The Mullan Road

Historical Descriptions of Travel on the Road

Washington Territory , "Memorial Relative to the Mullan Road," December 14, 1866

            Summary: The "Memorialists" (members of the state legislature) argue that only a few years ago the interior Northwest was "comparatively speaking, an uninhabited region, infested throughout by bands of hostile Indians." Thanks in part to the Mullan Road the region is now growing rapidly in terms of inhabitants, mining, and farming. But the disrepair of the road inhibits transportation from the Walla Walla Valley to the east, undermining the general prosperity. The "Memorialists" seek government funds to improve and maintain the road for wagon travel.


To the Honorable Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled:

            Your memorialists, the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Washington, respectfully represent to your honorable bodies, that the military wagon road from Wallula, (old Fort Walla-walla,) located on the great bend of the Columbia river, to Fort Benton on the Missouri river, and generally known as the “Mullan wagon road,” is for a great portion of the distance through the Coeur-d’alene and Bitter Root mountains in an almost impassable condition for wagons, on account of fallen timber and destruction of bridges.

            The necessity for a great national highway connecting the Missouri and Columbia rivers by a good and substantial wagon road, was by its own importance first brought to the notice of your honorable bodies as early as the year 1849. In the spring of 1852, the necessity felt by the Government for a more thorough and satisfactory knowledge in detail of the geographical and topographical character of the country lying between the Columbia and the Missouri rivers, induced Congress to make an appropriation for the purpose, and in the spring of 1853, by authority of Congress several corps of engineers and explorers were organized and sent forth under the direction of Honorable I.I. Stevens. The voluminous and truthful reports of these several parties induced Congress to act and act promptly, and in 1857, Captain John Mullan was ordered into the field, being fully supplied with all the necessary men and means, and was on the ground in the spring of 1858. Commencing at Wallula, (then old Fort Walla-walla) on the Columbia river, he had completed the Walla-walla and Fort Benton military wagon road in September, 1862.

            It must be borne in mind that from the time Hon. Isaac I. Stevens entered upon the preliminary survey up to the period of the completion of this great national highway, nearly the whole region of country through which it passed was, comparatively speaking, an uninhabited region, infested throughout by bands of hostile Indians. Now the scene is changed. What in 1849 composed only the Territory of Oregon, now comprises the State of Oregon and the Territories of Washington, Idaho and Montana. What was then a wilderness now contains a large and rapidly increasing population, producing millions of bushels of grain and millions of dollars per annum in gold and silver. The opening of this road is of the greatest, most vital importance to the people of Washington, Idaho, and that portion of Montana lying west of the Rocky mountains; and in the opinion of your memorialists, in a military point of view, its value cannot be overestimated.

            A large amount of money was expended on this great work at a time when it was considered a military necessity, but the last two years have proven conclusively that it will also be a great public benefit to open the road, and for this purpose only a comparatively small amount in addition to the original cost of its construction is required.

            Your memorialists are of the opinion that the sum of one hundred thousand dollars judiciously expended in repairing said road between Walla-walla and Helena cities, -- a distance of four hundred and forty-five miles, -- under the direction of a competent engineer from the United States Topographical Bureau, will put the road in good condition and enable teams loaded with freight and machinery to pass over the from the Columbia river into the heart of a rich mining country.

            Rich quartz veins are being discovered in the Coeur-d’alene and Bitter Root mountains, which will ere long demand machinery for their development, and the working of which in connection with the placer mines would contribute largely to the development of Washington, Idaho, and the western portion of Montana Territories.

            The opening of this road will enable a large portion of the population now on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, Cascades and Rocky mountains to use this great thoroughfare in reaching the rich gold and silver mines lying along its route from Helena west to the Columbia river. Again, it is through this national highway that the immigrant from the eastern side of the mountains, and those who ascend the Missouri river to Fort Benton, must pass to reach western Montana, Washington, and a large portion of Idaho Territory.

            There is at the present time a population of over one hundred thousand inhabitants in the Territories of Washington, Idaho and western Montana. Rich deposits of gold, silver, copper, lead and iron are constantly being discovered and rapidly developed. Mining towns are springing into existence in all parts of the newly settled region. Branch roads leading from this main trunk (Mullan Road) to the different mining camps are being made by individual enterprise, and everything gives indication that at no distant day these hardy and successful pioneers will be knocking at the door of Congress asking to be admitted into the sisterhood of States. But the population of this vast region of country is too new and too poor to be able to take hold of and rapidly complete such a great enterprise as the opening of this military wagon road.

            The inhabitants, coming as they have from all parts of the United States, are unacquainted with each other, and admitting that they have all the necessary means within themselves for the opening of this road, a few months’ acquaintance with each other is not sufficient to establish the necessary confidence to organize a company and put forward to completion so great an undertaking. Nor is this all: the great length of this road and the large number of people it would benefit when opened, demands that it should be a free road.

            Almost every State of the Union is represented in this new El Dorado, consequently every State is interested in making it a free and not a toll road.

            Your memorialists rely upon the justness of their prayer and your liberality and promptness in coming to the aid of newly organized communities in time of need, and feel assured that by a proper and truthful showing upon our part, you will not permit so important a work as this road, together with what the Government has already expended, to go to ruin, nor permit individuals to seize upon available portions of it and claim a franchise whereby they will be enabled to use a part of an improvement erected at public expense, and convert the proceeds drawn from the toiling miner or traverlworn emigrant to their own use, which in some instances is now being done.

