Our half-known new western empire was mapped, in a great mass exploration, by the Army’s Pacific Railroad Surveys of 1853
The Pacific Railroad Surveys of 1853 —a grand national reconnaissance extending over half a continent and led by men who would later be counted among the most prominent soldiers and scientists of the Republic
—were the capstone of an American age of exploration in the Far West. They were packed with adventure and stalked by death, and they were conceived in desperation by a preCivil War Congress hopelessly deadlocked over the proper location for the first vital transcontinental railroad, which would link the Mississippi Valley with golden California. Should the route go north, or south? Sectionalism offered loud answers but no agreement. The railroad surveys were an attempt to let science decide a question that, after eight years of continuous debate, appeared to be beyond the powers of mortal men. Not since Napoleon, in the midst of his short-lived conquest of Egypt, had taken a large corps of savants to study that country’s lands and culture had such an array of scientific talent been marshalled in the service of geographical conquest. And not since that celebrated Egyptian foray were the scientific results to prove so rich and overwhelming while the practical results appeared to lead only to frustration. For the first actual railroad to the Pacific was not completed for another sixteen years.
The great exploration provided the first panoramic view of what the vast West was really like. It produced an encyclopedia of western experience in thirteen massive calfskin volumes—government reports now consigned to dust and obscurity in public libraries and archives. In them was a matchless picture of the Old West before its settlement. The surveys likewise produced a cast of heroes —military and scientific explorers whose names and deeds, like the records of the surveys themselves, are now almost forgotten.
On the second of March, 1853, Congress ordered the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, to “employ such portion of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, and such other persons as he may deem necessary, to make such explorations and surveys as he may deem advisable, to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.” Davis was to see to the organization and execution of the program and the compilation of a report on the findings by the first Monday in January of 1854—within ten months from the day of the order. It was a staggering assignment—one that seemed virtually impossible to complete in the time allotted, even allowing for the fact that the men were required to make only a rapid reconnaissance of the feasible routes. Moreover, with the whole project under the direction of such an archSoutherner as Jefferson Davis some people wondered why there was to be a serious study at all, since the selection of a southern route appeared to be a foregone conclusion.
Almost immediately Davis set to work organizing the task. He established the Bureau of Explorations and Surveys, headed first by his old friend from the Topographical Corps, Major William H. Emory of Maryland, and commanded later by Captain Andrew Atkinson Humphreys, the Army hydrographie engineer who had tamed the Mississippi at the New Orleans levee. Together Davis, Emory, and Humphreys decided which routes were to be explored and who was to command each of the field parties. In general the routes considered for the surveys were those that appeared to have the most political backing in Congress. Thus, four main transcontinental parties were sent into the West, each corresponding to an important sectional interest. The northern survey, which was to operate between the forty-seventh and forty-ninth parallels, was led by Isaac Ingalls Stevens, a brilliant and energetic young Army officer who had just resigned his commission to accept the post of governor of the new Washington Territory. This railroad route was to connect the Great Lakes to the Pacific at Puget Sound by way of St. Paul and the great bend of the Missouri River [see pages 46-47). As the new governor, Stevens had a direct interest in bringing back a favorable report on the possibilities of the route. Moreover, his political fortunes were closely tied to those of Senator Stephen A. Douglas, chief financial backer of this northern venture.
Another expedition moved west along a line much farther south. It was led by Lieutenant Amiel Weeks Whipple, and it followed the thirtyfifth parallel from Fort Smith, Arkansas, to Santa Fe and farther westward, carrying with it the hopes of the citizens of southern Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi. Douglas also stood to profit if this line was selected, since it would connect with his new Illinois Central Railroad at Cairo, Illinois. Far to the south appeared to be the likeliest route. In fact, so convinced in its favor was Davis that at first he did not even deem it necessary to send a party out to explore it. Ultimately, however, he yielded to political pressure and ordered two expeditions into the field to survey the thirty-second parallel line one from the west, led by the veteran explorer of New Mexico, Lieutenant John G. Parkc, the other from the east, commanded by Captain John Pope, even at this earlystage of his career addicted to the same self-advertisement from his “headquarters in the saddle” that would make him the laughingstock Union commander at the Civil War disaster of Second Manassas.
