7.12. THE GEOPOLITICS OF THE TRANSCONTINENTAL RAILROAD – PART 1

Map of the U.S., c. 1844. At this time there was no “Southern” landbridge to the Pacific Ocean: Mexico owned the land that was needed to build a Southern Transcontinental Railroad. (Online)

While the nation’s interest had been focused in 1846 and 1847 on the Mexican-American War, all discussions of the transcontinental railroad had, for all practical purposes, been pushed to the backburner.  One of the reasons behind Pres. Polk’s decision to go to war with Mexico had been to conquer as much of the Mexican provinces of Nuevo México and Alta California as possible to create a contiguous land route in the South through American-controlled land to the Pacific so that just such a route could be built.    The war would, indeed, result in the physical unification of the East with the West, but it would also cause the division of both political parties along North and South factions over the possible extension of slavery into the lands ceded by Mexico.  

The issue of whether this new land would be free of slavery or not had not been determined by the Missouri Compromise of 1820, that drew the line of demarcation between free and slave territory west of Missouri, that was admitted as a slave state, by extending the 36° 30’ line of Missouri’s southern border to the west, but this pertained only to lands within the boundaries of the Louisiana Territory.  This had left the status of slavery in the future states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California in limbo.  Once Polk’s duplicity over the resolution of the Oregon boundary became public, Pennsylvania’s Van Buren Democratic Congressman David Wilmot, unafraid to debate the slavery issue, had added a proviso to a war appropriation bill on August 8, 1846, that would have denied the extension of slavery to all territory that was anticipated to be ceded by Mexico.  

Map of the U.S., 1846, showing the impact of the Wilmot Proviso. (Online)

The Wilmot Proviso hardened the Sectional lines regarding slavery and, thereby, doomed any coordinated Federal attempt to build a transcontinental railroad until the start of the Civil War.  While the economic and demographic forces continued to reinforce the logic and need of such a connection between the East and West coasts, antebellum Sectional jealousies succeeded in thwarting competing plans to build such a federally subsidized route. Douglas would eventually achieve in linking the North and South with the construction of the Illinois Central Railroad, but an East/West route had to wait until the start of the Civil War finally broke the political logjam.  Instead of a centralized effort on the part of the Federal government to build a transcontinental route, what emerged in the U.S. as the economy rebounded during the late 1840s and early 1850s, was an epic laissez-faire struggle of continental proportions among local governments and private companies, straight out of Herbert Spenser’s contemporary theory of social Darwinism, with each entity trying to outwit the other in the placement of two parallel ribbons of iron, inching their way ever westward.  This uncontrolled competition would be to antebellum Chicago’s advantage for Ogden had grabbed the momentum of the project with his own hands by unilaterally beginning construction of the G&CU to the West.  While the supporters of the other routes bickered over Federal support in Congress during the thirteen years between Ogden’s laying the first rail in 1848 and the attack on Fort Sumter in 1861, Chicago’s businesses and population would catch up with Cincinnati and St. Louis.  The momentum of this expansion would result in Chicago becoming a “black hole,” sucking anything and everything (such as McCormick’s factory) into its ever-expanding vortex.

Map of the U.S., c. 1849. (Online)

Once the Mexican War ended with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848, the issue of where to build the federally subsidized transcontinental railroad had returned to the halls of Congress.  With Mexico ceding the vast lands of Nuevo México and Alta California to the U.S. as one of the requirements of the Treaty, a transcontinental route completely within the legal borders of the U.S. was finally available.  As of then, there was not yet a comparable contiguous route in the north (for “Nebraska,” that stretched from the Red River in Texas to the Canadian border, was still unorganized as a territory and “legally” still belonged to the Native tribes).  No Federal support for a transcontinental proposal in the North through land not formally controlled by the Federal government would ever be approved by the South’s representatives as long as comparable routes to the Pacific existed that could extend from Charleston and Atlanta to Memphis along the 35° parallel, or from New Orleans and Houston along the 32° (New Orleans also argued for a road across the Isthmus of Panama), that were not only feasible but also completely within the borders of the U.S.   

The Route of the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad. Note that Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, and St. Louis are in a straight line to the West through the center of the country. New York and Philadelphia are easliy connected by an extension, thereby providing an excellent route for the Transcontinental Railroad that would have completely bypassed Chicago. (Online)

Following the signing of the treaty that formally brought these lands under U.S. political control, Missouri’s ever-vigilant Sen. Benton once again proposed that Congress approve his “compromise route” for a transcontinental railroad from St. Louis to San Francisco Bay (as the logical continuation of the B&O’s planned Ohio & Mississippi).  After the Senate rejected this, he attempted to have Congress finance a fourth expedition by his son-in-law, Frémont, (who during the War had completed a third expedition from St. Louis to California, under secret orders from Pres. Polk in anticipation of the coming war with Mexico to reinforce the American presence in Alta California, that also allowed Frémont to explore for a potential transcontinental route along the 38° parallel) to continue to search for the best transcontinental route along the 38° parallel, but this, too, was rejected along Sectional lines.  Not so easily deterred in their mutual expansionist visions, the Senator and his son-in-law eventually secured private funding and Frémont set off from St. Louis in October 1848 on an ill-fated expedition into the Central Rockies, that, nonetheless, still provided valuable information on the region’s geography.

On January 6, 1849, (already more than a month after The Pioneer’s initial run), the South joined the political debate when interests in Little Rock, AK, with an eye out for a transcontinental railroad through its territory, proposed to convene a convention in Memphis on July 4, 1849, to discuss a possible railroad between Memphis and Monterey (100 miles south of San Francisco).  In response to the proposed Memphis convention, St. Louis scheduled its own transcontinental railroad convention for October 15, 1849.  The outbreak of cholera along the Mississippi River in the summer, however, forced Memphis to postpone its convention until October 23, 1849, that followed not only the St. Louis convention, but also an earlier convention in Mississippi on October 1, 1849, called by Calhoun to discuss a possible southern response (Secession) to the threatened passage of the Wilmot Proviso.  Stephen Douglas, not one to shy away from a debate, not only attended the 1849 St. Louis convention, but was elected its president.  He resigned after his presentation of his proposed northern route that was, for all practical purposes, a direct Chicago trunkline to the South Pass, with only connecting lines from Council Bluffs to St. Louis and to Memphis, was jeered in the local press.  Benton followed with a plea to Congress encouraging it to approve a route that had “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.”  The convention ultimately voted in favor of “a grand trunk railroad” centered on St. Louis, “with branches to Memphis and Chicago,” even though Douglas would hear of no such idea of a railroad between St. Louis and California, coyly arguing that endorsing a single terminus in the east would be politically impossible in the highly fractionalized atmosphere of the antebellum era.

FURTHER READING:

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

Borneman, Walter R. Iron Horses: America’s Race to Bring the Railroad West.  New York: Back Bay, 2010.

Cotterill, R.S., “Memphis Railroad Convention, 1849,” Tennessee Historical Magazine, Vol. 4, June 1918.

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

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

Stover, John F. Iron Road to the West: American Railroads in the 1850s. New York: Columbia University, 1978.

Young, David M. The Iron Horse and the Windy City. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2005.

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

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