ARE WE CHIMERICAL IN THIS OPINION? Visions of a Pacific Railroad and Westward Expansion before 1845
Although he deserves credit for promoting a transcontinental railroad as early as 1845, Asa Whitney may better represent the culmination of a discourse that had begun over twenty years earlier. Visions of a Pacific railroad originated in the 1820s and evolved into a widely debated issue by the 1830s. From the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, early promoters not only envisioned railroads to Oregon but also into the Mexican provinces of California and Sonora-- suggesting that such visions represented an important element of U.S. expansionism. Relying on romantically charged language, advocates ignored geographical and political realities and wedded their vision with a faith in railroad technology that was yet in its infancy. Wishing to lay claim to the perceived riches of the Asian trade, advocates described the Pacific railroad as a commercial venture, preceding actual settlement. Northerners generally promoted routes to Oregon, while the South sought California and Sonora as destinations, but these contending visions should not be confused with the sectionalism that characterized the debates over the railroad during the 1850s. Instead, the differences present in the discourse of the 1830s largely reflect civic boosterism. While scholars have noted these earlier visionaries, this article analyzes their ideas and places them in the context of U.S. expansion to the Pacific.