Transcontinental Possibilities: The Pacific Railroad Surveys Through Texas

This post was written and the images curated by Rachel DeShong, Map Curator at The Texas Collection

The first transcontinental railroad in the United States, connecting the east coast to the west, was completed on May 10, 1869 when the “Golden Spike” was hammered into place at Promontory Summit, Utah. Constructed over an arduous six-year period, the railroad was actually a decades-long process. As early as the 1830s, discussion concerning the need for a transcontinental railroad, referred to as the Pacific Railroad, raged on. As more interest developed in the 1840s, the issue was debated by Congress several times with few results.

Congress finally approved the Pacific Railroad surveys in 1853, authorizing four east-to-west surveys (between the 47th and 49th parallel, between the 37th and the 39th parallel, the 35thparallel, and the 32nd parallel) to be conducted from the Mississippi River to the Pacific coast. Additional surveys were also completed along the Pacific coast from San Diego to Seattle. The goal was to survey several different paths to determine the most appropriate and cost-effective route. The surveys were under the purview of the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, and were initially set to conclude in 1854. However, as one might expect, the process took over three years to complete. The idea of a Pacific Railroad became so firmly rooted in the American psyche that both the Democratic Party and the newly formed Republican Party included it in their presidential platforms for the 1856 and 1860 elections.

What is interesting to note is that two of these routes, the 32nd and the 35th parallels, ran through Texas. Although authorized to begin at the Mississippi River, the surveys actually began at the western borders of Iowa, Missouri, and Arkansas. The 35th parallel route began in Fort Smith, Arkansas and crossed the Texas panhandle into New Mexico and Arizona to end in San Pedro (now Los Angeles). It was roughly estimated to traverse 2,100 miles and cost $99 million (in 1850s money).

The 32nd parallel route was the southernmost proposed route and began on the Red River in Fulton, Arkansas. The route bisected Texas, connected to El Paso, and passed into New Mexico and Arizona, ending in San Diego. It was estimated to be less than 1,700 miles and cost approximately $72 million. This route was the most popular for a variety of reasons:

  • Jefferson Davis was a Southerner and naturally favored a southern route.
  • It was the shortest length and the lowest cost of all the possible routes.
  • The route would have encountered lower elevations and better weather.
  • The route passed through states and territories that had already been organized.

The primary downside to this route, which was addressed before the survey was even completed, was that a portion of the route passed through Mexican territory. To remedy this, the Gadsden Purchase was finalized on June 8, 1854. In exchange for $10 million, Mexico sold the United States 29,670 square miles south of the Gila River in present-day Arizona.

Despite the popularity of the proposed Pacific Railroad, the upcoming Civil War (1861-1865) stalled any decision-making. Once Confederate states seceded in 1861, the opposition to a central route was moot and the idea of a southern route was dismissed. Ultimately, a central route along the 42nd parallel, starting in Council Bluff, Iowa, (far enough away from the fighting) was approved.

Although the first American transcontinental railroad did not go through Texas, the routes surveyed had been viable options, as evidenced by future transcontinental railroads built along them. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe was constructed along the 35th parallel, and the Texas and Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads were built along the 32nd parallel.


Galloway, John Debo. First Transcontinental Railroad: Central Pacific, Union Pacific.
Westport, Conn: Greenwood, 1983.

“Pacific Railroad Surveys.” The First Transcontinental Railroad – Spotlight at Stanford. April 03, 2019. Accessed May 19, 2021.

Stover, John F. Iron Road to the West: American Railroads in the 1850s. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.

“The Transcontinental Railroad: History of Railroads and Maps: Articles and Essays: Railroad Maps, 1828-1900: Digital Collections: Library of Congress.” The Library of Congress. Accessed May 19, 2021.

Transcontinental Railroad Map 1

Explorations and surveys for a rail road route from the Missisippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Map no. 1: Route near the 35th parallel from Fort Smith to the Rio Grande. 1853-4. Cubby 58, The Texas Collection, Baylor University.

Transcontinental Railroad Map 2

Explorations and surveys for a rail road route from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean route near the 35th parallel: Map no. 2: from the Rio Grande to the Pacific Ocean. 1853-4. Cubby 58, The Texas Collection, Baylor University.

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