Out in California other expeditions coursed north and south between the Coast Ranges and the Sierras looking for passes over the mountains and for a connection between California and the Northwest.
Perhaps the most interesting survey activity took place dead in the center of the map. Here, at the behest of the all-powerful Thomas Hart Benton, the perennial statesman from Missouri, who repeatedly called for “a grrreat central Highway to the Pacific,” the Secretary sent out one of the largest and best-equipped expeditions, under Captain John Williams Gunnison of the Topographical Engineers. This expedition was to follow a line west between the thirty-eighth and thirty-ninth parallels, cross the Rocky Mountains through the Cochetopa Pass between Kansas and Utah territories, and make its way to the Great Salt Lake —which Benton and his son-in-law John Charles Frémont appear to have thought lay just due west of the celebrated Cochetopa. It was the most difficult of all the routes, and the San Juan Mountains directly in its path had been the scene of Frémont’s epic disaster in 1848, when the whole party almost perished in the wintry snows and the flesh of one dead explorer was said to have been sampled by some of the starving survivors of the Pathfinder’s party. Gunnison and his men seem to have believed the route to be impractical even before they started out, and the evidence indicates the possibility that Davis sent the party into the field with the object of proving Benton wrong rather than of locating a railroad route of any kind. As it was, the Gunnison survey through what is now south-central Colorado proved to be one of the most dramatic and interesting of the surveys, and thus, perhaps, it can stand here for the whole massive operation.
At the outset politics proved troublesome to Captain Gunnison. Benton, disappointed that Frémont was not picked to lead the party, thundered his defiance, and before he was through, one of Frémont’s friends, Edward Fitzgerald Beale, a hero of the war in California (he also brought the news of the gold discovery to the East), found himself made the Indian commissioner for California with a princely appropriation of !250,000 (more than the railroad survey appropriation) and orders to head west along the shortest and most practicable route. Naturally he took the great central Cochetopa Pass route, leaving in May, 1853, and arriving in Los Angeles in August. And when his friend and kinsman, newspaperman Gwin Harris Heap, finished writing a privately published report on the western march, the line through the Cochetopa Pass seemed almost incredible in its economic possibilities.
Meanwhile, back in New York Frémont himself was assembling still another force, an exploratory “truth squad,” as it were, to take to the field on the heels of the Gunnison party and, presumably, challenge any unfavorable report. But Captain Gunnison was not one to be awed by such formidable competition. A tough, serious New Englander of Swedish ancestry, he was a career soldier and veteran explorer who knew the West almost as well as Fré mont did. Born in 1812, Gunnison gre,w up on his father’s farm near Goshen, New Hampshire. He attended Hopkinton Academy, taught at the age of nineteen in a one-room log schoolhouse, won an appointment to West Point in 1833, graduated second in the class of 1837, and ultimately received an appointment to the elite Corps of Topographical Engineers. As a career soldier Gunnison had an extremely varied record. He had served in Florida as an Everglades scout under Zachary Taylor. He had assisted in the sad removal of the Cherokees from Georgia to Oklahoma. He had explored and mapped parts of northern Wisconsin and had worked seven years on the Great Lakes Surveys learning the difficult arts of geodesy and topographical cartography. In 1849 he had ventured into the Far West as assistant to Captain Howard Stansbury in an expedition to map and explore the valley of the Great Salt Lake. There he and Stansbury spent the winter among the sometimes hostile Mormons; together, the two men got to know the ways of the West, the mountain men and hunters, the Indians, the settlers, and the mysterious Mormons themselves.
