The Pacific Railroad Surveys

A 'Grand Reconnaissance' in Western Geography, Botany,  Ethnography, Geology, and Zoology

"About five miles from camp we ascended to the top of a high hill, and for a great distance ahead every square mile seemed to have a herd of buffalo upon it."

-Governor Isaac Stevens, Pacific Railroad Survey Reports, Vol I

In 1853, hundreds of soldiers, scientists, surveyors and artists fanned out across unknown and uncharted western territories to find a railroad route to the Pacific. The report of the surveys filled thousands of pages in thirteen volumes. While it could not settle the question of a rail route, the survey had a major impact on knowledge of the West. This site explores the impact the surveys had on our understanding of the lands west of the Mississippi.

Herd of Bison Near Lake Jessie

“The Pacific Railroad Surveys of 1853 —a grand national reconnaissance extending over half a continent and led by men who would later be counted among the most prominent soldiers and scientists of the Republic—were the capstone of an American age of exploration in the Far West. They were packed with adventure and stalked by death, and they were conceived in desperation by a pre-Civil War Congress hopelessly deadlocked over the proper location for the first vital transcontinental railroad, which would link the Mississippi Valley with golden California. Should the route go north, or south? Sectionalism offered loud answers but no agreement. The railroad surveys were an attempt to let science decide a question that, after eight years of continuous debate, appeared to be beyond the powers of mortal men. Not since Napoleon, in the midst of his short-lived conquest of Egypt, had taken a large corps of savants to study that country’s lands and culture had such an array of scientific talent been marshalled in the service of geographical conquest. And not since that celebrated Egyptian foray were the scientific results to prove so rich and overwhelming while the practical results appeared to lead only to frustration. For the first actual railroad to the Pacific was not completed for another sixteen years. The great exploration provided the first panoramic view of what the vast West was really like. It produced an encyclopedia of western experience in thirteen massive calfskin volumes — government reports now consigned to dust and obscurity in public libraries and archives. In them was a matchless picture of the Old West before its settlement.”

William H. Goetzmann, “Death Stalked The Grand Reconnaissance” American Heritage Magazine, October 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 6

To Educators:

This website brings the dusty volumes of the Pacific Railroad Surveys of 1853 - 1854  to life for your students as they join four expedition parties exploring the best rail routes to the Pacific.

Detailed lesson plans  help you guide them through the rich material,  sparking discussions on history, geography and economics in the pre-Civil War decade. 

Students explore the factors the Army surveyors looked at to build a railroad, to run it and to grow it as a successful path of commerce.Students will journey along with the Topogs, the elite Army Corp of Topographical Engineers, as they explore the first comprehensive map of the western territories.

They will see the impact the reports had on our knowledge of Native Americans, western wildlife, plants, fishes and geology of the strange new world, as told through the words and images that the soldiers, surveyors, scientists, and artist-explorers brought back.


Subpages (1): Background & Context