The Mullan Road: A Real Northwest Passage

  • Posted 11/05/2009
  • Essay 9202
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In the spring of 1859, after five years of study and survey, the U.S. War Department appropriated funds for the construction of a military wagon road between Fort Walla Walla in Washington Territory and Fort Benton on the Missouri River. Lieutenant John Mullan (1830-1909) of the U.S. Army was assigned to get the job done. With the labor of 200 hired men and soldiers, and more than two years of toil, Mullan blazed a 611-mile trail through dense forests, over mountains, and across marshlands and raging rivers. When completed in 1862, the Mullan Military Road became the first wagon road to traverse the Rocky Mountains into the inland Northwest, and Mullan was rewarded with promotion to the rank of captain. Randall A. Johnson (1915-2007) wrote this account of the road and its builder for The Pacific Northwesterner, Vol. 39, No. 2 (1995) and it is reprinted here with kind permission.

Captain Mullan and His Road

In the millenia that have passed since creatures first began to move along the earth's swampy shores, its rugged surface has become laced with countless byways. These came into being because they were essential to life; they were the paths to food or to sheltered places. As the human species evolved, these arteries were improved and extended to serve more sophisticated purposes -- trade routes, pilgrim's highways, and the routes of conquerors. Name a few at random: The Appian Way; The Autobahn; The Oregon Trail; Marco Polo's Route; The El Camino Real; Lindberg's Great Circle Route, Long Island to Le Bourget; The Road to Mecca; The Erie Canal; The Orient Express Line; The Ho Chi Minh Trail; The New York Subway; Broadway; and ten thousand others.

All have some degree of fame. Some names suggest romantic adventure, others conjure feelings of dread and terror. One thing they had in common was their basic purpose, the means of moving people and their various baggage from point A to B.

This occasion is to take note of the Mullan Military Road. In so doing we also honor the name and memory of its builder, Captain John Mullan, United States Army.

Mullan's talent and enthusiasm for his work made him the right man at the right time. Governor Stevens, who selected him for this particular mission, probably never made a better appointment.

Some biographical notes are called for. John Mullan was born at Norfolk, Virginia, July 31, 1830. His father, also named John, was an immigrant and his mother a native Virginian. They had a total of 10 children and were people of modest circumstances. However, they were able to finance John's preparatory education at St. John's College.

With a college degree at only 16 years of age, he decided to try for appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. This was an early example of his determination and resourcefulness. With only some letters of recommendation and a lot of free advice, he sets out.

He actually managed to get a personal audience with President James Polk. This was not an unusual practice in those days, and in Mullan's case, it was productive. During their visit, the president, with reference to Mullan's five-foot, five-inch height, asked. "Little man, what do you want with the Army?" Mullan's answer that he believed the service could use small men as well as big ones evidently impressed the president. An appointment came through in about six weeks.

At West Point he did well, finishing 15th in his class which included such names as Philip Sheridan's. He was commissioned second lieutenant of artillery at age 23.

John Mullan consistently exhibited the finer qualities of leadership. He was intelligent and considerate, honest and even-tempered. His natural bent for diplomacy contributed much to his career and the success of his mission.

A major case in this regard was his acceptance by the Indian tribes in whose lands he had to work and exist. He was plunged into the area at the most heated point of the difficulties with the Indians and, in fact, was a participant in the Wright campaign which suppressed them. It is significant that he was given command of a unit of Indian volunteers which performed very effectively at the Battles of Four Lakes Spokane Plains.

Despite the tensions of the times, he was respected by  the Indians and often was sought out as an arbiter of their internal disputes. He quickly learned and used the language of the Flatheads and Pend d'Oreilles. This good relationship enabled him to secure advice and guidance through a wilderness that was mostly a geographical mystery.

Not all the advice he got was accurate. In key matters  his crafty associates sometimes gave him information deliberately designed to confuse, mislead, and delay. He was patient and discriminating and well aware of the limitations of his local resources. Bit by bit, sometimes by trial and error, he sorted out this intelligence until he finally had the right answers.

John Mullan was a man of high principles, devoted to duty and country. He was highly professional, as his meticulous records and reports attest. He had a sense of responsibility which always took precedence over his personal feelings and convenience. The man was a credit to the service and his calling. It should also be noted that Mullan was a gentle man of true human compassion. He was always concerned with the well-being and safety of those under his command or direction.

He was deeply grieved by the tragedies suffered by both sides in the Indian Wars. There is no doubt that his own actions and influence kept many such situations from turning out even worse.

In the bitter aftermath of the punitive Wright campaign, Lieutenant Mullan intervened with his commander to prevent the hanging of a 14-year-old Indian boy. He pledged personal responsibility and employed the boy on his farm at Walla Walla for years afterward.

Mullan's dedication to his project included visions that went far beyond an ordinary wagon road. He was most interested in the engineering success that was proving the practicality of the railroads in the East, and he reckoned that nothing less would be required to open the western frontier. In all his extensive surveys he had his keen eyes open for possible rail routes. This was in fact included in his orders.

It is a tribute to his skill and vision that freeway 1-90 follows his route almost to the foot through its most rugged stretches.

Seven years of his young life were given to the planning and building of the road. Following its completion and a season of rerouting and repair, and the completion of his voluminous and carefully detailed reports, he resigned from the army as a captain in 1862 and returned to the East for a time. That same year he married Rebecca Williamson of Baltimore They had five children, two of whom died in infancy. Two daughters and a son survived.

He had lived with a Colville Indian girl in 1854 and a son, Peter Mullan, was born to them. Peter's daughter, Christine Kitt, is still living in Colville as this is being written.

After a period in which he wrote and lectured extensively, always proclaiming the great potential of the Northwest, he again left the East for San Francisco. He entered a law office and with characteristic dedication, studied for and passed the bar in five months. He was ideally qualified for cases which involved land and water rights and enjoyed a very successful career. He was employed by the federal government on Indian matters and was interested and informed regarding Indian schools. His enlightened approach was to promote education and vocational training for these people. For a short time he served as Indian Commissioner. Mullan and his wife were happy in San Francisco. He was a member of several law firms, much in demand, and highly regarded. However, he often said that his happiest years were the seven that he spent with his "saddle for a pillow and pine needles for a mattress."

The Mullan Military Road was an artery that permitted wagon traffic between Fort Benton, at the head of Missouri River navigation, and old Fort Walla Walla, near present Wallula, on the Columbia River. Its length was 611 miles and it cost the taxpayers $230,000. Once the surveys were completed, a task covering some five years, the road was put through in just two years -- in many ways a remarkable achievement.

By modern standards it wasn't much of a road, but in 1862 it was a key to progress. Specifications called for it to be 25 feet wide, graded to permit wagon passage and with the necessary stream crossings, be they fords, bridges, or ferries. Actually, Mullan had his hard-working laborers clear the forested stretches to 60 feet to admit sunlight for snow-melt and to minimize blockage by deadfalls.

Trees were felled with stumps cut flush to the ground. One can imagine the bone-shaking ride that resulted as the deepening wheel ruts cut across these unyielding hard points. Long stretches of corduroy road were laid in the marshy areas. A major example of this was near the St. Joe River crossing of Mullan's first attempted route. This difficult stretch was abandoned because of the near-bottomless footing, and the somewhat longer but infinitely more passable route north of Coeur d'Alene Lake and through the Spokane Valley was used. Bridge timbers were whipsawed on site by Mullan's men, who may have occasionally wondered if there wasn't an easier way to make a living.

Ferry boats were built for some crossings, notably on the Clark Fork and in the troublesome St. Joe area. Sometimes the only means of achieving the 25-foot width was with the use of blasting powder. Some arduous detours were hacked out when the vertical cliff banks of the Montana rivers barred the builders from using the water-level route.

Through travel with wagons was probably limited to about half of the year due to weather. Winter snows and spring floods made a shambles of the steeper grades and most of the bridges, even as the elements do today. There was no maintenance other than that provided by the travelers themselves.

For all its drawbacks and its comparatively short life (the Army abandoned its offspring after only three years) the road was a resounding success. Travelers couldn't wait to start using it. Estimates made at the time indicate that parts of the road were used by 20,000 people, including Indians, during its first year. Six thousand horses and mules, most of them pulling freight wagons, used the road, as did 5,000 head of cattle. Also listed were 52 light wagons and 31 heavy immigrant wagons.

As mentioned earlier, the Army's interest in the road was temporary. Like most forts of the western frontier, it was built to meet an emergency. The crisis over, it was "declared surplus."

Indian troubles had been moving from bad to worse when the road survey was started. White immigrants were flocking to the gold fields and settlements of the region. The government recognized the need for more troops in the area and worried over the means of supplying them. In this climate the military road proposal was approved, and Governor Isaac Stevens was commissioned by the War Department to solve the problem of a practical connection between the plains of the Missouri and the Columbia rivers. Besides Mullan's mission, three other assignments were included in conjunction with the project. The Cascades survey was carried out by Lieutenant George McClelland. He made a very negative report emphasizing the virtual impossibility of ever putting a railway through those mountains. McClelland erred in this, exhibiting a lack of faith and confidence of the same stripe that later cost him his command of the Army of the Potomoc.

Lt. A. J. Donelson commanded a third party which explored travel routes in the Montana-Dakota territories.

Lt. Rufus Saxon was given the difficult job of distributing supplies that reached the area by river boat to their remote destinations.

Mullan's thoroughness in his work is exemplified in many ways. His road was laid out so that many campsites were within reach of water, forage, shelter, and firewood whenever possible. With a thoughtful eye to the future, he carried seed and sowed many plantings of timothy and bluegrass around his camps.

Technical data he recorded fills hundreds of pages in his reports and is carefully detailed and verified. Distances, latitudes and longitudes, climatic information, and astrological observations are all tabulated. By any standard, they are in excellent order, yet some were made under the most severe field conditions. At Cantonment Wright on the St. Regis I in the winter of 1861, deep snows and temperatures of -40 degrees killed most of their livestock and caused suffering and hardship. This included a scurvy epidemic which tormented the entire party. Their ordeal, however, paid off in later years. Mullan's impressive report was of major influence in securing the congressional backing which would make possible the railroad construction of the 1880s.