As a result of his western experience Gunnison wrote in 1852 what was perhaps the first objective book ever published about this people who so fascinated our nineteenth-century forebears: The Mormons or Latter-Day Saints in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake . By 1853, then, Gunnison had achieved some prominence as a soldier, author, and explorer-engineer. And though he was an outspoken advocate of a Pacific railroad, he had no sense of dedication to either St. Louis or a central route. He could be relied upon to be honest and fair in his report. In short, Gunnison was the ideal man for the job.
On June 4, 1853, one month from the date he received his orders, Gunnison had secured his scientific personnel and equipment in Washington and arrived in St. Louis for the final outfitting of his expedition. Soon he moved out onto the prairie, establishing a base camp at a onestreet ramshackle trader’s outpost on the Kansas River. Here he assembled his party. One of its most important members was Lieutenant Edward Griffin Beckwith, an artillery officer assigned to the Topographical Engineers who was on his second western expedition, having escorted the Collier party by way of the GiIa Trail to California in 1850. Others included Frederick O. Creuzfeldt, a German botanist who had survived the disaster of Frémont’s 1848 expedition; Jacob Heinrich Schiel, a geologist and Heidelberg graduate who had come all the way from Prussia to help explore the West; Sheppard Romans, the astronomer; J. A. Snyder, assistant topographer; and Richard H. Kern, youngest of four brothers, three of whom were artists. Richard, his brother Edward, and their doctor brother Benjamin had gone along with Frémont in 1848, and Benjamin had perished somewhere in the San Juan Mountains.
By June 22 the wagons were assembled, mules broken, and equipment packed, and the Gunnison party was ready to move out—sixteen sixmule wagons, an instrument cart, and a crude canvas-topped ambulance, escorted by a contingent of thirty-two cavalrymen. They headed west along the Santa Fe Trail with the Kansas River on their right and the prairie to their left stretching away like an ocean through the rain and gloom.
Three days after the start, taking the advice of the fur-trade veterans William Bent and Tom Fitzpatrick, Gunnison divided his forces. Keeping Kern, Homans, Captain Morris of the cavalry, and a few men from the escort with him, he coursed westward along the line of the Kansas River, past Fort Riley, then only a few low adobe barracks in the process of construction, past the confluences of the Republican, Solomon, Saline, and Smoky Hill rivers with the Kansas, to an appointed rendezvous near Walnut Creek where it flowed into the great bend of the Arkansas River. Lieutenant Beckwith led the main party via the regular Santa Fe Trail until he made contact with Gunnison on the twelfth of July. At Walnut Creek they met on a great dividing line of the prairie. Behind them were the rolling swells and lush grasses of the well-watered region. Ahead lay sand and short grass, buffalo-wallow water, and prairie-dog holes, country that the earlier explorers Zebulon Pike and Stephen H. Long had called the Great American Desert.
For two weeks Gunnison pushed his party up the Arkansas, through arid buffalo plains to Bent’s Old Fort far upriver near present-day La Junta, Colorado. The fort, which William Bent had blown up himself in 1849, stood a squat and deserted adobe ruin, its rooms open to the sky, its round, castlelike tower barely discernible and fast mouldering back into the earth. It was still a landmark on the way west, but it would never again be the colorful center of frontier life it had been back in 1846, when Kearny’s Army of the West camped there on the way to the conquest of Santa Fe. Beckwith, however, thought it an ideal site for a new military post at the entrance to the Southwest.
The next few days saw the explorers moving due west along the upper Arkansas, past Timpas Creek to a point on the left bank opposite Apishpa Creek, which they took to be the Huerfano River. With the utmost difficulty they managed to cross the Arkansas by sending out an advance party of several Delaware Indian scouts, who swam the river with ropes in their teeth. By August i the whole party had made the crossing, and far in the distance, just above the horizon, they could see the Wahto-Yah, or Spanish Peaks, in full view.
