As Whitney was preparing to depart on his survey to the Pacific, those who represented the interests of the South, led by South Carolina’s Sen. Calhoun also reacted to Whitney’s “northern” route by calling for a convention in Memphis that, like St. Louis, was also situated on the Mississippi River but some two hundred and eighty miles farther south, to discuss the necessary improvements along the Mississippi River needed to allow ocean vessels to sail as far upriver as Memphis, that would allow ocean vessels to sail inland from New Orleans to vie for the business of the emerging NorthWest, at the expense of the Northern Erie Canal-Great Lakes route.  Such an inland port would also reinforce the argument for Calhoun’s proposed transcontinental railroad through a southern route.  The Convention was originally scheduled in July 1845 as an attempt to preempt the publicity its planners assumed that Whitney’s successful return from the west would generate, but they simply did not have the time needed in the pre-railroad South to gather the region’s leaders with such short notice and were forced to postpone the convention until November 12, 1845.  Calhoun’s associate, James Gadsden, the President of the South Carilina Railroad, proceeded to take charge of the convention and proposed the construction of a railroad, in response to Whitney’s northern Pacific railroad, along a southern route that started in Texas and ended at San Diego.  (This was one of the few times that Southerners actually argued in favor of Federal funding of ”internal improvements,” for Southernerns tended to be strict constructionists and doubted that the Federal government had the Constitutional authority to finance internal improvements in the individual states.)  There was one, significant impediment to such a route in 1845, however; the land through which such a railroad would traverse, including San Diego, was in Mexico.  


The postponement of the Memphis Convention was all that Illinois’ freshman Democrat Rep. Stephen A. Douglas needed in order to beat the Southerners to the punch.  Douglas was a self-taught lawyer who had been born and raised in Vermont.  He had travelled the West in search of a state whose regulations pertaining to the bar were less stringent than those of New York where he had begun his law career, and eventually found the climate of the legal profession in central Illinois to his liking. A prodigy with a keen memory and a vocabulary to match, and gifted with the ability to use both in a debate, he had quickly gravitated to the life of a career machine politician within the Van Buren Democratic party in Illinois. Van Buren was inaugurated as the country’s eighth President on March 4, 1837, the same day that Chicago voters had approved the city’s new charter.  By the time of Chicago’s first mayoral election in May in which Ogden, a Van Buren Democrat, had been elected mayor, Van Buren had already appointed on March 9, 1837, Douglas as the Register of Federal Land Office in Springfield (that also enabled him to better supplement his income through real estate speculation).  As Ogden rose to power in Chicago, Douglas (at the age of 27) along with Sidney Breese, were appointed in 1841 as justices to the Illinois Supreme Court. Douglas then moved onto the national stage when he was elected by Ilinois’ Fifth District to the House of Representatives on August 7, 1843.  Douglas, who proudly stated that he was a “Western man,” was committed to manifest destiny, Western expansion and development, national unity, and, of course, to his constituents in Illinois.  

He seemed to have captured this national mood in a speech he delivered in the House on January 6, 1845, some three weeeks before Whitney had proposed his Pacific Railroad scheme, in which he had laid out his vision for the country:

“The application of steam power to transportation and travel has brought the remotest limits of this confederacy, now comprising of twenty-six states… much nearer to the centre than when they were but thirteen… Our federal system is admirably adapted to the whole continent;.. [I] would extend the limits of the republic from ocean to ocean.  I would make this an ocean-bound republic…”

But Whitney’s jumping-off point for the proposed railroad, Milwaukee, did not sit well with the Congressman from Illinois, who, like Henry Clay, understood that the potential of the new, emerging technologies of the telegraph and the railroad could be used in the noble cause of holding the Union together by providing better opportunities for communication and economic intercourse with the hope that through these a better mutual understanding of and respect between the country’s sections might result.  Douglas believed that a transcontinental railroad could bind not only his party, but also his country in the face of contemporary divisive Sectional issues.  Douglas showed no shyness in being the only member of Congress to formally respond to Whitney’s proposal with his own to build a railroad not from Milwaukee, but from Chicago.  He published an open letter to Whitney on October 15, 1845, just as construction began to resume on the Chicago canal:

“SIR, I have no doubt the time will come, when there will be a continuous line of rail roads from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  Indeed, several links in the chain are already in operation… From Portland [ME] to Buffalo, via Boston and Albany, the cars have been running for some time.  It is in contemplation to continue this line through Upper Canada, to Detroit, where it will connect with the Central Rail Road of Michigan, across the penisula, in the direction of Chicago…  It is confidently expected that this road will be continued westward, along the southern shore of Lake Erie, and the southern point of Lake Michigan, to Chicago, and thence to the Mississippi… In view of these facts, I am unable to comprehend the reasons which induce you to fix your starting point at Milwaukie [sic]… It will not do to rely solely upon the lakes as links in the chain, for their navigation will be interrupted by ice about four months in the year… For these reasons, the route must run around the head of Lake Michigan, or on a line further south… which may be traversed at all seasons of the year… The route from New York to the Mississippi, at or near St. Louis, by way of Baltimore, is worhty of consideration.  This line of rail roads has been in successful operation, for sometime, as far as Cumberland, MD, and Winchester, VA, with the expectation of its speedy extension to the Ohio river at Wheeling or Parkersburgh; thence to Cincinnati and St. Louis.”

The Route of Stephen Douglas’ Proposed Pacific Railroad, 1845. (Online)

He proceeded to lay out his vision for a transcontinental railroad from Chicago to the east bank of the Missouri River, across from its confluence with the Platte River (Ironically, this area had been known as Caldwell’s Camp since 1838 because Chicago’s own Billy Caldwell, or “Sauganash,” who died in 1841, had led the Potawatomi’s displaced from Chicago to this location in 1836 in their search for a new home.  The town’s name would be changed to Council Bluffs in 1852.) where Omaha would be founded on the river’s west bank in 1854 following the signing of the Missouri Compromise, and then up the Platte to the South Pass.  But rather than following Redfield’s route down the Columbia River, Douglas favored a route to Yuerba Buena’s harbor (its name would be changed by American troops to San Francisco in 1847) similar to the route Frémont had just published after his second expedition.  As was the case with the southern route to the Pacific of Calhoun and Gadsden, however, Douglas’ northern route suffered from the same minor geopolitical inconvenience, the land through which it was to traverse was also not complete within the territorial confines of the United States in 1845.


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

Johannsen, Robert W., The Letters of Stephen A. Douglas, Urbana: University of Illinois, 1961.

Johannsen, Robert W., Stephen A. Douglas, New York: Oxford, 1973.

Karamanski, Theodore J, Rally ‘Round the Flag: Chicago and the Civil War, Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1993.

Pierce, Bessie Louis. A History of Chicago- I. New York: Knopf.  1940.

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

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