East of Coeur d’Alene, Interstate 90 parallels the historic John Mullan military wagon road as it winds more than 3,000 feet upward through the Fourth of July Pass to its summit. The pass and summit were so named because on July 4, 1861, Lt. John Mullan and the 200 soldiers and civilians under his command engaged in constructing the road, and camped and spent the day near the site where a monument now stands.
In honor of the holiday, Mullan, according to his own official report, gave “the working parties extra issues of molasses, ham, whiskey, flour and pickles … and spent the day pleasantly and harmoniously in camp…”
It was then that someone from the party carved “M.R.” and “1861” on the trunk of a 250-year-old white pine which remained until broken by a lightening storm in 1988. “M.R.” stood for “Military Road,” not Mullan Road, as some mistakenly believe.
The Fourth of July segment built by Mullan and his men, along with the Alder Creek segment farther east and the Heyburn Park segment on the southeast side of Lake Coeur d’Alene, are listed on the National Register of Historic places under the architectural classification “roads” and stand as a reminder of a time when people with vision ventured into a rugged and little-known wilderness.
The Heyburn Park section was not part of the final design of the road because it soon became apparent to Mullan that spring floods would make the road and river crossing impassable. This route, although shorter, was abandoned in favor of going around the north end of Lake Coeur d’Alene.
In 1854, the War Department commissioned Gen. Isaac Stevens, who would become the first governor of Washington Territory, “to solve the problem of a proper connection between the Plains of the Missouri and the Columbia between 45 and 48 degrees north latitude…” for either a railroad or wagon road.
The ultimate goal was to survey a rail route to the Puget Sound.
To assist him and head up the job, Stevens selected Mullan, who had graduated from West Point, 15th in his class. Mullan was an engineer as were most academy graduates. Accounts cite him as a born leader with a reputation for thoroughness, fairness and diplomacy, characteristics he carried into his job and which earned him the respect of both whites and Indians with whom he dealt while constructing the road.
Historians describe Mullan, born in 1831 in Virginia to John and Mary Bright Mullan, as a short man, under 5-foot-6 in height but muscular and well-built. He was just 16 when he arranged an interview with President James K. Polk, walked into the presidential office and requested an appointment to West Point. Apparently, Polk made reference to Mullan’s short stature and wondered why such a small person wanted to be a soldier. Mullan agreed that he was small but asked if a small man couldn’t be a soldier as well as a large man.
His bold determination apparently impressed the president because, within a few weeks, Mullan received his appointment to the academy and entered West Point before his 17th birthday. He graduated in 1852. Not long after graduation he was on his way west after Stevens selected the young officer to accompany him. Eventually Stevens placed Mullan in charge of the venture.
His survey party was made up of two officers, 24 enlisted men, eight scientists and civil employees. For the project, Congress had appropriated $40,000 to survey a 50-mile-wide strip involving some 50,000 square miles. The route would begin at Fort Walla Walla and end at Fort Benton, east of Great Falls.
Accounts tell of how, to get everything right, Mullan crossed and recrossed the Rocky Mountains six times and covered 1,000 miles between the years of 1853-1854. His notes for the entire project, beginning with the survey and ending with its completion are meticulous and indicate his understanding of what would be needed by those who, in the future, would use the 624-mile route.
His notes measure distances and how many days it took his party to travel between camping points. There is advice about carrying wood in wagons to compensate for the lack of wood at the next campsite. He notes quality and abundance of grass to graze horses and other stock. Of vital importance to humans and animals, he also included information about the availability of clean water from springs and streams.
Looking to the needs of the future he scattered bluegrass and timothy seeds at campsites to insure adequate forage for the animals that would someday traverse his road.
The actual building of the wagon road was interrupted by the Indian wars of the late 1850s when Mullan was assigned to the command of George Wright. In 1856 Congress had appropriated $100,000 to build the road and, once the wars were over, construction began in 1859.
Road work began at Walla Walla and progressed eastward rather than west to east which was the usual pattern. Also, this was the first planned and engineered road. Almost all roads leading westward had begun as Indian trails or trails blazed by trappers. Wagon roads simply followed these “natural” trails as was the case with the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails.
The road’s first phase, ran north from Walla Walla and followed a route east of Cheney. At Spokane the route turned east through the Spokane Valley to Coeur d’Alene, then through the towns of the Silver Valley and over the 4,932 foot Sahon Pass (near Lookout Pass). From there the route wound eastward along the Clark Fork through the Rockies and onto the Central Plains, ending at Fort Benton.
Sahon Pass was named for an invaluable member of the party, Gustavus Sahon, an accomplished artist and linguist who taught himself the Salashian language of the Pend Oreilles and Flatheads. In turn, Sahon taught Mullan, who acquired the language well enough to negotiate with tribal leaders.
Apparently, Mullan had a reputation for fairness among the Indians with whom he negotiated. He had been in disagreement with Wright and was deeply troubled over the hanging of the chiefs at Latah Creek (Hangman Creek). He also saved a 14-year-old Indian boy whom Wright planned to execute by promising to be responsible for the youth. The two remained in contact over the years. Mullan acknowledged a son born to him and a Colville Indian woman.
The Mullan road, according to the nomination form, “…is important because of its contribution to the development of transportation, early exploration, settlement, military activities, engineering, mining and Native American history in North America.”
In the years immediately following the road’s completion, it was estimated that thousands of people, wagons and cattle traveled over the road. There is also a story that camels were used as pack animals on the track.
Freeways and railroads now follow the path laid out by Mullan who, with the completion of the road, was promoted to Captain.
Although the road was built as a military highway it only served that purpose once and, because the military no longer used the road, it fell into disrepair until Gen. William T. Sherman traveled the route in 1877 and ordered it to be improved. According to the National Register listing, Fort Sherman was built because of its location on Mullan’s road.
Shortly after completing the road in 1863, Mullan resigned his Army commission and married Rebecca Wilson in Baltimore. Their wedding trip took them to Walla Walla where Mullan owned land on which he had filed while in the military. After a failed business venture that involved carrying mail between California and Ruby City, Idaho, he and his wife moved to San Francisco, where he studied law and opened a successful practice. Mullan died there in 1909.
Rutted and primitive, with bridges that frequently washed out and marshy stretches paved with logs laid side by side, the road cut through a wilderness that was both a challenge and something that must have been wonderful to behold when streams ran clear and giant cedar trees crowded the valleys. The Mullan road has been considered a major engineering accomplishment and a tribute to the men who planned and built it.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter