|Governor Stevens. Library of Congress.|
In theory, a northern route to match the Oregon Trail would encourage Washington settlement, one of the Governor’s cherished goals. He also hoped that a railroad line along the route would make Puget Sound a commercial gateway to the Orient. A fast clipper ship could reach Shanghai three or four days sooner sailing from Seattle as compared to San Francisco … saving about a week on the round trip.
Shortly after his appointment as Governor, in 1853, Stevens had lobbied hard for a survey of the northern route. Naturally, as a trained engineer and surveyor, he could lead the expedition on his way west to take office. His lobbying succeeded, and his party completed the survey to Fort Vancouver in November.
The Army’s concern arose from the growing unrest among the Indians of eastern Washington. Troops stationed in the region could be supplied more easily by a road that connected with the head of steamboat navigation on the Missouri River. Ironically, the general unrest exploded into the Yakima War in late 1855. In the ensuing conflict, the Army had to make do with the supplies they had, with re-supply via the Oregon Trail.
Lieutenant John Mullan led crews east from Walla Walla in the spring of 1859, after the uprising was suppressed. Their route headed north-northwest until it was more or less even with the south edge of Lake Coeur d’Alene, where it turned east. Skirting the lake, the road continued up the course of the Coeur d’Alene River and crossed into Montana.
Center for the Rocky Mountain West,
University of Montana.
Of course, planners had grossly underestimated the cost of cutting a road through such rough country. By the time crews reached Fort Benton, in August 1860, expenses had escalated substantially. Washouts raised the price even further. In fact, part of the road had to be rerouted, including a major diversion to the north of Lake Coeur d’Alene. In the end, the road cost about $230,000, more than double the original estimate.
As it turned out, the military made very little use of the road – which is probably why no money was ever appropriated for routine maintenance. However, it has been estimated that as many as 20,000 civilians traveled the road the very first year after it was completed.
Later roads and rail lines followed the same route to serve the Couer d'Alene mining towns – Wallace, Kellogg, Mullan, and so on – and today's Interstate-90 highway follows much the same course.
|Randall A. Johnson, “Captain Mullan and His Road,” The Pacific Northwesterner, Vol. 39, No. 2 (1995). [Reprinted at HistoryLink.org ]|
|John Mullan, Report on the Construction of a Military Road from Fort Walla Walla to Fort Benton, Ye Galleon Press (May 1989).|
|“The Mullan Road,” Reference Series No. 287, Idaho State Historical Society (December 1964).|
|David Wilma, “Stevens, Isaac Ingalls (1818-1862),” Essay 5314, HistoryLink.org, Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History.|