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Dr. Hartwell Carver's Proposal to Build a Railroad from Lake Michigan to the Pacific Ocean

Dr. Hartwell Carver is said to have written an 1832 article in the New York Courier & Enquirer advocating the building of a transcontinental railroad from Lake Michigan to Oregon. The 1862 Pacific Railroad Act lists an "H. Carver" as one of the persons of the Union Pacific Railroad.

There is a booklet by Dr. Hartwell Carver entitled "Proposal for a Charter to Build a Railroad from Lake Michigan to the Pacific Ocean" Washington, Gideon, 1847. 38pp. described as "One of the earliest transcontinental projects with critical comments on the plans of Whitney and Wilkes." The author claims to be the "first who conceived the plan of building a railroad across the Rocky Mountains, connected the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans..." This pamphlet is his "Memorial" to Congress asking for a charter for construction of the railroad.

William Reese Company notes: "Carver, who claims to be the first to propose a railroad to the Pacific Ocean, here brings together his various writings on the subject. He includes a three-page 'Memorial for a Private Charter' addressed to the U.S. Congress and asking that Carver and his associates be granted a private charter to build the railroad; remarks on the practicability of the enterprise, including criticisms of the plans of Asa Whitney and George Wilkes (whom Carver claims are asking for too much land and too much time to build the railroad); and various newspaper articles that Carver has written on the subject. 'One of the earliest transcontinental projects, with critical comments on the plans of Whitney and Wilkes' - Howes. HOWES C214, "aa." GRAFF 621. COWAN, p.108. RAILWAY ECONOMICS, p.281."

The University of Rochester may have a daguerreotype of Dr. Hartwell Carver.

Maria York writes in the report entitled "In Memory of Hartwell Carver, M.D. 1789-1875" Adobe Acrobat PDF format that Dr. Carver is buried in Rochester, NY with an elaborate cemetary monument ("a 50-foot monument with a carved figure on the top") and that "according to Carver's obituary in the Union Advisor on April 19, 1875, the inscribed epitaph on this pedestal was written by Dr. Carver for himself, and it reads:
In memory of Hartwell Carver, MD, a descendant of John Carver, who came over in the Mayflower, A.D. 1620. Dr. Carver was the father of the Pacific Railroad. With him originated the thought of connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by railroad. Many years of his life were devoted to arousing the public mind to this great enterprise and demonstrating its practicality. He lived to see an accomplished fact what forty years before was to him a vision of the future."

Transcribed from volume II of Kansas: a cyclopedia of state history, embracing events, institutions, industries, counties, cities, towns, prominent persons, etc. ... / with a supplementary volume devoted to selected personal history and reminiscence. Standard Pub. Co. Chicago : 1912. 3 v. in 4. : front., ill., ports.; 28 cm. Vols. I-II edited by Frank W. Blackmar. Transcribed July 2002 by Carolyn Ward. pp. 535-ff:

Railroads.—At the time Kansas was organized as a territory in 1854 the means of transportation west of the Mississippi river were extremely limited. Immigrants came by water from St. Louis to what is now Kansas City, from which point the trip westward toward the interior of the state had to be made with wagons, over a country where even wagon roads had not yet been established. Under these conditions the question of better transportation facilities was one which early engaged the attention of the Kansas pioneers.

In 1834, twenty years before the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska bill, Dr. Samuel K. Barlow of Massachusetts advocated, the building of a railroad through the western country which he had just visited. Three years later Dr. Hartwell Carver, in a communication to the New York Courier and Inquirer, suggested a railroad from the Mississippi to the Pacific coast, if possible, and at any rate to the head of navigation on the Columbia river. But the public was not yet ready to accept the scheme as feasible and laughed at the idea of a railroad across the continent. In fact, many people looked upon steam railroads as impracticable and an innovation unworthy of adoption by any civilized community. In 1828, only nine years before Carver wrote the article mentioned, the school board of Lancaster, Ohio, replied as follows to some young men who asked for the use of the school house in which they desired to debate the railroad problem:

"You are welcome to the use of the school house to debate all proper questions in, but such things as railroads and telegraphs are impossibilities and rank infidelity. There is nothing in the Word of God about them. If God had designed that His intelligent creatures should travel at the frightful speed of 15 miles an hour, by steam, He would clearly have foretold it through His holy prophets. It is a device of Satan to lead immortal souls down to hell."