Lacking a competent scout, they followed the Apishpa Creek southward for several days, still thinking they were on the Huerfano and that it would lead them directly to Fort Massachusetts, an Army outpost on a branch of that river in the midst of the wild and beautiful San Luis Valley. Instead the whole party became lost, and it took the services of a Spanish-New Mexican mountain man whom they ran across along the way to lead them finally into the San Luis Valley and Fort Massachusetts. Fort Massachusetts vied with Fort Yuma as the Botany Bay of American military outposts. Situated at the base of the Sierra Bianca in the southern Rockies, it guarded the northern approaches to New Mexico, but aside from an occasional foray against the local Indians there was little else to do. In one of his few letters from the expedition Gunnison provided a vivid description of an officer’s life on the New Mexican frontier: It is amusing, surprizing and disgusting to hear the officers describe society in New Mexico. According to their observation, there’s nothing like chastity regarded by man, woman, or priest. … Few girls are married until they have been seduced and have a child. … They arrive at puberty at eleven or twelve years and marry from eleven to fourteen. One beautiful woman was named who was a grand mother at 29 and though now appearing in the flower of her age, her grand daughter is ready to be married.
With its limited range, social life at Fort Massachusetts did not detain Gunnison’s party for very long.
They rested their animals and overhauled their gear, while a detachment under Beckwith rode off southward for Taos to get another mountain man to guide them over the treacherous Cochetopa Pass and into the valley beyond. Fortunately they returned with Antoine Leroux, one of the real veterans of the southern Rocky Mountain fur trade. Leroux had guided Kearny west to California in 1847. In 1851 he had taken Lieutenant Lorenzo Sitgreaves’ expedition into the Navaho country of New Mexico and Arizona, below the Grand Canyon and the San Francisco Peaks to the Colorado River and on to California; on that trip a Yampais arrow had all but paralyzed him. For the past few months he had been staying in Taos with the other mountain trappers, assiduously attending fandangoes and all-night drinking bouts.
With Leroux to guide them the explorers were in good hands. During the last weeks of August they moved up the San Luis Valley, and by the end of the month they were approaching the Cochetopa Pass. Everywhere the grandeur and serenity of nature was impressive, and the party’s routine responded to its invitation. Gunnison would scout ahead with Leroux while Beckwith would urge along the train. Kern would ride off to some nearby prominence to sketch the terrain while Schiel and Creuzfeldt would collect rocks and plants for shipment to the Smithsonian in Washington.
On September 2 they cut their way with axes and shovels over the crest of the Cochetopa, thereby crossing the Continental Divide. And during the next week, led by Leroux, they descended by stages into the valley of the present-day Gunnison River, which the captain himself called the Grand. The only disturbing sign was an Indian smoke signal that arose against the sky beyond the mountains to the northwest in mistaken answer to a cook’s runaway campfire. Then one day the advance party found itself suddenly surrounded by nearly two hundred Paiute Indians well mounted on captured Navaho ponies and arrogantly scowling at the white interlopers and demanding tribute. What had become a tense situation was shortly disposed of by Leroux. Speaking to the chief, he declared: We have good weapons, much powder, and much lead. If you want to fight, so be it. We will fight with you and kill many of your warriors. The white father has many brave warriors. He will punish your transgressions. He has sent us to ride through your land and see what his red children are doing.
With that the red men became more hospitable and vanished shortly afterward. The explorers’ route took them along the gorgeous high canyons of the Gunnison, across the barren divide west to the Uncompahgre, down that river to the Gunnison again, then over the Grand River (the main Colorado).
One day an entire Indian band appeared in a friendlier manner and, camping on a riverbank beside the caravan, hopefully awaited presents, shouting far into the night to their comrades on the other shore to swim across and join the party and tell their friends about it, too. The hardpressed Leroux found himself in the embarrassing position of having to spend the night sharing sleeping quarters with a native chief, one of whose fellow chiefs the scout had once killed in an altercation over a horse. But after much smoking and giving of presents the explorers eventually departed in peace.
