7.13. THE GEOPOLITICS OF THE TRANSCONTINENTAL RAILROAD – PART 2

Following the later Memphis convention that called for a southern route from San Diego along the Gila River to El Paso before terminating at Memphis, the advocates of a northern route met one more time as a called continuation of the St. Louis Convention the following year in Philadelphia on April 1-2, 1850, to continue to keep the pressure on Congress for a transcontinental railroad.  William Ogden was made the President of this meeting, at which no route other than an ambiguously worded route from the “Valley of the Mississippi” to the Pacific Ocean was identified to maintain Sectional political unanimity over the project.  So while St. Louis and Memphis, that were both already located on the Mississippi River, hosted conventions in 1849 where great plans for the transcontinental railroad were debated over and over, Ogden and Scammon continued to doggedly lay tracks due west from Chicago to the Mississippi.  Therefore, both St. Louis and Memphis were already too late, or maybe it is more accurate to say that Ogden was already ahead of the game for by the time of the two conventions in October 1849, the G&CU was making its daily run to the end of the construction of its ever-lengthening roadbed to the Mississippi. 

The Route of the Ohio & Mississippi/Baltimore & Ohio 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)

The larger of the two threats to Chicago’s own northern route seemed to be Sen. Benton’s compromise route between North and South that ran through the country’s midsection along the 39° parallel from Baltimore through Cincinnati and on to St. Louis, that the B&O had slowly been building at the same time the Boston Concern had been constructing its route to Chicago.  This compromise route would have completely bypassed Chicago by some 200 miles to the south, condemning Chicago to exist as an economic satellite of the two powerful river cities.  Once the B&O would reach the Ohio River at Wheeling, the way seemed to be open to continue the railroad, as the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad, through Ohio to Cincinnati and then on to St. Louis.  Planning for the O&M had actually begun in 1848, about the same time as Ogden started construction on the G&CU.  Fortunately for the economic future of Chicago (and unfortunately, for Cincinnati and St. Louis), the State of Pennsylvania as well as the Allegheny Mountains stood between Baltimore and the Ohio River.  Pennsylvania was now attempting to build its own railroad from Philadelphia to the Ohio River, the Pennsylvania Railroad, and would not permit the chartering of the B&O’s extension from Cumberland, MD, on the Potomac, through Pennsylvania to Wheeling on the Ohio, which forced the B&O to build a route through Virginia, around the southeast corner of Pennsylvania to Wheeling. There was no geologic equivalent in Virginia, however, to the Mohawk River Valley that had made the Erie Canal and the subsequent chain of parallel railroads possible.  It took the better part of ten years, eleven tunnels and 13 bridges, for the B&O to build its rails from Cumberland to Wheeling, that was located geographically as far west as only Erie, PA.  The B&O was just too late when it finally made it to Wheeling on January 1, 1853, and once it had reached Wheeling, it still had to cross the entire state of Ohio to reach Cincinnati, and then cross Indiana before it could even start laying tracks in Illinois.

Map of the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad, c. 1859. (Online)

But St. Louis lay some 125 miles farther west than Chicago and could have easily beaten its northern competitor to the Missouri River (say at St. Joseph, MO, midway between Omaha and Kansas City) and up to the Platte River at Council Bluffs and then west to the South Pass, if someone in St. Louis had the same acumen and tenacity that Ogden had and had just started laying tracks to the west rather than waiting for an eastern railroad to build to St. Louis.  An obvious advantage to this strategy would have been no need to build a bridge over the Mississippi but to simply rely on a ferry across the river once the eastern tracks had reached St. Louis.  In fact, although the Hannibal & St. Joseph railroad, planned to link Hannibal, MO, some 120 miles upriver from St. Louis, with St. Joseph had been chartered in 1845, before Ogden took over the G&CU in January 1846, its construction didn’t begin until 1851. The fact was that there was no equivalent of a William Ogden in St. Louis at this moment who dared take the needed financial risk to begin the enterprise. And even if there would have been an equivalent to Ogden in St. Louis, his attempt would have been severely opposed by the local riverboat owners for St. Louis was, most assuredly, a river city.  Cincinnati (Dr. Drake’s earlier attempt with the LC&C notwithstanding) and St. Louis didn’t do themselves any favors by not taking advantage of every opportunity to help their long-term interests in this battle.  Instead of recognizing the reality that the steam locomotive represented and offered, there were vested interests in both cities founded in the late eighteenth century, that fought hard to maintain the primacy of the steamboat on the river over the underappreciated effects that the steam railroad was imposing on the nineteenth century.  On the other hand, Chicago was a true nineteenth century city, and was not as easily held back by the inertia of the past. 

Last but not least, any such effort to directly link Cincinnati with St. Louis was easily thwarted by the geography of the NorthWest for the State of Illinois extended from Lake Michigan to the Ohio River.  As the B&O had experienced with the Pennsylvania legislature, to do any construction of a railroad at this time in any state required the approval by that state’s legislature of a state charter and of the right-of-way.  Illinois’ legislature would be no less chauvinistic than any other antebellum legislature in protecting their own local interests. There was no way around the fact that St. Louis’ economic future was completely in the hands of the Illinois State legislature, that, consequently, could also control the future economic development of the entire Midwest. (An earlier example of this geographical roadblock that St. Louis faced had been the fact that the National Road had never reached St. Louis, having been stopped in 1837 at Vandalia, IL, some 60 miles east of the Mississippi.) If the Illinois legislature could stall the O&M long enough to permit the construction of a system of railroads that radiated from Chicago, all rail traffic, whether from the East to the West, or from the West bound for the East, would have to pass through Chicago.  Furthermore, if no through routes in the state of Illinois were allowed in the charters that did manage to be approved by the legislature, all passenger and freight traffic would have to transfer from one railroad to another in Chicago.  There was no logical reason to require passengers or freight to transfer from one train to another in Chicago.  It would have been more efficient to build a through route to the southern tip of Lake Michigan (at the Calumet River) and just keep going due west (as the MC would eventually threaten to do), instead of having to swing north for the extra 20 miles to Chicago, where Ogden had had the foresight to lay the first western tracks to the Mississippi River and where trains coming from the East and the West were now forced to prematurely end their tracks.  It was simply pure greed on the part of the city and its representatives in the state legislature that made this expensive non-necessity a physical reality.  Thanks to the ceaseless efforts of William Ogden, Chicago had grabbed the momentum of the project by unilaterally beginning construction of the G&CU to the West, a quest Ogden would not surrender for the next twenty years, until his Chicago & North Western (that eventually absorbed the G&CU) would be the first line to make it to Council Bluffs in February 1867, allowing it to provide the necessary construction materials to the Union Pacific Railroad, that Ogden would personally help to organize during the Civil War as the company to build the next link in the chain from Omaha to the Pacific.  Chicago, and the State of Illinois would, correspondingly reap the economic windfall from such traffic, and the city’s dominance in the region as the hub of the nation’s (if not the world’s) largest railroad network would be secured, not merely through any preordained geographic advantage but with sheer political muscle (“I will”).

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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