Construction and Disrepair: Traveling the Mullan Road

Marc Entze

The construction of the Mullan Road, at a total cost of $230,000, was an attempt to speed travel from east to west by creating a maintained wagon road for easy and safe travel. There were three objectives in the construction of the road; first, the road was viewed as necessary for moving troops to the many forts located in the Northwest. In addition such a road could be used by immigrants looking to homestead in the northern interior, and lastly, it could be used to transport material for the construction of a northern transcontinental railway. According to historian Alexander Campbell McGregor, of these three objectives, “the Mullan Road came relatively close to satisfying only one.”(1) Despite the expectations, the Road was destined to serve primarily as an immigrant supply route.

The Mullan Road provided a key transportation link between Fort Walla Walla and Fort Benton but it did not eliminate many of the hardships overland emigrants faced on other routes such as the Oregon Trail. Boosters from a Walla Walla newspaper called the Road “a trip for health, pleasure, and bold Rocky Mountain Scenery.”(2) However, those who actually made the journey thought much different. After construction, the road quickly fell into disrepair, making wagon travel exceedingly difficult, and according to one traveler “any other method of crossing from the Pacific to the Atlantic is preferable to the Mullen [sic] Route.”(3) Others complained that the road was poorly engineered. Eli Sheldon Glover, who traveled the Mullan Road in 1875, from Missoula to Walla Walla and on to Portland by steamboat, found little to praise the road. In his diary entry for October 19th, Glover wrote:

The Road climbed fearful grades only to go down again on the other side. Lieutenant Mullen [sic] . . . seems to have had a mania for getting up as high as possible and then to go down the steepest place he could find. We suppose his object was to make the road as direct as possible, but we think distance could have been saved by following the sides of the hills around by a uniform grade in place of going up and down so much. The Indians have better trails in some places that we follow instead of the road.(4)

Glover’s account is the most outspoken on the location of the road and the course Mullan chose to follow. After a rain soaked day spent crossing the St. Regis River “over thirty times,” Glover concluded that Mullan “was only using up a government appropriation” and had spent little time in planning the course of the road, particularly in reference to periods of high water. Only remnants of bridges remained.(5) The constant need for maintenance, which was rarely performed, combined with the rugged terrain restricted the development of the Mullan Road and relegated it to the status of a pack trail.

In the early 1860s, soon after the road was opened, wagon trains did make the journey from Fort Benton to Walla Walla. Even with the road in good shape, it was still a challenge to take a wagon over the road. Lieutenant August V. Kautz, a member of the only large military deployment to use the road, known as the “Blake Expedition,” frequently commented on the inability of the oxen to pull the wagons, and the time consuming necessity of “doubling the teams” for the hills. On August 16, 1860 he wrote in his diary, “We made a short march on account of the fatigue of yesterday to the cattle. The men succeeded in marching very well, and we would average twenty miles per day if the oxen could make it.” On August 31, after marching only three and a half miles all day, Kautz admitted “the road was very rough and rocky. The valley of the river has become quite narrow, and grazing ground limited.” The following day, after a “very late start” he noted “our road lay over high, steep hillside, cuttings dangerous in many places.” On September 7, in the country of the St. Regis Borgia, Kautz wrote: The road is very rough and bad on account of the stumps, and in one place crosses over a spur of considerable height. About half the wagons and the rear guard failed to reach camp. The Maj. sent back twenty men from each company to assist the wagons, but as might have been expected, they were of no assistance. (6)

For the soldiers on foot, the road provided for an easy march and several of the men spent their afternoons fishing in nearby streams. Despite all the short marches necessary to rest the oxen, the Blake Expedition marched from Fort Benton to Fort Walla Walla in 57 days. Certainly without the delay of doubling teams and short marches to rest the oxen, the trip would have been much quicker. It is interesting to note that the difficulties faced by the Blake Expedition occurred very early in the annals of the Mullan Road, when it must be assumed the road was in as good “repair” as it was likely to be. In spite of the numerous hardships, Kautz noted some favorable conditions of the road. On August 18, after crossing the Divide near the Prickly Pear Creek, he wrote “We marched seventeen miles through a beautiful country and a good road. The divide is the most practical pass I ever saw in any mountainous country.”(7) The country the Mullan Road crosses contained severe challenges for the engineer and construction crews. Despite their efforts, the terrain dictated the nature of the road.

