As we have discussed in an earlier post, one of the first dreamers who believed America could be inter-connected via rail was an Iowan from Dubuque who petitioned the U.S. House of Representatives in 1838 to fund the first link of a Transcontinental Railroad. His name was John Plumbe, Jr. (below), and his suggestion was laughed right out of Washington D.C. Read more here.
As history teaches us, while a dream that’s worth pursuing is often dismissed in its earliest stages by the ‘experts’, there will often be other visionaries who will catch the dream and move it to the next level. So it was with Asa Whitney – a highly-successful dry goods merchant from New York, who, in 1844, returned from a two-year business trip to China which concluded with a 153-day ship adventure – convincing him that a transcontinental railroad across America could change everything. Upon his return, he took his business profits from China and began a passionate seven-year campaign (1844-1851) to help Americans get excited about the idea.
Interestingly, it was on his 1842-1844 business trip to China – which included that 153-day voyage on a cramped ship – when this kind-hearted merchant – Asa Whitney – saw things that truly bothered him. First, he disliked the ship captain’s treatment of his crew on that voyage, plus he was sickened by the social inequality he encountered at colonial holdings across China. Asa mused in his journal…
Oh, how long must the mighty oppress & brutalize the weaker… When I see human beings in such oppressive ignorance & servitude, I cannot help but feel that they were created for a more noble & exalted purpose.
By 1844, as Asa returned home from his life-changing voyage, he had secured for himself a comfortable fortune, and from then on, he believed it to be his God-given duty to ennoble humankind. And it was out of this compassion, Whitney began drawing up his idea for a transcontinental railroad that would become a corridor of exchange between Europe, America, and Asia, and a vast opportunity for human improvement. Again, in his journal, Asa wrote…
(A railroad to the Pacific) would bring all our immensely wide-spread population together as one vast city; the moral and social effects of which must harmonize all together as one family, with but one interest — the general good of all.
Asa Whitney was both a creative and persistent man – a distant cousin to the famous inventor Eli Whitney. He started his impassioned work in 1844 by buying property in upstate New York, and immediately going to work drawing up his transcontinental railroad project – writing an extensive Memorial that was presented to the U.S. Congress in 1845, and again in 1848.
Above are two newspaper reports on Asa’s 1845 presentation to Congress, and his second attempt in 1848.
Both of Whitney’s proposals (1845 & 1848) were designed to convince the U.S. Congress to set aside a 60-mile-wide strip of land – stretching from Lake Michigan to the Pacific Ocean. But as you might imagine, Whitney’s massive project was quickly rejected, sending our persistent dreamer back to the drawing board, looking to drum up stronger public support for his ideas.
Whitney’s revised proposal – when completed in 1849 – became both a book and a subject for lectures. It was called A Project For A Railroad To The Pacific, and it’s main focus was on gathering public support for building a transcontinental railroad across America for the primary purpose of improving trade with China, connecting the two countries for increased culture, immigration, and commerce. Throughout 1849, Whitney spent a great amount of time, energy and money, traveling around the country, promoting his plan, giving countless lectures, and exploring many of the route options he had proposed in his presentation. One biographer called Whitney a “national celebrity” – since many newspapers around the country were picking up on his Great American speaking tour. Which now brings us to our rare postal cover from December 1849…
Below you see a petition signed by thirty residents of Marion County, Iowa. It was mailed on December 29, 1849 and was directed to their state legislator in Iowa City – The Honorable Manly Gifford, House of Representatives.
Our December 29, 1849 petition – which mentions Asa Whitney by name – was, most likely, signed and then mailed from Red Rock in Marion County, Iowa. According to Marion County historians, the village of Red Rock – which was surveyed in 1845 – was nearly declared the county seat, but when the Des Moines River flooded in 1851, that prize went to Knoxville.
Interestingly, Red Rock is, today, one of six lost villages that sit at the bottom of Lake Red Rock in Marion County – Iowa’s largest man-made lake, created in 1969 by damming up the Des Moines River (see map above). Apparently, large amounts of river water, when combined with Red Rock, just don’t produce a lot of good fruit!
While the Marion County residents misspelled Rep. Manly Gifford‘s first name on their petition, the good citizens of Red Rock apparently meant business because it just wouldn’t have been all that easy to gather thirty different people from around this sparsely-populated county for just any old reason. As a matter of fact, Gifford, who was a resident of nearby Monroe in Jasper County, was probably pro-railroad as well, and had been sent to Iowa City to represent four counties in the ‘far west’ of the new state of Iowa – Jasper, Marion, Polk, and Dallas Counties (see map above).
Sadly, we find no records that the Second Iowa State Legislature passed any specific acts supporting Asa Whitney’s railroad project during its 1848-1850 sessions, but we do know that on March 13, 1850, Whitney’s plan was, once again, presented to the U.S. Congress. In the Iowa City newspapers, the subject was big news. Below are articles appearing in The Iowa Republican, both of which brought Asa Whitney’s plan front-n-center prior to the big vote in Washington D.C.
This January 1850 front page article (above) covered the Northern Iowa & Wisconsin Railroad Convention held in Clayton, Iowa on Christmas Day in December, 1849 – only four days before the signing of our petition from Marion County! One of the resolutions at this convention was to fully support Asa Whitney’s proposal. An interesting question here… Were some of our Marion County petition signers at that same convention on Christmas Day, bringing back with them the word to contact their state representative? Hmm. Guess we’ll never know, but it does seem possible.
On February 27, 1850, The Republican (above) devoted their entire second page to the theme of the Iowa State Railroad Convention held in Iowa City on February 20th – The Pacific Rail Road. Spelling out in full detail Asa Whitney’s proposal, the article calls Asa one “who appears to possess something of the spirit of Columbus.”
Records indicate that, despite the increased support around the country for Asa Whitney’s project, the U.S. Senate – now increasingly divided, north vs. south, over the issues of slavery – once again rejected Whitney’s ideas, with southern states seeing it as a bill that would only benefit the North. The end result? Nothing toward Asa’s railroad project, but a Compromise of 1850, which basically allowed slavery to go unchecked, with hatred toward blacks continuing to be overlooked. A poorly-written compromise indeed – one that, many believe, marked the true beginnings of the Civil War.
Although Congress failed to sanction his plan in 1850, Whitney continued to promote his ideas well into the early 1850’s, before finally turning his dream over to others. Historians believe that while Asa never got his specific plan approved, his seven years (1844-1851) of selling his dream made the subject of a transcontinental railroad into one of the great public issues of the day. With the acquisition of California following the Mexican War, the discovery of precious metals in the west, and the on-going settlement of the frontier, the national interest in building a railroad to the Pacific only increased throughout the 1850’s, with the idea finally becoming a reality in 1869. Fortunately, Asa lived to see that day – May 10, 1869 – at Promontory Summit in Utah Territory, when the Jupiter of the Central Pacific Railroad, heading east from Sacramento, met with Engine No. 119 of the Union Pacific Railroad, coming west from Omaha.
Asa Whitney died, just three years later – on September 7, 1872, and is buried at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington D.C.
As for the railroad coming to Iowa, the excitement shown in 1849 by the good citizens of Marion County only increased statewide, making the 1850’s the decade when Iowa moved from stagecoaches to steam locomotives. You can read the complete Iowa railroad story here.
But, sadly, for the signers of our 1849 petition letter, they didn’t see a railroad come to their fair community until the 1890’s, when the Wabash Railroad built a short line into Red Rock to facilitate the removal of red sandstone found on the shores of the Des Moines River. And, as we mentioned earlier, Red Rock had more bad luck when it disappeared forever in 1969, falling, like five other Marion County villages, under the rising waters of Lake Red Rock.
So, here’s a big thank you to Asa Whitney and his passionate attempt at making America a better place through the advancement of his transcontinental railroad. And here’s to the good citizens of Marion County, Iowa – who gathered in Red Rock in December of 1849, to rally for Asa’s Project For A Railroad To The Pacific!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.