With the Louisiana Purchase and then the acquisition of the northern part of Mexico in 1848, the United States encompassed an extensive expanse of territory crossing the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The only way to get from one coast to the other was either by a difficult trip on horse or wagon across the mountains or by taking a long voyage on board a ship. With the discovery of gold in California in 1848, the need for a faster and more convenient means to cross the continent-with passengers and freight-became apparent, with the obvious answer being a transcontinental railroad. This was clear to everyone, but the great debate was where to locate the route.
As early as the 1840s, a number of government sponsored expeditions searched for a possible railroad route across the west as one of their goals. Rival routes were put forth by different groups, spurred by sectional rivalry and the promise of economic riches. Everyone seemed to want the railroad to pass through their state or town. No single route had sufficient backing to win out, so in 1853, Congress appropriated $150,000 for the Army's Topographic Bureau to undertake surveys to determine the most practical route for the transcontinental railroad. Four main expeditions across the American West, at various parallels, were sent out, with two supplemental expeditions added later. Their instructions were not only to survey, but also to systematically gather information on the general nature of the country, including its flora and fauna, geology, climate, etc.
This resulted in an immense body of data on the West that was presented, between 1855 and 1861, in the twelve volume set of Reports of Explorations and Surveys, to Ascertain the....Route for a Railroad From the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Each survey leader thought his route was best and the rivalries in Congress were not resolved even after the Civil War, so the railroad, run on a route along the 38th parallel from Kansas City to the Pacific, was not completed until 1869. The expeditions included, besides surveyors, many scientists and over a dozen artists. Hundreds of prints and maps were produced and thousands of the reports were published. This massive body of work is a monumental record of the American west. "These volumes...constitute probably the most important single contemporary source of knowledge on Western geography and history and their value is greatly enhanced by the inclusion of many beautiful plates in color of scenery, native inhabitants, fauna and flora of the Western country." (Robert Taft, Artists and Illustrators of the Old West, p. 5).
Volume II: 38th, 39th & 41st Parallels
Views by John Mix Stanley after Richard H. Kern. From John Williams Gunnison & Edward Griffin Beckwith's Explorations and Surveys for a Railroad Route From the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean...Report of Explorations for a Route...Near the 38th and 39th Parallels of North Latitude.... Washington: GPO., 1855. Printed by Beverley Tucker. Tinted lithographs by A. Hoen & Co., T. Sinclair, Sarony & Co., and Sarony, Major & Knapp. Very good condition, except as noted.
Citizens of St. Louis, led by Senator Thomas Hart Benton, were quite keen to have the railroad follow a route between the 38th and 39th parallels, as their city would be the natural eastern terminus. An expedition was sent out under Captain John W. Gunnison, assisted by Lt. Edward G. Beckwith and with artist Richard H. Kern, to survey this route through Kansas, Colorado, Nevada and Utah. Gunnison was familiar with the central Rockies as he had been with Howard Stansbury in the Great Salt Lake region in 1849. Leaving Westport Kansas in June 1853, the expedition went up the Arkansas River and using several passes arrived in the Great Basin in the autumn of that year. A devastating skirmish with Ute Indians there, on October 26th, led to the deaths of Gunnison, Kern and seven others. Beckwith took over and continued the expedition, exploring along the 41st parallel. Gunnison and Beckwith had concluded that a route between the 38th and 39th parallels was not realistic, but Beckwith recommend a route along the 41st as practical. Interestingly, though Beckwith's suggestion had no impact on planning at the time, the ultimately built transcontinental railroad essentially followed Beckwith's route.
Volumes III-IV: 35th. Parallel
From Lieutenant Ameil Weeks Whipple's Explorations and Surveys for a Railroad Route From the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean...Report of Explorations For A Railway Route, Near the Thirty-Fifth Parallel of North Latitude. Washington: GPO, 1856. Printed by Beverley Tucker. Views after drawings by Heinrich Balduin Möllhausen, A.R. Campbell and Lt. J. C. Tidball. Tinted lithographs by A. Hoen & Co., T. Sinclair, Sarony & Co., and Sarony, Major & Knapp.
The expedition surveying the southern route along the 35th parallel, led by Lieutenant Amiel Weeks Whipple, explored from Little Rock, Arkansas, through Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona, ending up passing through the Mojave Desert to Los Angeles. Besides the standard surveyors and artists, Whipple's party included astronomers, geologists, naturalists, and botanists, and the report contained excellent sections on various scientific topics and a section on the Indians of the region. The drawings were mostly by Möllhausen, a German artist who traveled extensively around the American West.
Volume V: California
Robert S. Williamson. Reports Explorations and Surveys, to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economical Route for a Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean; Explorations in California for Railroad Routes, to Connect with the Routes near the 35th and 32d Parallels of North Latitude. Drawings by Charles Koppel. Washington: GPO, 1856. Tinted lithographs. Very good condition.
Besides the four main east-west routes for the transcontinental railroad, two supplemental surveys were sent out to explore the north-south routes in the far west. An expedition under Lieutenant R.S. Williamson was sent to survey a possible route between the 32nd and 35th parallels.
Volume VI: California & Oregon
R.S. Williamson and Henry L. Abbot. Explorations and Surveys for a Railroad Route from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean...Routes in California and Oregon. Drawings by Charles Koppel. Washington, GPO, 1857. Tinted lithographs. Very good condition, except as noted.
The other California expedition, under Lieutenants Williamson and Henry L. Abbot was sent to search for the best route between the Sacramento Valley and the Columbia River. One part of the report of this expedition included botanical illustrations of west coast trees.
Volume XII: 47th & 49th Parallels
The northern survey was commanded by Isaac I. Stevens, who had only just resigned his army commission to become governor of the Washington Territory. It covered the area between the 47th and 49th parallels, between St. Paul, MN and Puget Sound on the Pacific coast. It was the most elaborate of the surveys, with a group of natural scientists, including J.G. Cooper, G. Gibbs, and George Suckley, and making the first use of photography west of the Mississippi. The views for this report were drawn by John Mix Stanley and Gustavus Sohon. All the prints that follow are by Stanley, unless noted otherwise.
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