History of Transportation in Washington

Discover your
family's story.

Enter a grandparent's name to get started.

choose a state:
Start Now

Frequent reference has been made in the narrative of Washington history to the opening of roads to give the Puget Sound region land communication with other parts of the country, and open a way for the mails. In 1832 the only means of access from the Columbia River was by a cattle trail, while immigrants and their luggage were conveyed in canoes up the Cowlitz River, after which they were compelled to take to the rude trail cut by the immigrants of 18-15. Warbass & Townsend, storekeepers at Monticello, advertised in Dec. 1852 to forward passengers and freight, saying that the mail- boat would leave for Cowlitz landing every Tuesday morning at 6 o’clock. They had some very large bateaux running on the river capable of accommodating 8 or 10 families and their plunder, including wagons, yokes, chains,’ etc. A bateau managed by 8 or 9 expert Indians would reach Cowlitz landing in about three days, the distance from Fox’s landing, or Rainier, on the Columbia being 34 miles. Olympia Columbine, May 14, 1853. Five days were oftener required for the passage, and the charges were heavy.

Subscriptions were taken in Dee. 1852 to raise money to construct a wagon-way up the east side of the Cowlitz to connect at the landing with this road. A petition was also circulated for signatures praying the Oregon legislature for an appropriation to aid the citizens of northern Oregon in surveying and completing a territorial road from the Columbia to the head of Puget Sound, a distance of eighty miles. This road was put under contract in 1833: A mo-‘ement was at the same time set on foot to open a road over the Cascade Mountains toward Walla Walla. In the summer of 1852 R. H. Lansdale explored a route up the Snohomish River via the Snoqualimich fork to the great falls, and thence eastward to the base of the mountains, where it followed up the south fork of the Dewamps or Black River’ to the summit of the mountains. The trail then turned directly toward the headwaters of the middle fork of the Yakima, and thence down the mountains towards the Columbia. This appears to have been the first survey of the Yakima pass by citizens of the U. S. A portion of this route was an old Indian trail, which could then have been traversed by pack trains without serious inconvenience. Lansdale, who resided on Whidbey Island, proposed to begin the construction of a road over this route in the following spring, which would have brought the immigration to the lower portion of the Sound. Ebey, the member of the Oregon legislature from that region, failed, however, to obtain the approval of that body to establish a territorial road from Snohomish falls to Fort Walla Walla, the assembly preferring to memorialize congress for a military road. But he secured instead a road law for the counties on Puget Sound, which partly accomplished the object desired. This law provided for the accumulation of a road fund out of a tax of four mills on the dollar, which, with the assistance of subscriptions by persons interested, would be sufficient to construct a good wagon road from the mouth of the Cowlitz to Olympia, and of another across the Cascade Mountains. Before work could be begun in the spring, news was received that congress had appropriated $20,000 for a military road from Fort Steilacoom to Fort Walla Walla. Fearing government delay in furnishing the money for its construction, and wishing to have a road opened for the next immigration to come direct to Puget Sound, the people undertook the work themselves, and endeavored to bring the road to Fort Steilacoom, thus inviting congressional aid, and securing a terminus near Olympia. A survey was therefore made of the Nachess pass, and the road brought down the valley of White River to the junction of Green River, where it turned south across the Puyallup to Fort Steilacoom. The road company proceeded to its task, about fifty men enlisting for the work on the promise of some 150 subscribers to the fund that they should be paid. Before its completion government surveyors were in the field limier McClellan at the head of the western division of the Stevens exploring expedition. McClellan’s instructions from the secretary of war, dated May 6, 1853, were to use every exertion to open a road over the Cascade Mountains in time for the fall emigration; but as McClellan did not arrive at Fort Vancouver until past the middle of June, nor leave it until July 27th, whence he proceeded northward, dividing his party, and examining both sides of the Cascade range, he could do nothing more than guarantee the payment of $1,300 earned by the men working on the last division of the road west of the mountains, promise to recommend the payment by congress of $5,700 still due the citizens’ company, and give his approval of the pass selected.

