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Little-Known Road Played Big Role in Conquest of the West

John Mullan's 624-mile feat of engineering, finished in 1862, provided a way across the Rockies until the railroads arrived.

June 15, 2003|Nicholas K. Geranios | Associated Press Writer

MULLAN, Idaho — Lewis and Clark get all the glory, but it was Army officer John Mullan who really opened the Inland Northwest to white settlement.

His 624-mile Mullan Road, completed in 1862, connected the Missouri and Columbia rivers and paved the way for soldiers, settlers and miners to pour into parts of Montana, Idaho and Washington.

Mullan is little remembered these days, even though his military road was an engineering landmark.

"The Mullan Road became the transcontinental passage that [President] Jefferson and [Meriwether] Lewis originally envisioned, but which in fact did not exist because of the difficulties of the traverse over the Rockies," said David Nicandri of the Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma.

The dirt road was constructed from 1859 to 1862, cost $230,000, and ran from Ft. Benton, Mont. -- end of the line for steamboats up the Missouri -- to Walla Walla, Wash., the last navigable point of the Columbia.

The road was used for more than a decade before it was rendered obsolete by transcontinental railroads. Today, Interstate 90 mirrors much of the old trail through Montana and Idaho.

Mullan may have faded from public consciousness, but there are many signs of his legacy. They include the small town of Mullan, Idaho, which has a museum and statue of the road builder. There are schools named in his honor, and a portion of I-90 is known as the Capt. John Mullan Highway.

There are also a series of roadside monuments in Montana, Idaho and Washington. They were erected early in the 20th century after a burst of publicity tied to Mullan's death in 1909 in Washington, D.C.

A series of six 14-foot-tall white statues in Montana and Idaho show a jaunty Mullan with his hand on his hip, rifle in the other hand and a pistol in his belt.

In Washington, several portions of the Mullan Road are marked by 8-ton stone pyramids. One is on a sidewalk amid the car dealers and restaurants of busy Sprague Avenue in Spokane.

That pyramid was almost moved a few years ago for the widening of Sprague to seven lanes. But a campaign led by local business owner Jack Riley derailed that plan.

"It's been there since 1922. It's part of our history and it should remain the same," Riley said. "It was like desecrating a grave."

While attention for Lewis and William Clark builds at the bicentennial of their Corps of Discovery expedition, Mullan's efforts are getting a few new looks among academics.

The Washington State Historical Society will open an exhibit early next year called "Beyond Lewis and Clark, the Army Explores the West," which will include the Mullan story, Nicandri said.

After Lewis and Clark, the U.S. Army paid little attention to the Inland Northwest for nearly 50 years until the railroad survey of 1853 by Gen. Isaac Stevens. Mullan was a member of that survey, which was trying to find a way to link the Missouri and Columbia.

Stevens decided that a railroad through the mountains was years away, but building a road was practical. Mullan, a graduate of West Point, was placed in charge.

"Mullan became the equivalent of the great pathfinder for the Inland Northwest," Nicandri said.

Unlike the popular image of civilization moving west, the Mullan Road mainly carried people from the Pacific coast to inland areas, said Bill Youngs, a history professor at Eastern Washington University in Cheney.

"A lot of settlement in the Inland Northwest came up from Portland and other parts of Oregon," Youngs said.

"He and Isaac Stevens are the Lewis and Clark for our region," said Youngs, who has received a grant to produce an Internet site about the Mullan Road.

Born in 1830 in Norfolk, Va., Mullan was nearly 29 when he started leading a crew of 70 men in construction of the road at Ft. Walla Walla on July 1, 1859.

The first 100 miles were light work because most of it was rolling prairie. When they reached the mountains, workers had to chop and clear trees, make cuts in hillsides, and build bridges and ferries over water.

The road was intended to be used by wagons, although in parts of the mountains, it resembled little more than a trail.

Operating in the Idaho Panhandle from August to early December 1859, "workers cut through this densely timbered section of 100 miles, building small bridges where required, grading in thousands of places [including] ... an ascent of 1 3/4 miles, to the summit of the [Bitterroot] mountains," Mullan wrote in his report.

Anxious to prove the military value of the road, Mullan requested that the Army send 300 soldiers to Ft. Benton with enough supplies to get to Ft. Walla Walla in 60 days.

The request was approved and on May 3, 1860, a 300-man contingent left St. Louis on three steamers. They landed at Ft. Benton on July 2 and waited for Mullan, who arrived Aug. 1.

"I had a long talk with Mullan about his road and his troubles," Lt. August V. Kautz wrote in his diary of the trip.

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