, in July 1853, staffed with the normal contingent of surveyors and scientists. The initial leg between Fort Smith and Albuquerque along the Canadian River was by now both well known and well traveled as a southern alternative to the Santa Fe Trail. The real questions lay west of Albuquerque.

Joined by an additional escort commanded by Lieutenant Joseph C. Ives, the combined party marched west from Albuquerque and then picked its way along the Little Colorado River, across a divide south of the San Francisco Peaks, and down the Bill Williams River to the main Colorado River. It was a route that steered well clear of the yawning Grand Canyon a short distance to the north.

From the mouth of the Bill Williams River, Whipple turned north and crossed the Colorado near spindly rock pinnacles called “the Needles.” Then the column struck west across the Mojave Desert and eventually came upon the Old Spanish Trail, which it followed south across Cajon Pass. Lieutenant Robert S. Williamson had already scouted Cajon Pass as part of his survey work in California and pronounced it difficult for a railroad. Whipple concurred, but overall he was quite pleased with the 35th parallel route.

Compared to the overt boosterism of Governor Stevens for the northern route and Captain Gunnison’s decided disdain for the central Colorado Rockies, Whipple’s report was well balanced. Recognizing that a more detailed analysis of his findings was required, even Whipple, however, could not refrain from being caught up in the excitement of a possible railroad.

“There is no doubt remaining,” he concluded, “that, for the construction of a railway, the route we have passed over is not only practicable, but, in many respects, eminently advantageous.” The main drawback seemed to be Whipple’s highly inflated cost estimate: a whopping $169 million, almost double later revised numbers.19

That left Jefferson Davis’s and William Emory’s first love: the southern route along the 32nd parallel. For reasons already mentioned, Davis was slow in commanding a more detailed look at this terrain. With time running out in the fall of 1853, he divided the task between two parties. The western half fell to Lieutenant John G. Parke, who had been assisting Lieutenant Williamson in scouting California passes.

Receiving his orders a few days before Christmas 1853, Parke led fifty-eight men east to survey the southern tributaries of the Gila River. In general, Parke stayed well south of the main river and passed through Tucson and the Chiricahua Mountains—American territory subsequent to the signing of the Gadsden Purchase treaty.

By the time Parke reached the Rio Grande, he confirmed Emory’s first impression of this pathway and reported generally gentle terrain without the rigors of high mountain passes or steep grades. The major drawbacks to the route were a lack of timber for construction and water for operating thirsty steam locomotives. Parke recommended that experiments to drill artesian wells be commenced immediately.20

The eastern half of the southern route was left to Kentuckian John Pope. Leaving the Rio Grande near present-day Las Cruces, New Mexico, on February 12, 1854, Pope’s first order of exploration was to find a suitable pass through the Guadalupe Mountains. Two and a half weeks later, the terrain became rocky as the route wound up a narrow canyon. But Guadalupe Pass proved short, and “from the summit, the view over the surrounding country was at once grand and picturesque—the southern peak of the Guadalupe [El Capitan] towering majestically above all.” By nightfall, Pope and his men were encamped at a green oasis they called “the Pinery,” thankful that there was “an abundance of everything requisite for camping at this place.”21

East of the Guadalupes, Pope kept to the southern edge of the vast mesas of the Llano Estacado and made for the Red River, some 50 miles north of the hamlet of Dallas. Pope found conditions similar to those in the western section. The grades were quite manageable. The arid plains would have to be tapped with artesian wells, but the climate was milder and less fickle than along the northern routes.

Perhaps because he understood the political benefits of Lieutenant Whipple’s 35th parallel route, Pope noted that an eastern terminus of the 32nd parallel route at Fulton, Arkansas (in the extreme southwest corner of the state), might just as easily satisfy the various interests of Cairo, Memphis, Vicksburg, and New Orleans.22

Indeed, the only major drawback to the southern route came from the work that Lieutenant Williamson conducted in California. It seemed that there was no easy direct route between Yuma, at the mouth of the Gila on the Colorado River, and the port of San Diego. This meant that the California portion of the southern line might end up running along Lieutenant Whipple’s Mojave route and thus make sleepy Los Angeles its western terminus rather than San Diego.

So what had the surveys accomplished? Their stated goal had been to find the most practical and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean. Despite all that was learned about the western landscape, science did not provide one clear and overriding choice of railroad route. Because it did not—perhaps could not—the issue of a western railroad was thrown back into the cauldron of sectional rivalries that was slowly coming to a boil. Before steel rails were laid far west of the Mississippi, there would be war.

One of the few who might have stopped it—or at least removed the transcontinental railroad question from the list of fractious issues—was Jefferson Davis. With New Englander Franklin Pierce as his presidential ally, might Davis have been able to broker a compromise that joined his fellow southerners with Stephen Douglas’s Illinois interests in support of the 35th parallel route?

It is an intriguing question. In 1858, when once more a senator from Mississippi, Davis appears to have eschewed the sectional politics of the issue, although by then it was too late. “In Congress, with all due respect to my associates,” Davis told the Senate, “I must say the location of this road will be a political question. It should be a question of engineering, a commercial question, a governmental question—not a question of partisan advantage, or of sectional success in a struggle between parties and sections.”

Congress’s attempting to fix a route, Davis argued, “revives political dissensions and sectional warfare, of which, we surely have enough on other questions. If the section of which I am a citizen has the best route, I ask who that looks to the interest of the country has a right to deny to it the road? If it has not, let it go where nature says it should be made.”23

The results of the surveys were initially published in 1855 in a three-volume summary and then in a complete report of thirteen volumes. Save for the deceased Captain Gunnison, the major participants were all strong advocates for their own routes. Turned loose to resolve a political debate, the topographers and scientists of the surveys fanned it further with their individual enthusiasms. But they put the lines down upon the map of the West, and in time, transcontinental railroads would be built along them.

And despite its inability to agree on one railroad route to the Pacific, Congress took a significant step toward tying together the country’s far-flung coasts when it authorized regular overland mail service. The highest of the stations that winning bidder John Butterfield built to operate the line was at the Pinery—the desert oasis that John Pope’s men found so inviting beneath the sentinel of Guadalupe Peak. John Butterfield, however, was not the only one looking to span the continent.

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