Lt. John Mullan and a 230-man crew begin building Mullan's Road (Mullan Road) from Walla Walla in spring 1859.

  • By Priscilla Long
  • Posted 2/16/2003
  • Essay 5225
See Additional Media

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).


Paul Dorpat and Genevieve McCoy, Building Washington: A History of Washington State Public Works (Seattle: Tartu Publications, 1998), 69; Ruth Kirk and Carmela Alexander, Exploring Washington's Past: A Road Guide to History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990), 208. See also Richard D. Scheuerman, “Through the Indian Country: John Mullan and the Northern Overland Road,” Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Fall 2010), 20-27. See also Ronald E. Grim and Paul D. McDermott, “The Case of the Mullan Road,” Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History Vol. 18, No. 4 (Winter 2004-2005), 22-28.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You