Although John Stevens in 1823 had been the first to project a system of interstate railroads that connected the Atlantic seaboard with the trans-Appalachian hinterlands in order to maintain Philadelphia’s national economic hegemony, it did not take long for business leaders from the other Atlantic ports, especially once the impact of the Erie Canal had been fully digested, to follow-up with their own proposals. Following the chartering of the South Carolina Canal & Railroad, Stephen Elliott, the president of Charleston’s South Carolina State Bank had proposed in 1828 that its route be extended to the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers (there would not be a chartered settlement at this location until 1836 that would then be named Cairo, IL) in an attempt to divert from New Orleans the agricultural products beginning to come from the burgeoning West in order to make Charleston the major Atlantic port. In the following year, 1829, New Yorker William C. Redfield also made a proposal to build an interstate railroad from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River in a pamphlet he later titled Sketch of the Geographical Rout [sic] of a Great Railway by Which It Is Proposed to Connect the Canals and navigable Waters of New-York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, and the Adjacent States and Territories:
“A Great Railway by which it is proposed to connect the canals and navigable waters of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, and the adjacent States and Territories, opening thereby a Free Communication between the Atlantic States and the Great Valleys of the Mississippi… This great plateau will, indeed, some day be intersected by thousands of railroad communications, and so rapid will be the increase of its population and resources that many persons now living will probably see most or all of this accomplished.”
Redfield’s planned route from New York City went first to Buffalo (to link with the Great Lakes) and then hugged the southern shore of Lake Erie until it broke straight west along the 42nd parallel through Northern Indiana to the mouth of the Calumet River at the southern-most tip of Lake Michigan. From there it logically headed west through Illinois to Fort Armstrong on Rock Island, a location that suggested bridging the Mississippi because the span to do so at this point was one of the shorter distances along the length of the river due to the position of the island in the river.
Interestingly, the Federal government at this time had just begun to use the loophole it had written into the 1804 Treaty of St. Louis by selling “its Land” north of the Indian Boundary line to private owners. This opened the way to remove the remaining Natives from the land east of the Mississippi in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. Therefore, Rock Island, located at the center of approximately 1,200 miles of navigable waterways throughout the growing NorthWest, seemed to be an appropriate termination for Redfield’s Great Railroad. When Redfield had surveyed the route in 1829, there was no Chicago to the north of the Calumet River to warp his westward route inefficiently to the north. (Inspired by Redfield’s proposal and Jervis’ completion of the Mohawk & Hudson in 1831, a series of ten railroads would be constructed between 1831 and 1842 that linked Albany to Buffalo, essentially paralleling the Erie Canal, that would eventually be merged in 1853 into one company, the New York Central Railroad.)
In February 6, 1832, the Ann Arbor (MI) Emigrant published an article (probably written by its publisher, Judge S. W. Dexter) in which the author proposed to extend Redfield’s interstate route (including Redfield’s bypassing the mouth of the Chicago River) into a full-fledged transcontinental railroad to the Pacific Coast (that would be the actual route used by the Union Pacific some thirty years in the future):
“The distance between New York and Oregon is about three thousand miles. From New York we would pursue the most convenient route to the vicinity of Lake Erie, thence along the south shore of this lake and of Lake Michigan, cross the Mississippi between forty-one and forty-two of the north latitude, cross the Missouri about the mouth of the Platte, and thence to the Rocky Mountains, near the source of the last named river, thence to Oregon, by the valley of the south branch of that stream, called the southern branch of Lewis’ River.”
This was written three months before Capt. Bonneville struck out from Independence, MO, hoping to blaze what would becalled the Oregon Trail. Another claimant to being the first to propose a transcontinental railroad was Dr. Hartwell Carver of Rochester, NY, who submitted a similar proposal to Congress for such a road later in 1832.
Anderson, Frederick K., Joined By a River: Quad Cities, Rock Island, 1982
Harlow, Alvin F. The Road of the Century. New York: Creative Age Press, 1947.
Williams, John Hoyt. A Great and Shining Road-The Epic Story of the Transcontinental Railroad. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
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