The road was so far completed that a small immigration passed over it with wagons and cattle, reaching their destination with less suffering than usual. Had it been more numerous, it would have been better for the next immigration. But congress never reimbursed the road-makers. In the following summer Richard Arnold exhausted the $20,000 appropriation without much improving the route, making but a single change to avoid the steep hill on the Puyallup, where wagons had to be let down with ropes. This, like all the military roads on the coast, was a miserable affair, which soon fell into disuse, as the people were unable to complete it, and the Indian wars soon practically put a seal upon it.

Early in 1854 F. W. Lander undertook at his own cost the survey of a railroad route from Puget Sound by the valley of the Columbia to the vicinity of the South pass, or Bridger’s pass, of the Rocky Mountains, with a view to connecting Puget Sound by rail with a railroad to California, Lander’s idea being that a direct line to Lake Superior would be exposed to severe cold, injurious to the material and the service of the road. He objected, besides, that, in the event of a war with England, it would be too near the frontier, and also that a railroad on a frontier was not in a position to develop territory. Lander’s Railway to the Pacific, 10-14. Lander made his reconnaissance, of which I have given some account in my History of Oregon, the territorial legislature memorializing congress to make an appropriation compensating him for the service. Wash. H. Jour., 1854, 167. His report was published, and congress appropriated $5,000 to defray the expense of the survey. U. S. Stat. at Large, 1S34-5, 645; Gov. Stevens without doubt having influenced both the territorial and congressional action. The legislature, at its first session, enacted laws for the location of territorial roads from Steilacoom to Seattle, from Steilacoom to Vancouver, from Seattle to Bellingham Bay, from Olympia to Shoalwater Bay, from Cathlamet to the house of Sidney S. Ford in Thurston county, from Shoalwater Bay to Gray Harbor, and thence to intersect the road to Olympia, from Puget Sound to the mouth of the Columbia, from Seattle to intersect the immigrant road, and from Olympia to Monticello. Wash. Stat., 1854, 463-70. These various nets were intended to provide a complete system of communication between the settlements, as they then existed. Others were added the following year. They were to be opened and worked by the counties through which they passed, the costs to be paid out of the county treasury in the manner of county roads.

George Gibbs and J. L. Brown undertook to explore a route from Shoalwater Bay to Olympia in Dec. 1853, and had proceeded a part of the way, when they were compelled to return by stress of weather and scarcity of provisions. The exposure and hardships of the expedition resulted in the death of Brown. In the following July, E. D. Warbass, Michael Schaffer, Knight, and Geisey set out from Cowlitz landing to locate a road to Shoalwater Bay, which resulted in opening communication between the settlements on the coast, and points along the route inviting settlement. By this route, also, Astoria, the distributing point for the mails, could be reached. The first legislative body had memorialized congress relative to establishing a mail route between Astoria and Olympia, but by the course marked out for the territorial road to Cathlamet. Subsequently, in 1866, $10,000 was asked for to open a wagon road from the Columbia at Cathlamet to the Boisfort prairie, to there intersect the road to Olympia. Neither request was granted, though the latter was repeated in 1873. The legislature of 1854 also required their delegates in congress to endeavor to procure an appropriation of $50,000, and a section of land in each township along the different territorial roads, to be located by the road commissioners, to aid in the construction of these highways and the necessary bridges. It asked, moreover, for $30,000 to be expended in opening a practicable wagon-road from Vancouver to Steilacoom; for $25,000 for a military road from The Dalles to Vancouver; and for $25,000 to complete the military road over the Cascades, and to pay the people the amount expended by them in opening it. Wash. Jour. House, 1854, 163-6. To the propositions for roads connecting the military stations, congress lent a willing ear and granted the appropriations asked for, but gave no heed to the appeal to complete and pay for the road to Walla Walla, for which the legislature continued to petition year after year. During the summer of 1855 a reconnaissance was made of a line of road from The Dalles to Vancouver, and from Vancouver to Steilacoom. The first was completed Nov. 23, 1856, but in the following winter was so injured by heavy rains as to require ten thousand dollars to repair it, which was expended on it in 1857. The road to Steilacoom was begun at Cowlitz landing, on the west side of the river, and constructed as far as Steilacoom by Nov. 1, 1857.

