The Mullan Road

Waypoints in the Palouse Tour - Story 3

You are standing near the path of the Mullan Road, the first wagon road across the northern Rocky Mountains.

Since before Lewis and Clark, it was an American dream to establish an effective route connecting the eastern United States to the Pacific Ocean. The vast expanse of the American continent made this passage difficult, but thanks to Irish immigrant and West Point graduate John Mullan, this vision would be realized.

In March 1853, Governor Isaac Stevens led an expeditionary force to survey the newly-established Washington Territory. Mullan was one of his officers and was soon appointed to build the wagon road. The road would aid in the subjugation of the area's Native population, serve as a wagon trail for American migrants and as a survey of the best routes for an eventual railroad.

The 624-mile-long Mullan Road, winding through the Idaho and Montana Rockies into the western foothills, through the plains of southeastern and central Washington, and along the banks of the mighty Columbia River into Fort Walla Walla became a symbol of military might and commercial power. The road's completion in 1861 was quite an accomplishment in an area of the continent which held only a handful of white settlers overshadowed by a population of Indian tribes that had been dominant in this region since long before European contact. Many of these tribes, such as the Nez Perce, Iroquois and Flathead offered guidance and advice in leading Mullan through the mountain passes and river valleys that he would utilize for his road's construction. Always mindful of existing Indian trails and roads, Mullan even utilized the mountain pass trails of the Coeur d' Alenes.

The Mullan Road was one of the busiest wagon trails in the Northwest during its eight-year commissioned use. Over 20,000 immigrants and over $1,000,000 in commerce passed over the road in 1866 alone. With the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, the wagon trails were traded for the Iron Horse, and the Mullan Road was decommissioned.

Fast-forward nearly 100 years and by the 1960s as Interstate 90 was completed in Washington, Idaho and Montana, markers of the original Mullan Road were placed and can be seen along the Interstate. Many of these signs are visible on or near I-90 through Montana, Idaho, and Eastern Washington. Highway 10 in Idaho and Montana follows much of the road's original route. These major thoroughfares indicate not only the original road's presence, but they also remind us of the historical significance of the Mullan Road, and its impact on western American society, even in to the 21st century.

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