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#2: Determining the Practicable Route for the Transcontinental Railroad. (Series)

In the introductory column, I introduced you to Isaac Stevens who had been recently appointed Governor of the Washington Territory and assigned the task of heading a team to gather information to help determine the route for the future transcontinental railroad. Such an undertaking had required a great deal of preparation and collaboration, including the Secretary of State, Secretary of War and other government officials as well private entities such as the Hudson Bay Company. Logistics included securing advance assistance for Native American guides in the unexplored regions.

The exploration was divided into two Divisions, the Eastern and Western. The Eastern Division was under the immediate supervision of Stevens and the Western Division was headed by Captain George B. McClellan. [i] McClellan, who reported directly to Stevens, was instructed to “proceed at once to Puget Sound and explore the passes of the Cascade range, meeting the eastern party between that range and the Rocky mountains, as may be arranged by Governor Stevens.”[1]

Each Division had several teams that included a surgeon, naturalist, meteorologist, zoologist, surveyors, an artist and other professionals to handle the various tasks necessary to gather the required information for Congress. Other members of each group included the cook, mule team handlers and other individuals to handle supporting the functions of the parties. The mule team proved problematic for a time.

The mules presented a fine appearance, and were apparently strong and healthy, young and even more unbroken [green; untrained] and unserviceable than I had feared. Not a single full team of broken animals could be selected, and well broken riding animals were essential, for most of the gentlemen of the scientific corps were unaccustomed to riding.[2] (Stevens)

Barely on their way, Stevens wrote:

The wildness of the animals which were selected may be shown by the fact that when Mr. Lander mounted the mule selected for him for his own use he was thrown with such force as to dislocate his shoulder, which required the force of three men to replace it… [3] (Stevens)

One entire camp was erected to address the breaking and training of the mules, which took several weeks. Stevens was able to obtain the services of a second mule team that had been brought up from the Shenandoah for the use of Mr. Tinkham; “a good teamster, provisions for 15 days, and the necessary tents, arms, and ammunition. Mr. Tinkham’s party performed meteorological and astrological observations.

Each team had an assigned area to explore, so the exploration spread, reaching out into various areas both known and unknown. Each day’s progress depicts the weather, various difficulties addressed, tasks accomplished and dispatches sent to Washington. It seems to take quite a bit of time, but finally, Stevens’ begins his leg of the exploration on June 4, 1853. It was his desire to reach the Sauk Rapids by that Friday, crossing them on Saturday. The team relied heavily on the advance team information from topographer John Landler who provided possible camp locations as well as hazards.

Not too far from Fort Snelling, Stevens writes:

One of the curiosities of our vicinity, which was sketched by Mr. Stanley,…is the Minne-ha-ha, or the Laughing Water, called Brown’s Falls…It is situated west of the Mississippi, and distant about three miles from Fort Snelling Ten miles above the Falls the stream flows from Lake Calhoun, and it passes through a level but fertile prairie, its margin decked with a wholesome growth of willow, poplar, and hazel, while at a short distance there are little forests of black-jack (Quereus imbricaria, Michaux) and other trees of like character. Here the sheet of water is from twenty to twenty-five feet wide, and its fall forty-one feet. The rock over which it pours shelters an oval cave about seventy-five feet wide and thirty feet from the falling water to the back…Though the magnitude of this cascade is not such as to excite or wonder, its picturesque beauty and pleasing melody attract the admiration of every visitor. [4]


Below the Falls, the aspect is quite different. The stream glides along in its rocky channel, forty to fifty feet from the top of the steep rocky banks, for about four miles, to the Mississippi river, overshadowed on both sides, by a forest of oak, ash, maple, and other trees, with their attendant vines and deep undergrowth. The soil above this valley is very rich, and there are good grounds for the opinion that the axe, the plough, and the mill-wheel will before long invade and materially change the character of the scene. [5]

They broke camp on June 6th at 10:00 a.m. to head for Camp Davis on the north bank of the Osakis or Sauk river.

TODAY: Minnesota’s Minnehaha Falls was made famous by author Henry Wadsworth Longfellow through his poem “The Song of Hiawatha.” Ironically, Longfellow had never seen the falls. The Falls are part of the National Park Service.

[1] Stevens, Isaac. “Part I, General Report, Narrative of 1853” Page 32.

[2] Ibid. Page 36.

[3] Ibid. Page 37.

[4] Ibid. Page 39.

[5] Ibid. Page 39.

[i] McClellan, a graduate of West Point, was a civil engineer soldier who had served with distinction as a brevet second lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). Following the war, he left the Army to work on railroads until the outbreak of the American Civil War.

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