While Chicago, as did the rest of the country, suffered through Tyler’s four years in the White House (1841-5), Martin Van Buren and his political machine (of which Ogden was the leader of the Chicago faction), ever since his defeat by Harrison in his reelection bid in 1840, had been planning his political resurrection in the 1844 Presidential election. (He had visited Chicago, the first President to have done so, and had given a lengthy speech on July 3, 1842.)  Meanwhile, Pres. Tyler’s ineffectual leadership had done little to improve the national economy and so Van Buren had opened the 1844 Democratic Convention as the favorite but was denied the nomination by Van Buren’s nemesis John C. Calhoun’s use of the Convention’s 2/3 majority voting rule that allowed the South to virtually control who would be the nominee.   A compromise between Van Buren and his chief opponent, Lewis Cass of Michigan, on the relatively unknown James K. Polk, the former governor of Tennessee and a protégée of Andrew Jackson, was hammered out in a gesture of party unity.  Meanwhile, the Whigs, having been completely disenchanted with Tyler, nominated Henry Clay, having misplayed his moment of glory in 1840, who lost to Polk in a tight election.  Polk was a disciplined, cagey, and ambitious politician, whose political skills were more than a match for Van Buren’s.  He was an unabashed nationalist expansionist who shared his mentor’s view of America’s “manifest destiny,” a phase coined following his election that is credited to John L. O’Sullivan, the editor of New York’s Democratic Review, that defined the country’s pursuit of one geographically contiuguous nation extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. 

Maps of U.S. in 1845 and 1846. (Online)

Polk pledged to serve only one term and had four personal objectives for his Presidency, that he shared with no one before the election:

1. To resolve the Oregon boundary issue,

2. To take as much of northern Mexico as possible, by force if necessary, in order to connect the southern U.S. with a contiguous land route to the Pacific Ocean,

3. To reduce the National Tariff, and

4. To reinstitute the independent Treasury System.

Of these four, the one that represented the most serious threat to Chicago’s long-term success was the President’s commitment to forging an overland route to the Pacific in which a southern transcontinental railroad could be constructed.


Before Polk was innaugurated, however, New York City dry-goods merchant Asa Whitney, on January 28, presented a memorial to Congress that proposed to build a railroad from Lake Michigan to the Pacific Ocean (similar to the route first proposed by Judge Dexter In Ann Arbor in 1832), and thus, in combination with the Great Lakes and Erie Canal, would link the contested Oregon country to the Atlantic Coast.  Whitney, who had made a trip to China in 1842-4 and had gained an appreciation for the importance of the China trade, was simply building upon Redfield’s and Dexter’s earlier visions of a railroad to the Pacific.  Whitney, a New Yorker, was interested, of course, in the most direct route from New York City to the Pacific Ocean, that had to be located within the only land that the U.S. had any formal claim to that touched the Pacific: the belt of land that stretched between the 49° border with British Canada and the 42° border with Mexico.  Because he was proposing to use the railroad to do so, however, he was not limited to following the NorthWest’s natural waterways that all converged on St. Louis for his route.  His northern route was shorter to Canton than the southern routes, and it also was believed to pass through vacant, fertile land that would entice farmers whose purchase of said lands would help to pay for its construction.  Therefore, because the South Pass is located some 200 miles north of St. Louis, Whitney had proposed an all-land route that started not in St. Louis, but at some point directly east of the South Pass on the western shore of Lake Michigan, headed directly westward to the South Pass, and then descended the Columbia River Valley to its mouth on the Pacific.

Asa Whitney, Proposed Railroad to the Pacific via the South Pass. Whitney understood that the railroad was not dependent of the rivers so it could be built due west from Lake Michigan in a straight line, the shortest route, and thereby completely bypassing St. Louis. This is 1845 and Galena was planning a railroad to Chicago seen here. This map shows Whitney’s route starting in Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers. (Online)

Whitney had also shrewdly coupled the economic advantage of his man-made short-cut to the Pacific with the military realities of the day: namely, the Oregon question with respect to concerns about the British in the Pacific Northwest (the Oregon treaty was not approved until June 18 of the following year), as well as the mounting tensions in the Southwest with Mexico (Pres. Polk would not declare war on Mexico until May 13 of the following year). In order to finance the railroad’s construction, Whitney requested that Congress authorize a landgrant of a 60-mile wide strip of land along the proposed route.  Following his presentation in Congress, he mounted a nationwide media campaign to promote and enlist support for his idea, in advance of the expedition he planned to lead to survey the eastern half of his proposed route.  

He left New York City on June 2, 1845, to start his westward trek at Milwaukee, whose harbor, being 100 miles closer to the tip of Lake Michigan than Chicago, at the time was still a serious competitor to Chicago’s.  Thus was launched what Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David M. Potter termed ”the Giant Lottery,” the contest among the cities along the trans-Mississippi Valley to become the central metropolis in the West by becoming the terminus of the railroads that would traverse the 3000 miles between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. 

Whitney, following Frémont’s example, sent back regular reports to keep politicians and potential investors interested.  It was an achievement in and of itself simply because it was over relatively uncharted lands, without the certainty of drinking water.  Upon reaching his objective, the Great Bend in the Missouri River, where the Kansas River empties into it, where Kansas City, MO and Kansas City, KS are located, he found it easier to return via water transport that returned him to St. Louis on September 19.  While Whitney’s proposed route for a transcontinental railroad along the 42nd parallel would serve the economic and political interests of New York City, Boston, and the Northern states bordering the Great Lakes, it would, however, do little for the cities and states in the country’s mid-section along the 39th parallel such as Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis, (that the builders of the Baltimore & Ohio were planning to ultimately connect with the construction of the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad) except to pose an economic threat to their current hegemony of the Westward movement of American settlement.  Whitney’s proposed railroad from Lake Michigan to the Pacific was a wake-up call to Benton, the Democratic leader in the Senate at this time who would constantly oppose Whitney’s proposals.


Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago, 3 vols. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Brown, Margaret L., “Asa Whitney and His Pacific Railraod Publicity Campaing,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, vol. 20. No. 2 (Sept. 1933

Galloway, John Debo. The First Transcontinental Railroad. New York: Simmons-Broadway, 1950.

Howe, Daniel Walker.  What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War: 1848-1861, New York: Harper & Row, 1973.

Williams, John Hoyt. A Great and Shining Road-The Epic Story of the Transcontinental Railroad. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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