Notwithstanding the attitude of opposition, Dr. Carver went to Washington to try to interest Congress in the subject of a transcontinental railway. There he met Asa Whitney, a New York merchant who had a large trade with China, and who was desirous of finding a shorter route to the Orient. But Congress was not yet ready to act on a proposition of such magnitude. Again in 1845 Whitney presented a memorial to Congress asking for a donation of a tract of land 60 miles wide from the west shore of Lake Michigan to the Pacific ocean, through the corner of which he and his associates would build a railroad and remunerate themselves through the sale of the lands on either side. Whitney was regarded as a speculator, but he continued his efforts to awaken the people to the importance of his project, and even influenced the legislatures of twenty states to indorse his plans. From 1853 to 1861 exploring surveys were made under the direction of Gen. G. M. Dodge, who says in his report:

"The first private survey and exploration of the Pacific railroad was caused by the failure of the Mississippi & Missouri (now the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific) to complete its project. The men who put their money into that enterprise conceived the idea of working up a scheme west of Iowa that would be an inducement to capital to invest in carrying. their project across Iowa to the Missouri river. They also wished to determine at what point on the Missouri the Pacific railroad would start, so as to terminate their road at that point. The explorers adopted Council Bluffs, Iowa, as that point." ...

Courtesy of The KSGenWeb Project Archives.

The Friends of Mount Hope Cemetery EPITAPH has an article by Fran Coleman:


On a quiet, residential street in picturesque Pittsford, sits a house with a famous history. This house was at one time the residence of Dr. Hartwell Carver, self-proclaimed "Father of the Pacific Railroad."

The story begins many years ago in 1794, when at the age of five, Dr. Carver moved from his native Rhode Island to Otsego, New York. Dr. Carver had very little formal education in his youth and only in the winter months. Because his family were farmers, he worked the fields along with the others. At the age of sixteen, Dr. Carver left the family nest to make a name for himself. In the year 1813, he became a student at newly established Hamilton College in Oneida County. He had been studying law, but abandoned it in favor of medicine. He stayed at Hamilton only a short time and left in the Fall of that year to attend a series of medical lectures; then, after arriving in New Haven, Connecticut, he enrolled as a student at Yale University. He was a "favorable" student and graduated in the Spring of 1816 with the honors of A.M. and M.D. From New Haven, he came directly to Pittsford and opened a medical practice the same year.

By working diligently, he managed within that year to pay off his debts from school, build a small house, establish a good medical library and a fine stock of medicine for his practice. Dr. Carver stayed in Pittsford for six years practicing medicine, then left for New York City to attend a series of lectures. Upon returning home, he opened a mercantile business. Dr. Carver and a partner operated stores in Buffalo, Lockport, and Pittsford, while he continued his medical practice. In 1825 he closed his businesses in Buffalo and Lockport and went to New Orleans for a year, returned for the summers in Monroe County, and spent his winters in the South. In 1831 he left his practice for a year and spent his time in Europe, attending medical lectures and traveling extensively. After that time, he returned home and continued his medical practice once again.

As early as 1832 Dr. Carver published a series of articles in the New York Courier and Enquirer, proposing a transcontinental railroad line.

In 1835 he proposed and brought before the public a plan for making a railroad to the Pacific Ocean, and claims to be the originator of that enterprise. He spent a great number of years and much time and money explaining the feasibility and practical use for this railroad. Dr. Carver had a memorial before Congress asking for a charter, as contained in the following last chapter of that charter.

A memorial for a private charter......Hartwell Carver

January, 1849
Washington, D.C.

" This railroad will be the great political and commercial artery of our Union, through which will circulate the golden treasures of California, of all the Pacific and Asiatic millions of people, throwing off its numerous branches as it sweeps through the whole body of this great Republic to all parts, whose life and vitality is democracy, liberty, and universal freedom and equal rights to all. This great artery will be the great aorta of the world, having two great hearts to feed, sustain, and give it vital impetus, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. These two great oceans, like the human heart, with their capacious auricles and ventricles, can never fail to keep up a healthy circulation through this great artery of our extensive country, and will never be liable to any morbid or diseased action, either increased or diminished, but always, as long as time shall Iast, retain its proper equilibrium with full confidence in your just deliberations, your memorialist will ever pray.”

