- Historic Sites
Death Stalked The Grand Reconnaissance
Our half-known new western empire was mapped, in a great mass exploration, by the Army’s Pacific Railroad Surveys of 1853
October 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 6
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.