Railroad Surveys, Government

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RAILROAD SURVEYS, GOVERNMENT. Interest in a railroad to the Pacific coast became keen and widespread after the territorial expansion resulting from the Mexican cession of 1848. The question of the best route became the subject of a great deal of discussion, especially since each state along the Mississippi and most midwestern cities evinced an interest in the selection.

In 1853 Congress added the sum of $150,000 to an army appropriation bill to defray the expenses of surveying feasible routes to the Pacific. Under the direction of Jefferson Davis, secretary of war, five routes were surveyed. The northernmost survey ran from Saint Paul to the mouth of the Columbia River. A party under Lt. E. G. Beckwith secured data for a route generally along the emigrant trail to California. Capt. John W. Gunnison surveyed a difficult route between the thirty-eighth and thirty-ninth parallels. Lt. Amiel W. Whipple conducted a survey following the thirty-fifth parallel from Fort Smith, in western Arkansas, to Los Angeles. Finally, parties under Capt. John Pope, Lt. John G. Parke, and others explored a far southern route along the thirty-second parallel.

The survey reports, later published in copiously illustrated volumes, contributed greatly to geographical and scientific knowledge concerning the Far West. But the surveys themselves did not bring agreement about a route. Davis championed the southernmost survey, but sectional rivalry was too great to permit the choice of a route until after the southern states had seceded from the Union. When the Pacific Railroad Bill was adopted in 1862, the central route from the western border of Iowa to the California-Nevada line was chosen for the construction of the transcontinental railroad.


Goetzmann, William H. Army Exploration in the American West. Austin: Texas State Historical Association 1991.

Wallace, Edward S. The Great Reconnaissance: Soldiers, Artists, and Scientists on the Frontier, 1848–1861. Boston: Little, Brown, 1955.

Dan E.Clark/f. h.

See alsoGadsden Purchase ; Land Grants: Land Grants for Railways ; Railroads ; Transcontinental Railroad, Building of ; Western Exploration .