Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Rail Routes West



For folks with a keen interest in Western history, our Josephy Library is a small treasure ground. And like any treasure field, the prizes show up almost at random.

Summer intern Erik Anderson, a bibliophile and student of Don Snow’s at Whitman College, suggested I take a look at this one yesterday. He guessed that it was one of our rarer holdings.

And I think he’s right: Volume VI of the Reports of Explorations and Surveys, to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economic Route for a Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, a twelve-volume mammoth undertaking exploring four prospective railroad routes to the Pacific, made by the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers to the Secretary of War, published between 1855 and 1860.

Volume VI is the report of Lt. Henry Abbot on potential railroad routes from Sacramento Valley to the Columbia River. At the time, this was one of the best government documents relating the natural history of the far west, including five lithographs of fossil shells and a color lithograph of a Ponderosa pine.  

Our copy came from Grace Bartlett, and to her, presumably from her father, Robert Sawyer, one-time editor-publisher of the Bend Bulletin and chair of the State’s Highway Department. In a biographical sketch from the Bulletin that I have saved somewhere, Sawyer is listed as one of the 50 most influential Oregonians of the first half of the twentieth century. His story, and Grace’s story—Grace was Wallowa County’s de facto resident historian for many years, the author of many historical essays and the book, The Wallowa Country, 1867-77, and was the first curator of the Wallowa County Museum—are interesting and significant in their own rights. But we leave that for another day.

Reading Josephy on the Civil War in the West, I realize just how important the issue of rail routes was in the run-up to the War. Southern Senators pressed for a southern route, hoping to pick up a slave-state along the way. They were encouraged by sympathies in Southern California, and the new New Mexico territory, recently “gained” from Mexico. Free-staters pushed for Central or Northern routes and a Homestead Act, with hopes for more free states, Congressional and Presidential votes, and, probably, with some early vision of manifest destiny that would carry the country—progressively—to the Pacific.

And all had an eye on Western gold. That prize would go to the Union—without the railroad—and one wonders how big an impact Western gold had on the economies of North and South and War’s outcome.

There is a fine web site with descriptions of the twelve-volume railroad route work at http://www.cprr.org/Museum/Pacific_RR_Surveys/

I am especially interested in Volume XII, with Governor Isaac Steven’s accounts of explorations for a route along the 47-49th parallels. Stevens wore so many hats—Territorial Governor, Indian Agent, and Rail Route Surveyor—but the impact of his treaty making, which I am sure he saw in terms of service to the grander goal of route to the Pacific, is what stays with us and influences events down to this day.

Back to our copy—Sawyer’s copy, and then Grace’s copy—of Volume VI of the work. It describes a side route, a line that would link California and the Northwest. But the study includes very early botanical, zoological, and geographical information of the region. As an added bonus, our copy includes notes, made by Sawyer in the late 1920s or early 30s, identifying early place names and their modern equivalents, painstakingly hand-copied into the margins of the book by his daughter.    

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