As a result of the 1846 Oregon Treaty with Britain, the United States was for the first time a coast-to-coast empire. This happy circumstance amplified calls for a transcontinental canal or railroad, which manifested in a growing flood of articles, books, pamphlets and maps.
Offered here is one such map, by John Mills, a prominent architect and railroad advocate. Mills’ map depicts the southern half of the United States, showing how East Coast entrepots could be linked with San Francisco Bay via a southern route beginning at Van Buren on the Arkansas River, crossing the Rockies at the Northern Pass, following the Gila River Valley to the head of the Gulf of California and on to San Diego, then skirting the coast for the final leg to Sacramento. At right a small world map demonstrates how such a railroad would make the United States “a centre and thoroughfare” connecting Europe and Asia. Below these two maps is a profile showing elevations along the proposed route.
The map was included in a report submitted by a House of Representatives Committee charged with examining various proposals for connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans (“Canal or railroad between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Compiled from the reconnaissance of Col. Fremont, Lt. Col. Emory, Dr. Wislizenus & others.” 30th Congress, 2nd Session, House Report no. 145) Given the lack of information on the various routes, and the fraught nature of the topic, the Committee punted:
“The committee are not prepared to say to what extent, if at all, the aid of the government of the United States should be rendered to these various projects, or any of them. As, however, in the present great want of accurate knowledge in relation to most of these routes, it is not possible to determine which is the most desirable for the United States, and should receive the aid of the government, the committee have deemed it important that full and accurate surveys should be made of the different routes, as being entirely essential to an intelligent consideration and decision of the question.” (p. 4)
This eventually led to the famed Pacific Railroad Surveys of the early 1850s, but even then the issue was unresolved until the Civil War, which removed southern influence from Congress. In 1862 it passed the Pacific Railway Act, and the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads were charged with building a central route from Council Bluffs, Iowa to Sacramento, California.
This map and others in the Report were drawn by Robert Mills (1781-1855), a Charleston, South Carolina native who studied architecture with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Latrobe. He worked in Philadelphia and then Baltimore, where he fulfilled important commissions for churches, public buildings and monuments. He returned to Charleston in 1820, where he continued to win high-profile commissions while becoming more engaged in issues of communication and transportation. During these years he authored among other things a work on the Internal Improvement of South Carolina (1822) and a state Atlas (1825), all in service of his view that the state needed a statewide transportation network. He moved to Washington, D.C. in 1830, and over the next two decades received important commissions for Federal buildings in the national capital, including the Washington Monument. At the same time, his interest in “internal improvements” expanded to a continental scope, and in 1846 and 1848 he submitted memorials to Congress with plans for a trans-continental railroad.