A traveler today could follow much of the old road and hardly leave the paved highways. Of course, the very building of these new roads has erased most of the ancient signs. Cultivation accounts for more obliteration, and the mixed blessing of trail bikes and other off-road vehicles has taken a toll of the early marks. It has also caused many private land owners to take an understandably negative attitude toward trespassing. Trail hunters are advised to make sure their presence is welcome.

Mullan's assignment was to begin his road at Old Fort Walla Walla on the Columbia River at Wallula. This first stretch eastward was no problem. A well-used branch of the Oregon Trail already went from the river through the Whitman Mission site and on to the new fort which still exists at the city of Walla Walla. A marker at the edge of town near the state penitentiary is at the point where the road went generally north through Prescott and on to the Snake River crossing at Lyons Ferry. An optional crossing was upstream a few miles at the mouth of the Tucannon River. This was on another main trail which had been used by Colonel George Wright on his campaign. As a precaution to protect his return, he had established Fort Taylor on the south bank at this crossing, but it was manned only for a few months.

The Mullan Road proper used Lyons Ferry, then made its way through rocky gulches out of deep river canyon to the hilly plateau and channeled scablands beyond. The road did not go within sight of Palouse Falls but it can be presumed that most travelers took a short side trail to see that surprising spectacle.

It is said that another side trail left the main route here and went through Washtucna, which has fine springs in an otherwise dry area. It was used by the larger packtrains and herds to water their animals.

On north, the road crossed Cow Creek, where a fork of the trail branched west to join the road to Colville. On through Benge and across a tributary of the Palouse River to Lamont where the road bends east for some 10 miles and passes between Chapman and Bonnie Lakes before turning north and a bit east. One of the many familiar pyramidal markers can be seen on the Cheney-Malden road just west of Spangle.

Still bearing east northeast, the road came to and proceeded down the Hangman Creek gulch and up the other side to Moran Prairie. A new elementary school, appropriately named Mullan Road School, sits near the exact route.

From there the road moved down through the Glenrose district to the broad Spokane Valley. At a point near Edgecliff Hospital, again marked with a prominent monument, the road took a straight line northeastward to Plante's Ferry on the Spokane River. This ferry was already established and run by a well-regarded French Indian named Antoine Plante. Travelers, who knew the value of crossing such a dangerous stream with dry feet, willingly paid the substantial toll. From here the road stayed with the north bank of the river for about 25 miles until it reached the stream's source at the western outlet of Lake Coeur d'Alene. Here the builders gathered their strength for the coming 125 miles of mountainous terrain and dense forest.

There was, in addition to Mullan's official party, a force of 100 laborers and 100 Army troopers. The latter lent evidence of the government's seriousness in completing the project. As Mullan reached the land of the Coeur d'Alenes, he encountered an indication that further passage would be barred. He was prepared and met the challenge head-on. He made it clear that his authority was Colonel George Wright and he was to tolerate no barriers to the road even if it meant hanging those who resisted. The mention of Wright's' name was enough, and the Indian threat melted away.

Natural obstacles were not so easily handled. The climbing and timber clearing began here with the ascent up Alder Creek, which feeds Fernan Lake. The road came back to Lake Coeur d'Alene at its extreme east end, Wolf Lodge Bay, then continued east in a winding trail that reached the summit on July 4, 1861. About five miles beyond is Cataldo Mission, a splendid piece of early construction built in 1846. From the Mission the Mullan Road followed the Coeur d'Alene River through the present towns of Smelterville, Kellogg, Osburn, Wallace, and Mullan. Then a steep climb of a few miles reached the summit of the Bitterroots, a 4,932-foot pass named Sohon after Mullan's valued artist and cartographer, Pvt. Augustus Sohon. The Mullan Road crossed the pass about two miles south of the route used by the four-lane 1-90 today. To reach it, the men had to build nearly two miles of steep grade, almost entirely with pick and shovel.

The descent on the eastern side followed the St. Regis River to its junction with the Clark Fork River. A difficult detour of some six miles had to be built around a stretch of river edged by cliffs too steep to allow road room. This bypass climbed 1,000 feet high on the adjoining mountain and required arduous pick and shovel work plus blasting. It was the hardest part of the entire road to build. The road continued along the present route through Missoula and along the Clark Fork River to a point a few miles north of the present town of Deer Lodge. Then, bearing northeast, it ascended the Little Blackfoot River to cross the Continental Divide of the Rocky Mountains at Mullan's Pass. The road then went down along Little Prickly Pear Creek to near the Missouri River, straight north and across the Dearborn River, northeast past Bird Tail Rock and across the Sun River. From here it was only about 50 miles of easy prairie going to the destination at Fort Benton. The Mullan Road mission was accomplished.

In 1898 Mullan's wife died. He followed 11 years later on December 20, 1909. He was 79 and had lived to see the great dream of his life realized. He had ridden across the Continental Divide and through the forbidding Bitterroots on smooth steel rails and the plush cushions of Pullman cars.

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