Upon petition from the legislature of 1855-6, 835,000 was appropriated for a road from Steilacoom to Bellingham Bay, and a reconnaissance was made the following year. In 1863 a franchise was granted to complete the military trail to Whatcom, followed by another petition in 1864 to congress to continue the road to its northern terminus.

In Jan. 1858 an appropriation was asked to construct a road from Fort Townsend down the west side of Hood Canal to intersect the road to Cowlitz landing and Vancouver, which was refused. The legislature of 1859-60 combined two rejected projects in one, and asked in vain for a military road from Baker Bay, at the mouth of the Columbia, via Shoal water Bay and Gray Harbor, to Port Townsend. Again a military road was asked from Port Townsend to False Dungeness, where the town of Cherbourg was located, afterward called Port Angeles, with a like failure. Another memorial in 1866 prayed for an appropriation for a military road from Port Angeles to Gray Harbor, upon the ground that the character of the Indians in Clallam co. deterred settlement and improvement; and also that in the event of a blockade of the straits by a foreign power a road to Gray Harbor would be useful in transporting military stores to any point on Puget Sound. But as no foreign war threatened, the other reasons were found lacking in cogency.

By act of congress approved Feb. 5, 1855, $30,000 was appropriated, at the recommendation of Stevens and others connected with the Northern Pacific railroad survey, for the construction of a military road from the great falls of the Missouri to Fort Walla Walla, a distance not far short of 700 miles, John Mullan being the officer assigned to the survey. See Airman’s Military Road, in which he relates the inception of this project. Mullan was a member of Stevens’ exploring party. His report contains a great deal of information, and the topographical map accompanying it, the work of T. Kolecki, is the best in the whole series of transcontinental explorations. This expedition determined the existence of an atmospheric river of heat, varying in breadth from one to a hundred miles, giving mild winters in the lofty regions of the Rocky Mountains. This work was interrupted by the Indians. In the success of this road the people of Washington saw the realization of their dream of an immigrant highway from the east direct to Puget Sound, the northern location being peculiarly acceptable to them for the reason that it made necessary the completion of a route over the Cascade Mountains.

No difficulty seems to have been experienced in procuring appropriations for this road, which was looked upon as the forerunner of a Pacific railway, besides being useful in military and Indian affairs. As to its use in peopling the Puget Sound region, it had none. A few troops and one small party of immigrants entered the territory by the Mullan road previous to the coming of the gold-seekers, who quickly peopled two new territories. Next to the original immigrant road, it has been a factor in the history of the northwest. Mullan was assisted in his surveys by A. M. Engell and T. H. Kolecki topographers, C. Howard civil engineer, B. L. Misner astronomer, J. Mullan physician and geologist, Talalem and Smith general aids, and E. Spangler wagon- master. Or. Statesman, May 10, 1859. His escort consisted of 100 men of the 9th infantry under N. Wickliffe. Lewis Taylor was assistant surgeon, George E. Hale private secretary, Augustus Sohon and Kolecki topographical engineers. David Williamson superintended the advance working party. S. F. Bulletin, May 20, 1801. The cost of the road was $230,000. Mullan’s rept, in Sen. Doc., 43, 37th cong. 3d sess.; Bancroft’s Handbook, 1863, 321.

