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Traveling the West

"And the Iron Horse, the earth-shaker, the fire-breather, which tramples down the hills, which outruns the laggard winds, which leaps over the rivers, which grinds the rocks to powder and breaks down the gates of the mountain, he too shall build an empire and an epic." — "Statistics and Speculations Concerning the Pacific Railroad," Putnam's Magazine, September 1853

The transport of European and then American people and goods across the North American continent spread incrementally from the East Coast, over the Appalachians and via land and water. The rivers, from the Saint Lawrence to the Potomac and Ohio, were critical passageways, and the watershed of the Mississippi, while thought of as a vertical pathway, was truly an East-West water highway, with valleys easing the way west. Native American cross-country paths, used for centuries before European contact, formed the basis for many later post roads, highways, and railroads.

The Oregon country became a target for settlers early on. Wagon roads had to be built to carry them west, and the federal government sent Army troops to survey and build these roads. Long-established trade routes, such as the Santa Fe trail, were surveyed and improved. These expeditions, along with those of later topographic and military engineers who surveyed lands for potential railroad routes, continued to fill in the map of the West.

The discovery of gold in California added to the interest in strong East-West communication, and the major railroad lines crossed the country as the Civil War erupted. In his capacity as U.S. Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis (later to become President of the Confederacy) was in charge of the railroad surveys. Many of the topographical engineers took their military and mapping skills into the Civil War, among them John Charles Frémont, William H. Emory, G. K. Warren, and Amiel Whipple.

The railroads rapidly developed, not only as a means to get from point A to point B, but also as tourist transit to Yosemite Valley and Yellowstone National Park. The West became a destination.

Over the Pacific Railway to California   1
Hardy Gillard
Over the Pacific Railway to California, [1880]
NYPL, Map Division

New and Correct Map of the Great Rock Island Route   2
George F. Cram
New and Correct Map of the Great Rock Island Route, 1883
NYPL, Map Division

Yellowstone National Park   3
Henry Wellge
Yellowstone National Park, 1904
NYPL, Map Division

Refer to Map of the United States and Mexico (1859), which details explorers' trails, transportation routes, and settlement patterns.

Controlling the West Map
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