From the Grand they made their way across a great barren artemisia plain covered with agate and other conglomerate rocks, relics of whole formations that, as Schiel pointed out, had almost vanished, “as it were, before our eyes.” To the north were the colorful bands of the Book Cliffs. To the south, though none of the explorers noted it, were the fantastic eroded arches (now preserved as a national monument) that mark the entrance to the rugged country around the confluence of the Green and the Grand.
After passing the Green River the party made directly west up the broad sloping incline of the San Raphael Swell to the base of the Wasatch Mountains, which they could see dead ahead of them for several days. October 12 found them encamped near the entrance to Wasatch Pass, ready to cross over into the Great Basin. Captain Gunnison had thus far led his expedition successfully through some of the wildest and most difficult country in western North America, and they all had passed safely through the dangerous Ute country. Sometime after crossing the Grand River, Antoine Leroux had deemed them safe enough and himself turned back through Indian country for New Mexico and a rendezvous with Lieutenant Whipple and his thirty-fifth-parallel survey.
Meanwhile, as Gunnison’s expedition was nearing its objective, FYemont’s rival party, backed by eastern capitalists, was four months behind the Army topographers and following the same route. Because of his late start, however, Frémont found the Cochetopa Pass route considerably more difficult than had Gunnison. He followed the topographer’s wagon ruts for a time, but deep snow soon obliterated the tracks, leaving the fate of the party up to the navigational skill of Frémont and his Delaware Indian guides. First the snow, then temperatures below 30 degrees, then starvation overtook them. It was 1848 all over again, and one night, somewhere near the Green River, Frémont made his men solemnly promise, no matter what the emergency, never to resort to cannibalism as had his previous company. Saved from despair and death only by Frémont’s indomitable will, the party pushed on over the Wasatch Mountains to eventual safety at Parowan in southern Utah. One day short of safety, however, Oliver Fuller, the assistant topographer, quietly died of exposure and the effects of having frozen his legs and feet from the knees down. Solomon Carvalho, the photographer, a city man at heart, and F. W. von EglofFstein, the topographical artist, a portly gentleman who wasn’t much used to starvation, had had enough, and on March i, 1854, they arrived in Salt Lake City clad in rags, still hungry, and eager for civilized companionship. The Pathfinder’s luck was down. Once again a Frémont expedition had ended ingloriously, if not tragically.
Gunnison, on the other hand, four months ahead on the trail and oblivious to Frémont’s difficulties, was nearing the end of his labors, and he spent a week passing over the Wasatch Mountains in a painstaking approach to the valley of the Sevier River. Once across the mountains the party was in Mormon country and what could practically be considered civilization. However, when they visited Manti, near the great bend of the Sevier River, and found the entire population barricaded in their houses, fearful of an Indian attack, Gunnison learned of potential dangers from savages in the valley of the Great Salt Lake. From Manti he wrote to his wife: There is a war between the Mormons and the Indians and parties of less than a dozen do not dare to travel. Wc did not know what a risk we have lately been running until coming here for I have been riding carelessly in the mountains hunting roads ahead and other curious capers. …
It was to be his last letter.
Upon his return to camp near Fillmore, Utah, Gunnison had reason to congratulate himself. He had located a new military road from Taos most of the way to the Great Salt Lake. He had laid out a new route for westbound emigrants that would enable them to start later in the season. He had plotted a military trail that led right into the heart of the Mormon stronghold. And finally, he had convincingly shown that the Cochetopa Pass route, while passable, was clearly inferior to the Stansbury route via the Medicine Bow River and the Laramie Plains farther to the north in present-day Wyoming —Senator Benton, John C. Frémont, and Edward Fitzgerald Bealc notwithstanding. But tasks remained, among them the exploration of the lower Sevier River for a suitable railroad crossing. Somehow he secured the services of two Mormon brothers, G. G. and William Potter, who consented to act as guides in an effort to find the best railroad pass over the mountains and down into the Great Basin.