In Jan. 1859 the legislature memorialized congress relative to a military road from Seattle via the Yakima pass to Fort Colville. The merits of this pass had long been understood. Its repute among the Indians had determined the location of Seattle. Bell’s Settlement of Seattle, MS., 7. McClellan, in 1833, had surveyed it and pronounced it practicable for a wagon-road or railroad. In the summer of 1859 the citizens of King co. had expended about $1,300 in opening a wagon-road from Snoqualimieh prairie to Rattlesnake prairie, but failed to receive an appropriation for their work. In the summer of 1860 some settlers of the Snohomish Valley explored a route through the Cascade Mountains between the sources of the Skihomish River and the Wanatchee. Snoqualimich pass was explored in 1862 through the efforts of Robert Smallman, who circulated a petition and obtained the means to open a horse-trail by this route to the cast side of the mountains, an appropriation of two townships of land being asked for the following year to construct a wagon road from Seattle to Walla Walla, the petitioners averring that the Snoqualimich pass was of less elevation than any yet discovered. As in the other instances, some work was done upon this route by the county of King and by the territory, amounting in 1869 to $13,000, the road being still `almost impassable by reason of its incompleteness.’ Still other attempts were made to secure roads over which wagons could pass between some point on Puget Sound and the open country east of the mountains, where, with the exception of some grading and bridging, natural roads existed in any direction. A memorial setting forth the need of a post-road from Bellingham Bay to Fort Colville, and declaring Parke pass of the Cascades the best heretofore discovered, was addressed to congress in Jan. 1861, with the usual failure to gain the end desired. In Jan. 1862 the Nisqually Road Company was incorporated by the legislature, with the object of constructing a wagon-road from a point on the Nisqually River near the mouth of the south fork, in an easterly direction, to the junction of the bead waters of the Cowlitz River, thence through the Nisqually pass to Red Lake Valley, and thence to intersect the road leading from Simcoe to the Wenass River near the mouth of the Nachess River. After exploring and expending the means at their command, the company, through the legislature, asked congressional aid in January 1864, but not receiving it, their work remained uncompleted.

In January 1860 a memorial was passed by the legislature relative to establishing a military road from Fort Vancouver to Fort Simcoe by a ‘good pass discovered through the Cascade Mountains between McClellan and the Columbia River passes, of less elevation than any yet discovered, except that of the Columbia.’ This could only refer to the Klikitat pass, which could not be said to have been ‘discovered’ within the period of American occupation of the country, though for all purposes of a memorial it sufficed to say so. Capt. Crane, in 1855, made a reconnaissance from the Columbia opposite The Dalles to the catholic mission on the Ahtanam River, and beyond to the Selah fishery, estimating the cost of a military road to he $15,000. He also made a reconnaissance the same year from The Dalles to the Blue Mountains via Walla Walla” placing the cost at $20,000, which showed no great difficulties to be overcome, the distance to Walla Walla being 176 miles. Sen. Doc. 26, 40, 34th tong. 1st sess. In point of fact, a pack-trail had been opened through it to the Yakima country in 1855. Oregon Argus, July 31, 1858; Portland Standard, Aug. 5, 1858. But all this interest in and effort to secure roads, better than a volume of topography, explains and illustrates the natural inaccessibility of western Washington except by the highway of the sea and the Fuca Strait. There never had been an immigrant wagon-road to Puget Sound, nor had all the money appropriated by congress been sufficient to make one good one from Walla Walla to Steilacoom, whereas it was squandered in fruitless trail-making west of the mountain barrier, which for so long kept all the world away from the shores of that wonderful Mediterranean sea which bears upon its placid bosom the argosies of the northwest.