The diary of Henry Leug, written while traversing the Mullan Road in 1867, echoes many of the observations of Kautz. Mr. Leug made the trip later in the year than the Blake Expedition, not crossing the Bitterroot Mountains until October. Downed trees were a constant problem for wagon roads through mountainous terrain, and the Mullan Road was no exception. Leug noted “The timber stands very thick . . . many dead tree trunks blocked the road and had to be cleared away.” Due to the late season, the weather was a factor and it frequently rained. On October 27, Leug wrote:

The road ran valley upwards with big mountains on each side. We were obliged to cross more than a dozen times a strong flowing stream, swollen from the rains, because the originally built log bridges were long since swept away. The rocks lying in the bed of the stream, often of a large size, made the crossings difficult and dangerous, so that sometimes we could scarcely get through. . . . Four wagons of the train remained behind on account of the bad weather. The timber here stands thicker again than yesterday. . . . This evening it is raining a little intermittently; sometimes the stars show themselves.(8)

What had been difficult for Kautz and the Blake Expedition in the middle of the summer was proving to be nearly impossible for the train of immigrants two months later. In 1870, the Walla Walla Statesman reported that “large numbers of families, now in Montana, are ready and anxious to emigrate to this Valley but cannot due to the bad condition of the Mullan Road.”(9) On the same matter a few years earlier the Statesman lamented, “it is greatly to be regretted that Congress could not drop the ‘negro’ for a few moments and attend to a question in which the people of the Pacific slope are so greatly interested.”(10) The citizens of the Walla Walla Country knew of the importance of the Mullan Road, and pressured Congress for action. Finally, in 1879-1880, two Army companies repairing the road were “surprised” by the sudden increase of traffic. But for the Mullan Road, the repair was too little too late. In three years the Northern Pacific Railway would drive its golden spike at Gold Creek, Montana and all of the freight traffic remaining on the Mullan Road would be shipped by rail.(11)

There are many potential reasons why the road was not utilized by the military or for construction of the Northern Pacific Railway, but one need not look any further than to the condition of the road itself. Near both Fort Walla Walla and Fort Benton, the road traversed many miles of prairie, where forage for livestock was plentiful, but wood and shelter scarce. In the Bitterroot Mountains the travelers faced a difficult pull – freight wagons required upwards of six yoke of oxen – and downed trees and swollen rivers created delays and hazards. Not surprisingly pack mules dominated the route, carrying supplies to the outlying mines and settlements. Pack trains of 30 or more sure-footed mules could travel much more quickly than the plodding oxen dragging heavy wagons over the steep grades. Eli Sheldon Glover’s diary entries frequently complain about the steep grades of the Mullan Road; on October 22 he wrote:

We push on over as poor a road as government ever made – and they do say that the government was never beat for the best of roads. There are several places where wagons have to be lowered with ropes and pulled up in the same way.12

Stories of the torturous grades of the Mullan Road were told around the campfire, and as Glover related, “a German teamster said that he undertook to drive up one of Mullen’s [sic] grades and that the horses missed their footing and ‘fell back plumb into the wagon.’” Although the incident made for a good story, Glover wrote “we don’t believe it – but still, having seen the road, it looks possible.”13

Although planned and engineered as a wagon road, lack of maintenance and the combined force of winter storms wreaked havoc on the condition of the road, causing one traveler to write “I have described that portion of the road over which we passed yesterday and it was ‘horrible,’ but to-day I am satisfied that no word in the English language can convey an idea of its condition.”14
(1) Alexander Campbell McGregor, “The Economic Impact of the Mullan Road on Walla Walla, 1860-1883,” (thesis, Whitman College, 1971), 16.
(2) Walla Walla Statesman, September 6, 1862, quoted in McGregor, “Economic Impact of the Mullan Road,” 8.
(3) Oregon Argus, September 28, 1863, quoted in McGregor, “Economic Impact of the Mullan Road,” 10.
(4) Eli Sheldon Glover, The Diary of Eli Sheldon Glover, (Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press, 1987), 13.
(5) Glover, Diary, 19.
(6) Martin F. Schmitt, ed., “From Missouri to Oregon in 1860: The Diary of August V.Kautz,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol.37, No.? (July 1946), 193-230. Lieutenant Katz comments frequently throughout the diary about the delays caused by the oxen.
(7) Kautz, “From Missouri to Oregon,” 223.
(8) C.S. Kingston, ed., “The Northern Overland Route in 1867: Journal of Henry Lueg,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol.41, No.3 (July 1950), 234-253. This article is a description of Leug’s journey and contains long quotes from the diary.
(9) Statesman, August 20, 1870, quoted in McGregor, “Economic Impact of the Mullan Road,” 13.
(10) Walla Walla Statesman, May 17, 1867, quoted in McGregor, “Economic Impact of the Mullan Road,” 11.
(11) McGregor, “Economic Impact of the Mullan Road,” 13.
(12) Glover, Diary, 21.
(13) Glover, Diary, 21.
(14) Oregon Argus, September 28, 1863, quoted in McGregor, “Economic Impact of the Mullan Road,” 10.

Glover, Eli Sheldon, The Diary of Eli Sheldon Glover, (Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press, 1987).

Kautz, August V., “From Missouri to Oregon in 1860: The Diary of August V. Kautz,” Martin F. Schmitt, Pacific Northwest Quarterly 37 (July 1946), 193-230.

Lueg, Henry, “The Northern Overland Route in 1867: Journal of Henry Lueg,” C. S. Kingston, ed., Pacific Northwest Quarterly 41 (July 1950), 234-253.

McGregor, Alexander Campbell, “The Economic Impact of the Mullan Road on Walla Walla, 1860-1883” (Honors thesis, Whitman College, 1971).