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.

“Prohibition in McLennan County and the State of Texas”

The term “Prohibition” conjures up a variety of images including flappers, speakeasies, moonshiners, bootleggers, and extravagant parties. However, it is important to remember that the 18th  Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcohol was not a moment in time, rather, the end of a long-waged campaign, one that often had local roots. Beginning in the 19th century, the Temperance Movement was an effort to combat the consumption of alcohol in the United States. The concept of temperance often found fertile soil among religious groups, particularly women. The original focus of the movement was on moderation and the individual person. However, by the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the focus had shifted to complete abstinence from alcohol (known as “teetotaling”) and an emphasis on the legal prohibition of alcohol throughout society. As Prohibition gained more support, reformers, known as “drys,” sought to implement local options on city and county levels. Initially met with great resistance, the push towards Prohibition ultimately gained significant traction.

Society’s gradual shift towards accepting Prohibition can be seen in the history of McLennan County. From 1885 to 1917, there were at least five elections regarding prohibition in the county. The Day, a Waco newspaper, reported on September 1, 1885 that Prohibition had failed with 3,681 votes against and only 1,733 in favor.[1] Thirty-two years later, on October 24, 1917, the Waco Semi-Weekly Tribune announced that Prohibitionists had finally triumphed in an election by 1,273 votes.[2] This newspaper article also examined the past four local option elections, starting in 1895. Over the 22-year period, it is evident that Prohibitionists were slowly gaining ground. As a result of the reformers’ perseverance, McLennan County went dry on December 1, 1917.

When considering these election results, it is important to remember that only white males over the age of 21 could vote at this time. Although African American men could theoretically vote due to the 15th Amendment (1870), they were, in reality, disenfranchised by various means including poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation, and violence. Women were also prohibited from voting.

The 1920 U.S. Census reported a population of almost 83,000 people.[3] Taking into account the voting restrictions addressed above, a vote by an estimated 11% of the population caused McLennan County to transition to a dry county.

While the major focus of the Prohibitionists’ efforts tended to be on the county level, advocates were also working on the state and federal levels. An article in the Waco Semi-Weekly Tribune dated July 26, 1911 referenced the current state-level prohibition election as well as a similar election held in 1887.[4] In 1907, the Baskin-McGregor Act was passed by the Texas Legislature. This law “defined licensing procedures and prescribed operating hours and conditions”[5] for a wide array of activities and actively prohibited

  • prostitutes or lewd women;
  • any woman from entering or remaining in bars;
  • any vulgar or obscene pictures;
  • keeping or using any piano, organ, or other musical instrument;
  • any boxing, wrestling, or sparring;
  • and any games such as billiards tables, card, dominoes, etc.[6]

Ultimately, Prohibition became the law of the land when the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on January 26, 1919. The law went into effect a year later. The state of Texas also passed a state constitutional amendment in favor of Prohibition in 1919.[7] The state amendment was not repealed until 1935, although the 21st Amendment to the U. S. Constitution effectively ended national Prohibition in 1933. After alcohol was legalized in Texas once again, the local option persisted as a means to combat the consumption of alcohol. Over the past 90 years, McLennan County has remained a partially wet county, with certain precincts and cities oscillating between wet and dry.

A pamphlet of songs for Prohibition that was printed in Waco, Texas. Texas Prohibition Songs. Circa 1900-1935. Texas RBT HV5090.T4 T49 1900z, The Texas Collection, Baylor University.
The results of Prohibition elections from 1895 to 1917. “Pros Win County by 1,273 Majority,” Waco Semi-Weekly Tribune, October 24, 1917, Vol. XXIII No.43 ed., The Texas Collection, Baylor University.
A map of Texas that depicts wet and dry counties in the state. Prohibition Map of Texas. Circa 1908. Drawer 27, Folder 1 (31263030918335), The Texas Collection, Baylor University.
The Prohibition Amendment to the Texas State Constitution. The Dean Law and the Prohibition Amendment to the Texas Constitution by R.V. Nichols and L.C. Sutton. Austin, 1919. Texas HV5090.T4 N5 1919, The Texas Collection, Baylor University.

[1] The Day (Waco, Texas), September 1, 1885, Vol. 2 No. 240 ed., accessed July 21, 2020,

[2]  “Pros Win County by 1,273 Majority,” Waco Semi-Weekly Tribune, October 24, 1917, Vol. XXIII No.43 ed., accessed July 21, 2020,

[3] United States, Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Population 1920: Number and Distribution of Inhabitants, (Washington, D.C: Government Printing Office, 1921), page 637, accessed July 21, 2020,

[4] “The Battle of Ballots Over,” Waco Semi-Weekly Tribune, July 26, 1911, Vol. XVII No. 17 ed., accessed July 21, 2020,

[5] Motl, Kevin C. “Under the Influence: The Texas Business Men’s Association and the Campaign against Reform, 1906-1915.” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 109, no. 4 (2006): 494-529. Accessed July 21, 2020.

[6] Texas, State Senate, Journal of the Regular Session of the Thirtieth Legislature (1907), page 954; 963, accessed July 21, 2020,

[7] Handbook of Texas Online, K. Austin Kerr, “Prohibition,” accessed July 21, 2020,

Research Ready: May 2020

By Sylvia Hernandez, Archivist

The Texas Collection posts newly accessible resources every month. If you have any questions or would like to use these materials, please let us know and we would be happy to assist!

April maps

Carte du Mexique et des pays limitrophes situés au nord et à l’est, 1811; Translated as “Map of Mexico and the Neighboring Countries to the North and East”

From the same atlas as the famous Carte Générale du Royaume de la Nouvelle Espagne (translated as “General Map of the Kingdom of New Spain”), this map gives more context to Texas by depicting the southern half of the North American continent. Unlike many of its cartographic predecessors, this map correctly depicts the course of the Rio Grande River.

Hispania Nova, circa 1597; Translated as “New Spain”

An early map published in Corneille Wytfliet’s atlas Descriptionis Ptolemaicae augmentum (translated as “Ptolemy’s World Augmented”), this map focuses mostly on Mexico with information on Texas limited to the coastline. Most of the Texas rivers are incorrectly drawn, because Texas remained relatively unexplored by Europeans except for Spanish missionaries.

Mapping Texas: A Cartographic Journey, 1561 to 1860

Image courtesy of Carlye Thornton, Senior Specialist, Marketing & Communications for University Libraries and ITS.

by Rachel DeShong, Special Event Coordinator and Map Curator

On November 14th, The Texas Collection hosted its annual fall lecture which focused on the newly published book Mapping Texas: A Cartographic Journey, 1561 to 1860. This project, published by Baylor University Press, was a collaborative work written by John S. Wilson, Baylor’s Interim Dean of Libraries and Director of The Texas Collection, Sierra M. Wilson, Print Production Coordinator for the University of Chicago Press, and Rachel DeShong, the Map Curator at The Texas Collection. Mapping Texas features 44 full color maps from the Frances C. Poage Map Room in the style of a large, coffee-table book. At the lecture, the authors explored the origins of the iconic boundary of Texas, highlights from some of the more prominent maps, and the practical and artistic aspects of map cartouches.

The first map the speakers analyzed was Nueva Hispania Tabula Nova[1], 1561. This is one of the earliest maps in our collection and is one of the first maps that accurately depicts the Texas coastline. The map is notable because of the various editions – also referred to as “states” – that exist. The third edition, which The Texas Collection owns, is distinguished by the introductions of new place names and the illustration of a ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.Continue Reading