Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Congress Approves Appropriation for Planning the Mullan Military Road [otd 02/05]

Governor Stevens. Library of Congress.
On February 5, 1855, Congress approved a $30,000 appropriation to plan the construction of a military road from Fort Walla Walla, Washington to Fort Benton, on the Missouri River. Major impetus for such a road came from Isaac I. Stevens, Governor of Washington Territory, with support from the U. S. Army’s Department of the Columbia. Stevens had the ultimate dream of a transcontinental railroad running along a northern route, ending on Puget Sound.

In theory, a northern route to supplement the Oregon Trail would encourage Washington settlement, one of the Governor’s cherished goals. But mostly he hoped that a rail line 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.

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. But a railway was most likely years in the future, so they saw a military road as a practical answer to their supply needs.

Shortly after his appointment as Governor, in 1853, Stevens had lobbied hard for a survey of a northern route. Naturally, as a trained engineer and surveyor, he could lead the expedition on his way west to take office. The lobbying succeeded, and his party started from Minnesota in June 1853. The expedition completed the survey to Fort Vancouver five months later.

But funding to build the road was slow in coming. Then, two years after Stevens completed the survey, the general Indian unrest exploded into the Yakima War. In the ensuing conflict, the Army had to make do with the supplies they had, with re-supply via the Oregon Trail. The series of conflicts continued into late 1858, and served to emphasize the need for the road. Funds were provided just months after the uprisings were suppressed.

Lieutenant John Mullan led crews east from Walla Walla in the spring of 1859. Their route headed north-northeast 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.

John Mullan.
Center for the Rocky Mountain West,
University of Montana.
In his report for that period, Mullan described the crossing they used as “probably” the lowest they could find, and said that he had named it "Sohon's Pass" ... “in honor of Mr. Sohon, who made the first topographical map of it in our expedition.” That name appeared on maps for many years, but today’s designation – St. Regis Pass – replaced it by around 1900.

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.
References: [French]
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.


  1. There's a road sign near Cataldo mission (I think) where you drive on a stretch of the Mullan Road. But that's paved. Is there any place where you can drive, or walk, on the actual road?

  2. There is if you count gravel (no doubt of more recent vintage) as being the "actual" road. The Washington state DOT says some of the "original" gravel road runs near Washtucna -- that's about 25 miles south of I-90 from the Ritzville exit.

  3. You can walk on existing sections of the Mullan Road near 4th of July Pass just of I-90 east of Coeur d'Alene and in Heyburn Park. Also, the Mullan Road did not cross the Bitterroots at "Mullan Pass" but crossed via Sohon Pass (Now called St. Regis Pass) about 2 miles sw of Mullan Pass. The Mullan Road did cross Montana's Mullan Passs near Helena.

  4. I had the impression, from passing mentions in Idaho tourism blurbs, that those other Idaho portions you mentioned were paved. The questioner seemed to want something more “vintage” -- so I pointed out the gravel sections over in Washington.

    I’d love to see a primary reference that specifically identifies the route through Sohon [St. Regis] Pass. The only mention I found of that path is in the ISHS monograph (#287) I listed. They do not cite any reference, unfortunately.

    The problem is … my U.S. Geological Survey (National Geographic DVD) topo map shows the “Old Mullan Road” paralleling the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River and crossing at the Idaho-Montana Mullan Pass. The route does not come anywhere near St. Regis Pass. Because I’ve found some minor discrepancies in the ISHS reference series, and had no other source, I decided to go with the USGS version.

    If you have a good primary reference to the St. Regis route, I would have no problem changing the blog item.

  5. See Mullan's 1861 report, "Military Road from Fort Benton to Fort Walla Walla" (House of Representatives, 36th Congress, 2nd Session, Ex. Doc. 44) p23-24 ..."all our force is now working vigorusly up the western slope of the divide of the mountains. ... we have found a pass, which, probably, is the lowest in the Coeur d'Alene range, and which, in honor of Mr. Sohon, who made the first topographical map of it... I have termed "Sohon Pass". It is a low..saddle between high peaks.... The eastern slope of this divide is most beautiful for our purpose...Our road over it is entirely on the western slope It will be by our road about 1 1/2 miles from base to summit." Mullan and his crew show Sohon Pass on their maps with the road following this route.
    In Mullan's 1863 report,"Report on the Construction of a Military Road from Fort Walla Walla to Fort Benton" and published in 1963 (Reprinted by Ye Galleon Press and availabe on internet at www.narhist.ewu.edu, p122 "there are two passes to the north and east of Sohon's Pass;the first, 2 milestothe nort is higher (this would be Lookout Pass): the second is some ten miles distant, at the north fork of Coeur d'Alene (Mullan called the prsent South Fork east of Wallace the North Fork, This woud be the present Mullan Pass - although off some in distance and direction , there are only 3 passes across Bitterroot in this area.)
    The NPRR crossed the divide at what now is Lookout Pass in 1890. Around that time the name Sohon Pass got changed by mapmakers to St. Regis Pass.. You can find Sohon Pass on old maps and modern maps show St. Regis Pass. It is in T47N, R6E, Section 5, not T48 N as listed on ISHS sheet 117. Also, the GLO map is in error as it calls Sohon Pass "Mullan Pass". The Yellowston Trail dis follow the South Fork and went over Mullan Pass and was later relocated to Lookout Pass. I-90 now crosses Lookout Pass. A local Mullan Road group traied to get the name Sohon Pass restored as named my Mullan but so far has been unsuccesful.

  6. Thanks for the information and reference -- which I have incorporated in the blog item. I would agree with the notion of changing the name back to Sohon Pass -- there's seems no good justification for changing it.

  7. Do you mean that the road went from "Walla Walla, Washington to Fort Benton, Missouri" or do you mean that the road went to Fort Benton, on the Missouri River? Your post makes it sound like Fort Benton was in the state of Missouri, whereas Fort Benton was actually in what would become Montana, on the Missouri River, not in Missouri.

  8. Ouch! (re Marcus9957 comment.) Somewhere during a revision, I dropped part of that sentence ... which I have now fixed. Thanks for catching the problem.