            Your memorialists wish to further show the vital importance of an early opening of a free road through this rich and fertile region of public domain, whereby the producers of the valleys may be enabled to reach the mining regions with their produce, and supply the miners with the necessaries of life at prices which will enable them to remain in and develop the mines. We will give some statistics carefully compiled and drawn from reliable sources relative to the productions and ruling prices of the same, of Walla-walla valley alone, together with the number of tons of freight landed by steamers at Wallula, and the amount passing over the “Mullan road” by pack trains to western Montana.

            The Walla-walla valley, including that portion which lies in the State of Oregon, has produced this season, (1866.) 500,000 bushels of wheat; 250,000 bushels of oats; 200,000 bushels of barley; 150,000 bushels of corn; 170,000 pounds of beans; 4500 head of hogs; 1800 head of horses; 2500 head of cattle. From Jan. 1, to Nov. 15, 1866, 1500 head of horses have been purchased by individual miners at Walla-walla; 5000 head of cattle were driven from Walla-walla to Montana; 6000 mules have left the Columbia river and Walla-walla loaded with freight for Montana; 52 light wagons with families, have left Walla-walla for Montana; 31 wagons with immigrants have come through from the States via the “Mullan road,” a portion of whom settled in Walla-walla valley and the remainder crossed the Columbia river at Wallula and settled on the Yakima river or passed on to Puget Sound; not less than 20,000 persons have passed over the “Mullan road” to and from Montana during the past season; 1,000,000 dollars in treasure has passed down through Walla-walla and Wallula during the same period.

            The Walla-walla valley contains six flouring mills, six saw mills, two planning mills, two distilleries, one foundry and fifty-two threshing, heading and reaping machines.

            The Oregon Steam Navigation Company have run a daily line of boats to Wallula (Sundays excepted) during the past season up to the fourth day of November; since that time the boats have made four trips per week. These boats are of the capacity of from seventy-five to two hundred tons burthen, and giving the very lowest estimate, these boats have landed not less than five thousand tons of freight at Wallula during the season.

            As early as 1862, about the time the Fort Benton wagon road was completed, the Oregon Steam Navigation Company landed at Wallula, from the 5th day of July to the 11th day of October inclusive, 1705 tons of freight, making three trips per week, which is an average of over forty tons per trip.

            The Government has a large warehouse at Wallula, a quartermaster’s agent in charge, and all the Government supplies for Fort Walla-walla, Fort Boise and a large proportion of those for Forts Colville and Lapwaii are landed there. Freight is landed at Wallula for Lewiston, Florence, Pierce City, Elk City and Oro Fino during the spring and fall, and for Helena, Blackfoot City, Deer Lodge, Hell Gate, Bitter Root valley, Cariboo, Kootenai and Pend-d’oreille lake, at all seasons of the year, ice not preventing.

            Wallula, on the great bend of the Columbia river, stands in the same position to Washington, Idaho and western Montana Territories, that Fort Benton, on the Missouri river, does to the eastern portion of Montana. The distance from Portland, Oregon, the head of ocean steam navigation pointing towards this newly discovered mining region, to Wallula, is two hundred and twenty miles. From Wallula to Helena, via the “Mullan Road,” it is four hundred and forty-five miles, making a total from Portland, Oregon, via the Columbia river through Wallula to Helena, Montana Territory, of six hundred and sixty-five miles.

            Your memorialists will further state that owing to the condition of the “Mullan Road,” the producers of the Walla-walla and other valleys adjacent thereto, are deprived of a valuable market for their products, and the inhabitants living along the line of the road and in western Montana, are compelled to pay exorbitant, not to say extortionate, prices for the necessaries of life, while the best standard mills family flour is selling at Walla-walla for five dollars per barrel, and the best of wheat is selling at sixty cents per bushel; the freight on either of these articles to Montana, via the “Mullan road” in its present condition, costing from thirteen to twenty-two cents per pound by pack animals.

            Your memorialists are of the opinion that wheat cannot be purchased any where in the United States at what it is now daily being sold for at Walla-walla, sixty cents per bushel. Oats command from one to one and one-half cents per pound; barley from one to one and one-quarter cents per pound. Last year the merchants of Walla-walla shipped over 600,000 pounds of oats to Oregon, and 113,000 pounds of wool and a large quantity of potatoes and onions.

            Believing that we have in as small a space as possible presented some of the many reasons showing the great necessity for the immediate opening of the Walla-walla and Fort Benton wagon road, commonly called the “Mullan road,” we will therefore only further state, that the Post Office Department has established a mail route from Wallula to Helena, making Wallula a distributing office, and that by opening the road we are assured that we will soon have what the requirements of the country and the number of inhabitants demand, a mail coach on the route instead of a train of pack horses.

            Your memorialists therefore pray that your honorable bodies will take these facts into consideration, and that you will in your widom take immediate steps towards opening up this important route, and your memorialists will as in duty bound ever pray

            Passed the House of Representatives December 13, 1866.
                                                            HENRY MILES
                                    Speaker of the House of Representatives

            Passed the Council December 14, 1866.
                                                             B. F. DENNISON
                                                             President of the Council

“Memorial Relative to the Mullan Road.” Statutes of the Territory of Washington, Fourteenth Session, 1866-1867

            (also in the Walla Walla Statesman, December 28, 1866)