BY CY WARMAN
D. APPLETON AND COMPANY
THE ORIGIN OF THE IDEA.
The first report presented to the Congress of the United States on the construction of a railroad to the Pacific was made in 1846 by the Hon. Sidney Breese, Chairman of the Committee on Pacific Lands.
This was the first result of the labours of Asa Whitney, a New York merchant, who had become an enthusiast on the subject of a Pacific railroad. Between 1830 and 1835, while in China, Mr. Whitney read of the wonderful experiments in railroad building in England, and began at once to reflect upon the enormous changes the new invention made possible. It would be an easy matter to cross the American continent and connect Europe with the Orient by way of the Pacific. As the dream grew upon him, he began to gather statistics concerning the trade of China, Japan, and India. He seems to have devoted months, if not years, to this work, coming to America full of figures and faith in his great scheme.
He proposed to build a road from Lake Superior to Puget Sound in consideration of a grant of land from the Government along the whole line. Whitney began his public work in America upon the great project in 1841. After four years of work and worry he secured a hearing before Congress. Seven more years, and then, in 1853, Congress, with more or less reluctance, made an appropriation for the first preliminary survey.
For twenty years or more Whitney clung to his idea with the faith of an enthusiast, and then, at last, help came. But it came too late and too slowly for him. He had fretted the best part of his life away. His private fortune had been sacrificed. Men had begun to regard him with pity, so thoroughly had he lost himself in the pursuit of his dream. His plan was not feasible, but he gave his enthusiasm, his fortune, if not his life, to the work-and passed on. Almost without being missed, he disappeared from the scene, the first martyr to the great enterprise.
The work begun by Whitney was taken up by others.
Mr. E. V. Smalley declares that as early as 1834 Dr. Samuel Boncraft Barlow advocated the construction of a railroad from New York to the mouth of the Columbia River, with money secured by direct appropriation from the Treasury of the United States. Upon this claim General W. T. Sherman, in his summary of transcontinental railroads constructed up to 1883, comments as follows:
"But in presenting this claim to priority, is it not possible that the fact has been overlooked that Dr. Barlow's paper in the Intelligence, of Westfield, Mass., was called forth by a series of articles upon the same subject published in the Emigrant, of Washtenaw County, Michigan Territory? And is not, therefore, that unknown writer of these articles really entitled to whatever credit attaches to priority of suggestion? "General Sherman says, in the summary referred to, that it would now be impossible to ascertain who was the first to suggest the construction of a railroad to connect the eastern portion of our country with the Pacific coast, and adds that the idea probably occurred in some form to several persons. It is a fact, however, that long before any man had known the luxury of travelling by rail the question of connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific by means of a " steam carriage " was being agitated in this country.
The first railroad was built by the Romans. The track was of cut stone.
The steam engine was invented by James Watt, in 1773.
Probably the first locomotive was invented by Richard Trevethick. It was tried and failed in London in 1,904. George Stephenson opened the Killingworth, a colliery railroad, in 1814.
The Stockton and Darlington, in England, twelve miles in length, was the first railroad to carry passengers. It was opened for freight on September 27, 1825, and for passenger traffic in October of the same year.
Peter Cooper experimented with a little engine of his own on the Baltimore and Ohio in 1829, and claimed that on the trial trip he ran away from a gray horse attached to another car.
The modern railroad was created by the Stephensons, father and son, when they built the Rocket, the first locomotive with a "blower," in 1830.
The first locomotive run over an American railroad was driven by Horatio Allen in 1831.
As early as 1819 Robert Mills proposed, in his book on the internal improvements of Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina, to connect the two oceans by a steam road "from the head navigable waters of the noble rivers disemboguing into each ocean."
With the lessons learned from the years that followed the agitation of the question by Mr. Whitney and others we are able to see now what bitter disappointment was in store for the enthusiast who pinned his faith to the traffic of the Orient. We know now that the revenue derived from the Asiatic trade-in fact, from all through business-would not do much more than supply the tallow required to cool the pins that were heated by the sands of the desert through which the road was to run. Veritable dreamers were the early friends of the Pacific Railroad. Themselves farther from the pay streak than the Atlantic was from the Pacific, they were ever scolding Congress for its tardiness, and capital for its timidity.
During all the preliminary work the great aim of the road was to reach India, China, and Japan.
Benton, Clark, and others in Congress were ever pointing to the
East by way of the West, and crying in the drowsy ears of the nodding Speaker
that " yonder lay the road to the Orient." It was not until the discoveries
of gold in California that Congressman Sargent, of that State, began to
hint guardedly that the West itself was worth going after. To be
sure, nobody took him seriously. He was merely tooting his own horn,
men said, and they continued to talk Asia, to talk against the scheme,
or not to talk at all. Nobody dreamed of the possibilities of the
wild West. No prophet attempted to foretell the story of the vast
empire that would awaken with the first magnetic touch of the steel-shod
feet of the iron horse.*
*If it had been proposed before the war that the United States should lend its credit and issue its bonds to build a railroad two thousand miles long across a vast, barren plain only known to the red man, uninhabited, without one dollar of business to sustain it, the proposition alone would have virtually bankrupted the nation."—GENERAL DODGE.
No man would have believed, at the close of the war of the rebellion, that within a quarter of a century fifteen million people would be living in the territory between the Missouri and the Pacific Ocean. A man who would have predicted in 1861 what Mr. Sidney Dillon stated as a fact just thirty years later, would have been without honour in any country-namely, that the railroads would change not only the climate of the West, but the character of the soil as well; that the farmer would plant trees, and that these trees would check the bitter winds, and also cause an increased rainfall; that the furrowed fields, which formerly offered to the sky but one uniform, smooth, and iron-hard surface, would create a rainfall by their evaporation, and invite it by their contrast of temperature; that, in short, with the advent of the railroad upon the Western plateaus the climate would become milder, the cold less destructive, and the rainfall greater.
Reaching across the great American desert for the trade of the Orient,
the dreamers never dreamed that these vast reaches of land, then considered
uninhabitable, would soon be occupied by a rapidly increasing population,
and that, when the road was built, ninety-five cents of every dollar earned
would come from local, and only five cents from through traffic.
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