Now on October 25, Gunnison, Kern, Creuzfeldt, Bellows, the Mormon William Potter, and a corporal’s guard of seven men from the escort left the main party encamped on the upper river and headed downstream toward Sevier Lake. Lieutenant Beckwith was left in charge of the main camp. At eleven the following morning a scouting party he had just sent out of camp returned with a tattered and bloody dragoon from Gunnison’s party who was so weak and exhausted that he was barely able to talk. He was the corporal in charge of the escort, and between gasps for breath he sobbed out his story. Less than five hours ago, just at dawn, Captain Gunnison and all his men had been massacred by an overwhelming force of Indians hidden along the Sevier River. As far as he knew, he alone had survived.
As it turned out, four men had survived. But the other accounts added little to the corporal’s. After leaving the main camp Captain Gunnison’s command had spent most of the twenty-fifth of October moving slowly down the valley. They had marched about eleven miles before making camp on the edge of the river near a willow grove. The arduous marches of the previous months were behind them, and officers and men alike refused to take the daily Indian signal fires seriously. Some of the party went out hunting along the river just before nightfall. And then they all retired after a good campfire meal. The next morning, just as they had begun to stir themselves, all hell broke loose. Shrieks and yells, showers of arrows, reports of guns, men screaming in terror, horses neighing wildly and breaking their picket ropes in a dash for freedom -- it was an Indian attack, or was it the Mormons? In any case it was doubtless every man for himself, with the losers left on the battlefield.
The rest of the story belongs to the attackers, young braves from Chief Kenosh’s band of Sevier River Paiutes. On the afternoon of the twenty-fifth several young Paiute Indians were out hunting ducks when they heard the firing of the soldiers in the marshes along the river. Incensed at all white men for the recent murder of one of their chiefs, they followed the hunters back to camp, observed it, and then hurried to their own village, where, in a wild dance, they whipped up a war party to ambush the soldiers. About midnight they departed. There were about a score in all—Mishoquop, Sam, Pants, Tomwants, Jimmy Knights, Toady, Doctor Jacob, Nunkiboolits, Shipoke—their names absurdly incongruous with the mission they were set on performing.
When they reached the campsite, Mishoquop deployed his forces professionally. One group hid in the willows along the river to the south of the camp, others to the east. The rest stationed themselves behind a ridge to the north and somewhat back from the river. All three sides were covered in crossfire, and the river itself on the west offered little chance for escape. Then they waited.
At dawn the cook arose, raked up the fire, and began his breakfast chores. Professor Creuzfeldt stood, hands outstretched, warming himself by the fire. One by one the men began to stir. It was rapidly getting light. Captain Gunnison, who had left his tent to go to wash, had just moved past the door of his tent into the center of the camp when Mishoquop gave the signal to fire. At the first barrage the soldiers panicked. They ran in all directions, some without trousers, some without tunics, most without any thought of guns or resistance. The coolest ran for the horses, the rest just anywhere away from the enemy. One dragoon managed to mount his horse and start out of camp. At the flash of a gun his horse reared, and at the same instant the dragoon fell pierced with arrows. Another soldier vaulted onto the horse from a dead run and dashed away to safety. Whooping and howling as loudly in fright as the Indians did in triumph, the soldiers were shot down as thev ran or rode away from camp right into the Indians concealed behind the ridge to the north. Creuzfeldt and Kern fell by the fire. With the first barrage Gunnison rushed forward to rally his command. He too went down, riddled with arrows. In all, three men died at the riverside and six on the plains beside the willow grove. Four managed to escape: two on horseback, one by hiding in the bushes after his horse threw him, and the fourth by swimming the river. In a few minutes it was all over, and the savages, full of triumphant revenge, swarmed onto the field to mutilate the dead explorers.
