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Northern Pacific Railroad

When the project of a railroad across the American Continent was first broached, and for many years afterward, the northern route, by way of the valleys of the Missouri and the Columbia rivers, was the only one thought of. This was the route explored by Lewis and Clarke in the first decade of the century. It was known to be a route through valleys and over plains for nearly "its entire distance; it crossed the Rocky Mountain barriers at low altitudes; it approached the Pacific by way of the greatest river of the western coast; at its farthest limit lay the most capacious and beautiful deepwater tidal estuary to be found on the continent. It avoided the deserts lying further south, and was believed to traverse the only continuously habitable belt of country stretching from the Mississippi to the Pacific coast. Long before the epoch of rail transportation this route had been explored for military and commercial purposes by the United States Government.

Less than six months after the De Witt Clinton, the third locomotive built on American soil, had made its initial trip from Albany to Schenectady, when there were less than a hundred miles of railroad in the country, Judge S. W. Dexter, of Ann Arbor, Mich., proposed, in an editorial in his paper, the Weekly Emigrantj of February 6, 1832, that a railroad should be built from the Great Lakes, across more than two thousand miles of unbroken, almost unexplored, wilderness, to the Pacific Ocean.

In the winter of 1836-7 John Plumbe, a Welsh civil engineer who had worked under Moncure Robinson in surveying a route over the Alleghanies for the State of Pennsylvania in 1831-2, and who had afterward acted as superintendent of the railroad between Richmond and Petersburg, Va., asked a few friends and acquaintances to meet him at his home in Dubuque, la., to discuss privately the building of a railroad to the Pacific coast. Plumbe, who acted as correspondent for papers in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Cincinnati, had long been advocating the building of a transcontinental railroad. Pursuant to a call issued by him, the first publie convention ever held to discuss the Pacific railroad project, met in Dubuque March 81, 1838.

Then came Asa Whitney, a New York merchant, who, while on a business trip to China, became filled with the idea of a railroad across the continent as the means of securing for America the rich trade of the Orient. Returning to New York in 1840, he gave up business, and with the fanaticism of a Mad Mullah preaching a holy war devoted ten years of his life and all of his fortune to advocating the immediate building of a transcontinental railroad. In 1845 he submitted to Congress a proposal to undertake the building of the road in consideration of a grant of land sixty miles wide for the length of the route. For the next five years he bombarded the national legislature with memorials and addresses, carrying on, at the same time, a vigorous publicity campaign.

When Whitney made his final exit, Josiah Perham, of Boston, took up the role of prophet to carry on the crusade for a transcontinental railroad. To Perham his efforts were literally in the nature of a crusade, for he believed he had a divine mission to bring about the building of the road. Perham was a Maine woolen manufacturer, who lost all his property by unwise plunging in land speculation. Going to Boston in 1842, he started a wool commission business, in which he prospered for a time, but was again a bankrupt seven years later. Perham extended his cheap excursion business operations to include all New England and Canada. In 1850 he brought more than two hundred thousand excursionists to Boston. Then he began sending parties to New York, Niagara, Quebec, and other points of interest. In twelve years he had made another fortune, and had become one of the most widely known men in the country.

California by the early 1850s had become a part of the United States, and was experiencing significant immigration, partly if not largely due to the 1849 Gold Rush. One result was the need for atranscontinental railroad. In 1853, four surveys were organized by the War Department to find the mostpractical route to the Pacific.

Perham's plan, perfected in 1853, was to apply the popular idea to the financing of the Pacific Railroad. He thought he could collect a million subscriptions of a hundred dollars each from the general public, which, he imagined, was eager to make such an investment from patriotic motives. The People's Pacific Railroad was incorporated in Maine, March 20, 1860. In Congress Perham received scant encouragement, even though he was able to secure the support of the omnipotent Thad Stevens. Finally a bill was drafted which met the views of Congress, but not until after the Union Pacific and Central Pacific had been launched. The measure was signed by President Lincoln July 2, 1864. The People's Pacific Railroad became the forerunner of the Northern Pacific; but Perham did not live to see the work under way. His last fortune was frittered away on this Pacific Railroad propaganda, and, like Whitney, he died a poor man.

The acquisition of territory from Mexico, following the war of 1846-8, the gold discoveries in California and the rush of population to that region, and later certain important political considerations resulting from the war of the Rebellion, caused the support of the government to be given to the middle route. Thus the first railroad completed to the Pacific terminated at the Bay of San Francisco, instead of at Puget Sound or the mouth of the Columbia River. The northern route was long neglected.

Although a grant of land was made in its behalf two years after the two companies were chartered to build the middle line, one transcontinental highway appeared to be sufficient for the time; and the one which was supported with heavy subsidies of government bonds, and large land grants, and ran to the romantic shores of the Golden State, easily secured and monopolized public interest and confidence. The northern project languished for want of support, and more than once came near being abandoned in despair by its few earnest advocates. After capital had finally been secured to begin work upon it, and its advantages had been fairly set before the public, the enterprise had to encounter fresh vicissitudes.

It was overwhelmed in the financial crash of 1873, and struggled for many years after being rescued from bankruptcy to merely hold the unfinished lines it had built. Before it could regain the confidence of capital and push forward to a connection in the Rocky Mountains its widely separated "ends of track" a second Pacific road had been opened by the Southern route, built by California capitalists with wealth acquired from the generosity of the government toward the first line.

Thus the Northern Pacific Railroad, though the first projected of three great transcontinental lines, is the last to be completed.

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Page last modified: 26-11-2017 18:50:25 ZULU