In the spring of 1859, Lt. John Mullan (1830-1909), under the auspices of the U.S. War Department, begins directing a crew of 230 soldiers and civilians in the work of making a military road. Mullan Road is planned as a 624-mile road from Fort Walla Walla to Fort Benton, Montana. The road crew labors for months, hacking through forests, laying corduroyed strips through marshes, and building hundreds of river crossings. The road reaches Fort Benton on August 1, 1860. (Present-day I-90 more or less traces the route of the old Mullan Road through the Rockies.) There are no funds for maintenance, and when Lt. Mullan makes his return trip, some of the Mullan Road has already deteriorated. Nevertheless, it provides Walla Walla with a supply route to several mining districts and causes the hamlet (with seven houses in 1860) to boom.
Lt. Mullan was a West Point graduate who came west in 1853 as part of the railroad survey of Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862). He spent a season or two searching for a practical route through the Rocky Mountains. Then in the mid-1850s hostilities with the Indians broke out and in 1858 Lt. Mullan attached himself to the bloody retaliatory expedition of Col. George Wright. When that was over, Lt. Mullan went back to his project of building a road.
The Mullan Road helped Walla Walla to grow to the largest town in Washington Territory by 1870, with a population of 1,394. Walla Walla merchants catered to miners with gold fever and to farmers. Ferries on the Snake River tried to make their landings convenient to the road.
Parts of the old Mullan Road are still (in 2005) in use (for example, off State Route 26 about three miles east of Washtucna).