Naturally there has been much rivalry between the towns situated nearest the different passes as to which should secure the terminus of a government road or railroad. Taking them in their order north of the Columbia pass, there are the Klikitat, the McClellan, the Cowlitz or Nisqually, the Nachess, the Yakima, the Snoqualimich, the Cady, and the Parke passes, that were explored. The first is a short pass from the Columbia River to the Yakima Valley. The McClellan pass is at the head of the Cathlapootle River, trending south and east around the spurs of Mount Adams, and entering the Yakima country by the most western fork of the Klikitat River. Pac. R. R. Repts, i. 203-4. The Cowlitz pass appears from the best descriptions to be identical with the Nisqually pass, both rivers heading at nearly the same point in the Cascade Range, whence the trail runs north-cast by a branch of the Nachess to the Nachess trail and river. This gap was partially explored in 1858 by William Packwood and James Longmire, the legislature of that winter passing an act to locate a territorial road through it, and appointing the explorers commissioners to make the location, in company with G. C. Blankenship. A further survey was made the following summer, resulting in the incorporation of the Nisqually Road Company, already mentioned, in 1862, whose road was never completed. The height of the Cowlitz pass is given by the surveyors of the Northern Pacific Railroad, whom Packwood accompanied on their explorations, at 4,210 feet. The height of the Nachess pass, next north of the Cowlitz, was said by McClellan to be 4,890 feet. The Yakima pass, called by him interchangeably the Yakima and Snoqualme, was measured by barometer also, and found to be 3,468 feet. Pac. R. R. Reps, 192. The railroad survey makes it nearly 700 feet higher. McClellan did not survey the true Snoqualimich pass, but the railroad survey makes it about 330 feet lower than the Yakima pass, which McClellan pronounced `barely practicable,’ while he gave his preference to Seattle as a terminus of the Pacific railroad. The elevation of Cady pass was given as 6,147 feet, and of Stampede pass, a recent discovery, at 3,690 feet.

The difficulties to be overcome in exploring among the mountains west of the summit of the Cascade Range might well deter the public from knowledge of their features and resources. But a few adventurous spirits from time to time made some slight advance in the practical study of Washington topography. Among the earliest of these were S. S. Ford, Jr, R. S. Bailey, and John Edgar, who subsequently perished in the Indian war. In August 1852 these adventurers ascended Mount Rainier, or Tacoma, as it is now popularly named, being the first Americans to visit this noble peak. The route pursued by them was by the Nisqually River, which brought them to the base of the main mountain, 53 miles southeast of Olympia. Other parties have ascended this and other peaks.

James G. Swan is said to have been the first explorer of the Quillehyute country; at what date is uncertain, but in 1869 a trail was cut from Pisht River, emptying into the Fuca Strait twenty miles west of Port Angeles, to the Quillehyute River, by A. Colby, John Weir, D. F. Brownfield, J. C. Brown, and IV. Smith, who took claims with the intention of remaining on the Quillehyute, the legislature creating a county for their benefit. But as their example was not followed by others, they returned in 1871 to the older settlements, since which time a few families have gone to the lower Quillehyute prairie to reside, The Wynooche River, a tributary of the Chehalis, was never explored to its head waters until June 187,5, when a company was formed in Olympia for that purpose. They found it a succession of rapids, and having a canon three miles in length, with walls of rock from 200 to 300 feet high. The first party to penetrate the Olympic range to the ocean was formed in 1878, on Hood Canal.



MLA Source Citation:

Bancroft, Hubert H. Bancroft Works, Volume 31, History Of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, 1845-1889. San Francisco: The History Company. 1890. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 22 October 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/washington/history-of-transportation-in-washington.htm - Last updated on Aug 16th, 2013


Categories:


Contribute to the Conversation!

Our "rules" are simple. Keep the conversation on subject and mind your manners! If this is your first time posting, we do moderate comments before we let them appear... so give us a while to get to them. Once we get to know you here, we'll remove that requirement.

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Newsletter Signup

We currently provide two newsletters. Why not take both for a run?

Genealogy Update: We send out this newsletter whenever we feature a new, or significantly updated, collection or database on our website.

Circle of Nations: We send out this newsletter whenever we feature a new (or significantly updated) Native American collection or database on our website.

Once you've clicked on the Subscribe button above you'll receive an email from us requesting confirmation. You must confirm the email before you will be able to receive any newsletter.