Too Magnificent to Build

William Gwin (D-CA)

William Gwin (D-CA)

If a majority favored the transcontinental railroad, but differed over where to build it, then why not satisfy everyone? Tennessee-born California Senator William McKendree Gwin proposed just that. The main route could go across New Mexico and North Texas, which would make Southern promoters happy. To that he added spur lines reaching San Francisco and Puget Sound, terminals preferred by Stephen Douglas and Asa Whitney. For eastern terminals, Gwin proposed Council Bluffs, Iowa, Kansas City, and somewhere on the Gulf of Mexico.

Why not? The United States, a young nation full of ambition, had only a few years before waged one of the most successful wars of conquest in history. Surely it could build a railroad. How hard could it be? Gwin’s proposal required 5,115 miles of rail and 97,536,000 acres of land, but that proved too rich even for the heady optimism of the nineteenth century. Even committed railroad advocates balked at the price. Michigan’s Lewis Cass declared it “too magnificent” for his blood.

All of that meant that someone would have to lose and nobody in Congress wanted to go home and tell the voters that they ensured someone else got all the riches that a terminal on the great Pacific railroad would have brought. Texas Senator Thomas Rusk proposed that Congress pass the buck by passing a bill to have the president choose the route and terminals. The contract to build the railroad would go to the winner of a bidding competition. By February, 1853, the Rusk bill looked like a done deal.

Thomas Rusk (D-TX)

Thomas Rusk (D-TX)

But not everyone had Rusk’s confidence in signing the decision over to Franklin Pierce with his Southern politics and Southern cabinet. Rusk had always pressed for a southerly route himself. Had he accepted leaving the decision to someone else or did Rusk’s proposal really rest on the confidence that Pierce would decide to give him the route he wanted?

Whatever Rusks’ motives, voting the decision out of the hands of Congress also meant voting away the chance to take home a secure win. Those concerns aligned with Lewis Cass’ new objection that the Congress ought not fund the construction of a railroad within the bounds of a state. Cass had a point. The Constitution permitted the national government to buy land within a state, but only with that state’s consent. The demands of geography could put Congress into a serious bind as the states saw dollar signs and demanded high prices for surrendering land that a route could not do without.

James Shields of Illinois heard in Cass’ concern an opportunity. He put his head together with Douglas and Missouri’s Henry S. Geyer and the three offered an apparently innocent amendment prohibiting any appropriation for the railroad from going to buy land within any extant state. Any railroad from New Orleans, Memphis, Vicksburg, or any other Southern state east of the Mississippi would have to cross the length of Texas before it hit the territories where Congress could do as it pleased. Southern support for the Rusk bill promptly evaporated, leaving the Southern route proposals dead in the water.

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