It was the only great disaster of the Pacific Railroad Surveys and would have a strong impact upon the people of the day. The leadership of the exploring party devolved upon Lieutenant Beckwith, who led what was left of the command on a sad march north to Salt Lake City and comparative civilization.
After a winter of recuperation at Salt Lake City, Beckwith’s partytook to the field again in an effort to complete the task assigned to their thirty-eighth-parallel survey. In the early spring, even before the snows had melted, they explored eastward, searching for suitable railroad passes across the Wasatch Mountains and into the valley of the Green River, where Beckwith hoped to link up with Stansbury’s route of 1850. ByApril 22 he and his men had completed their task, and a practicable central railroad route had been located from the Platte River as far west as the Mormon capital.
Upon receiving authorization from Washington, Beckwith determined to finish the central survey all the way across the Great Basin to California. On May 5, 1854, he led his surveyors out across the Basin, where for days they threaded their waythrough mountain passes and over the arid and dustv vallevs of what had once been a primeval lake bed, seeing no one except a few wretched Digger Indians who lived on rats and crickets and slept in crude stick huts called wickiups. When at last the surveyors reached the Sierra Nevada, on the far side of the Basin, they searched out a new railroad pass (Madelin Pass) and crossed over into California, linking the valley of the Mississippi with the Sacramento Valley on a great central route that ran north of the one that Senator Benton had proposed. In the light of their own hard-won experience, however, it was one that appeared to be far more useful. It offered few mountain obstacles. And it could take advantage of the already existing Mormon settlements for labor in constructing the road as well as for a ready-made market for some of the products that the road would carry.
The results of all the Pacific Survey expeditions had indeed been startling. Every commander of a field party—Stevens, Parke, Pope, Whippie, and Beckwith—reported the discovery of “the most practicable and economical railroad route to the Pacific Ocean.” The tired Congress was right back where it had started. But for Davis there was no doubt: the southern route along the thirtysecond parallel was the best. It mattered little that Beckwith and the weary men of the Gunnison expedition had discovered what was perhaps a superior line or that the equally intrepid Whipple had led his expedition upon what was plainly another practical line along the thirty-fifth parallel. Davis was sure he saw things more clearly than most people, and his subordinates in the topographical bureau backed him up. It was the southern course or none.
Congress would not agree, and the choice for now was none. No section, North, South, or West, could agree on a route, and no through railroad was completed until 1869, when the Golden Spike went down at Promontory, Utah. By then the victorious North had control of Congress and could put through lines wherever it chose.
The Pacific Railroad Surveys were, for a time, a seeming failure, but only for political reasons. Eventually, however, rails covered nearly all the routes, and run to this day. Meanwhile, the explorers had produced a monumental inventory of our unsettled empire beyond the Mississippi. Lieutenant G. K. Warren’s overall survey map of 1857 was a landmark in American cartography. Jules Marcou and William Blake produced the first comprehensive geologic maps of the West, though the second man, Blake, sharply criticized the work of the first, behavior not unprecedented in the scholarly world. Back in Washington, Spencer F. Baird of the Smithsonian Institution supervised a team of zoologists who published massive volumes on the birds, mammals, reptiles, and fishes of the West. Each of the surveys had a report on geology and botany. Two reports even included discussions of Indian ethnology. With their stilted formalities, the big, weighty volumes are still fascinating to read and pore over, illuminated by dramatic landscapes and splendid maps and offering the flash of humor and the thrill of danger and discovery.
Thus the West was first widely mapped, classified, catalogued, painted, described, and published for everyone to see. The price was a bargain. In the long run science and the generations to come were the ultimate beneficiaries, and Gunnison’s name, like that of the other great Pacific Railroad explorers, lives on, appropriately affixed to those wonders of nature that he helped to discover and that he hoped to conquer for civilization.