Dr. Carver talked and wrote incessantly until 1862 when the enterprise began to take form and engage the attention of the public, in spite of the Civil War. The fulfillment of the dream followed and Dr. Carver was not only able to witness the consummation but also to ride on the new railroad to San Francisco and back. The promoters of the railroad have generally recognized the important service rendered by Dr. Carver, not only in originating the scheme, but in his working so industriously to make it a reality.

Dr. Carver passed away in 1875 leaving no direct descendants, but a memorial in Mt. Hope Cemetery is a testimonial to his diligent and uncompromising effort in helping to establish the link between East and West.

-- Fran Coleman

" Epitaph" Newsletter of the Friends of Mount Hope Cemetery. Volume 9, Number 1, Rochester, New York, Winter 1989

Reproduced with permission from the "Epitaph," a publication of the Friends of Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester, NY. Copyright © 1989 by the Friends of Mount Hope Cemetery. Courtesy Richard O. Reisem, Editor, Epitaph.

For some perspective, the Library of Congress' Andrew M. Modelski wrote:

The possibility of railroads connecting the Atlantic and Pacific coasts was discussed in the Congress even before the treaty with England which settled the question of the Oregon boundary in 1846. Chief promoter of a transcontinental railroad was Asa Whitney, a New York merchant active in the China trade who was obsessed with the idea of a railroad to the Pacific. In January 1845 he petitioned Congress for a charter and grant of a sixty-mile strip through the public domain to help finance construction.

Whitney suggested the use of Irish and German immigrant labor, which was in great abundance at the time. Wages were to be paid in land, thus ensuring that there would be settlers along the route to supply produce to and become patrons of the completed line. The failure of Congress to act on Whitney's proposal was mainly due to the vigorous opposition of Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, who favored a western route originating at St. Louis.

In 1849 Whitney published a booklet to promote his scheme entitled Project for a Railroad to the Pacific. It was accompanied by an outline map of North America which shows the route of his railroad from Prairie du Chien,

Wisconsin, across the Rocky Mountains north of South Pass. An alternate route to the south of the pass joined the main line at the Salmon River and continued to Puget Sound. Proposed lines also extended from St. Louis to San Francisco and from Independence, Missouri, to New Mexico and the Arkansas River. This is one of the earliest promotional maps submitted to Congress and was, according to its author, conceived as early as 1830.

Although Congress failed to sanction his plan, Whitney made the Pacific railroad one of the great public issues of the day. The acquisition of California following the Mexican War opened the way for other routes to the coast. The discovery of gold, the settlement of the frontier, and the success of the eastern railroads increased interest in building a railroad to the Pacific.

Railroads were also needed in the West to provide better postal service, as had been developed in the East, by designating railroad lines "post roads" in 1838. Strengthened by other proposals such as those of Hartwell Carver in 1849 and of Edwin F. Johnson in 1853, such leading statesmen as John C. Calhoun, Stephen A. Douglas, and Jefferson Davis declared their support for linking the country by rails. The lawmakers, however, could not agree on an eastern terminus, and they did not see the merits of the several routes west. To resolve the debate, money was appropriated in 1853 for the Army Topographic Corps "to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean."

One of the earliest speeches on the subject of a Pacific railroad, and a scarce Chicago imprint. The River and Harbor Convention met in Chicago in 1847 (coincidentally, the first convention ever held in Chicago) to discuss the issues of commercial navigation and transportation on the lakes and rivers of the United States. Hall took the opportunity of the meeting to deliver an impassioned speech on the necessity of a railroad from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean, and the logic of government funding of its construction. Hall endorses the construction plan of George Wilkes, who proposed that the railroad be built and owned by the federal government, over the competing privately funded charter plans of Asa Whitney and Hartwell Carver. Byrd locates nine copies. An early and important analysis of the feasibility of a railroad to the Pacific. LITERATURE RELATING TO THE UNION PACIFIC, p.11. McMURTRIE (CHICAGO) 117. BYRD 1190. HOWES H91, "aa." GRAFF 1744. SABIN 29862. OCLC 27772347.
Courtesy William Reese Company.

Also see the editorial advocating building a railroad to the Pacific written by Judge S. W. Dexter of Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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