During the American Civil War of 1861-1865 the struggling outpost of Seattle in Washington Territory anxiously watched and waited as to how the war’s outcome would affect not only national issues but how it would affect federal influence in the Pacific Northwest. In the years just prior to outbreak of the war, Seattle had tried to get the federal government to help with expansion of roads and railroads, but the start of the war put everything on hold.
The first territorial governor of Washington, Isaac I. Stevens, was appointed in 1853. On the way out to Washington Territory one of Stevens’ duties was to lead a survey crew, scouting a route for a transcontinental railroad. Stevens continued to promote this effort during his four years as governor and four more years as territorial representative in Congress. As a career army officer, Stevens joined the Union at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. He was killed at the Battle of Chantilly, September 1862 in Virginia.
Washington Territory did not send troops to the Civil War but in addition to Governor Stevens, residents had known some other men who became participants in the war. Captain George Pickett had been at Fort Bellingham until he decided to resign from the U.S. Army and serve with the Confederacy. Others who had been with him, such as Lt. Robert Hugh Davis, nephew of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, also left the Pacific Northwest and joined the Confederacy.
Ulysses S. Grant who had been posted at Fort Vancouver, Washington Territory, became one of the most famous generals of the Union during the Civil War. He received the surrender of General Robert E. Lee of the Confederacy on April 9, 1865 in Virginia.
Grant served as President of the United States 1869-1877. The promotion of railroads was a major issue during his administration. Prior to his service as president, the first complete transcontinental railroad went through to California in 1869. In the 1870s residents of the Pacific Northwest continued to advocate for a route to their area.
This blog article will tell of Seattle’s continual desire for a railroad route to the city, and how Civil War veterans were influential in railroad development in Seattle.
Seattle follows the war news from afar
As of 1861 Seattle did not yet have its own newspaper or telegraph service so news of the war came from newspapers carried by the mail boat from San Francisco. Some news came from letters to residents of Seattle. One such letter was reprinted in Seattle’s first newspaper in 1863. Though the battles were taking place far from Seattle, letters brought the war issues near. (see: Far Beyond the Sounds of Battle, essay on the Emerging Civil War blog page).
In October 1864 Seattle finally got a telegraph line and the first message told of decisive battles which indicated that the tide was turning in the war, with the Union forces winning. The author of Four Wagons West, a history of early Seattle, noted that when the war started in 1861 it had taken two weeks for Seattleites to find out about it. When President Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865 the news arrived in Seattle by telegraph within 48 hours.
Washington Territory: everything on hold during the Civil War
By the 1870s Seattle had been in existence for more than twenty years but it was not a very up-and-coming place. The population hovered at about 1,100. Then as of 1880 Seattle had about 3,000 people but it still was not the largest city in Washington Territory — Walla Walla in eastern Washington was larger.
The leader of Seattle’s first white settler group, Arthur Denny, wrote in his memoir that when he arrived in 1851 he anticipated that numerous other settlers would soon follow. There had just been a gold rush in California, and though some of the Forty-Niners did eventually come to live in the Pacific Northwest, other national events impeded the growth of Washington Territory. The growth of Seattle and of Washington Territory was much slower than Denny had hoped, especially regarding the desire for a railroad route to Seattle.
Writing in his memoir, Pioneer Days on Puget Sound, published in 1890, Arthur Denny wrote, “I came to the Coast impressed with the belief that a railroad would be built across the continent to some point on the northern coast within the next fifteen or twenty years, and I located on the Sound with that expectation.” (page 15, Pioneer Days on Puget Sound.)
Writing in 1890, Denny could see in hindsight how events leading up to the Civil War of 1861-1865 had drawn settlers to other areas, so that not as many settlers came to the Pacific Northwest. The Kansas-Missouri controversy as to whether these would become slave states or not, drew settlers on either side of the slavery question, who wanted to tilt those states in one direction or another. That controversy raged throughout the 1850s and caused paralysis in Congress. Regional competition blocked the decision on the route of the transcontinental railroad, as to whether it would be south or north.
Then the Civil War itself, from 1861 to 1865, blotted out nearly all other national issues. Work on a transcontinental railroad did not get going again until after the war, and the first transcontinental railroad was not completed until 1869 with its terminus at Sacramento, California.
Arthur Denny had hoped to gain President Abraham Lincoln’s interest in establishing a naval base in Seattle and the promotion of a transcontinental railroad link. Denny’s father, John Denny, was a contemporary of Lincoln’s having served in the Illinois legislature with him, and he did visit with President Lincoln to discuss issues. But then the war years totally consumed President Lincoln’s attention and the transcontinental railroad work was postponed.
Civil War veterans arrive in Seattle
After the end of the Civil War in 1865, the USA’s western movement gained momentum with war veterans migrating in search of a fresh start. One of the earliest veterans to arrive in Seattle was Milton Densmore. He had served with Vermont in the Civil War, then moved to Wisconsin. He arrived in Seattle in 1871 and became involved in the efforts to bring out coal from east of Seattle. He piloted one of the tugboats which towed coal barges across Lake Union. From there, he helped build the narrow-gauge railroad along what is now Westlake Avenue down to Pike Street where coal was dumped into bunkers at the waterfront. Densmore eventually settled on the north shore of Lake Union where Densmore Avenue North was named for him.
A cluster of interrelated veterans of the Union Army arrived in Seattle in the 1870s with Captain DeWitt C. Kenyon of Michigan. They took land claims in northeast Seattle in what is now the Wedgwood neighborhood.
Nearby neighbors were the Weedin brothers who had served with Missouri troops in the Civil War. Weedin Place NE at Green Lake commemorates the land claim of Robert Weedin. His brother William had what is now the Wedgwood Rock area. This patriotic group of Civil War veterans held a Fourth of July celebration at the Rock in 1881 and wrote an account of it for publication in the Seattle Intelligencer newspaper.
Civil War veterans knew the importance of railroads
Understanding of the importance of railroads may have been one factor which led Civil War veterans to look for favorable sites of development Out West. Many Civil War soldiers experienced the war as a struggle for control of rivers and railroads, as battles were fought at these key resources. Each side, the Union & Confederate, fought for control of shipping lanes on rivers and the supply lines of railroads.
After the Civil War, in the late 1860s the federal government promoted extension of railroads all the way through to the West Coast where territories like Washington and Oregon were being developed. Awareness of the opening of new territories along rail lines was one attraction for Civil War veterans as they started new lives after the war.
It’s possible that the earliest Civil War veteran to arrive in Washington Territory was Job Carr who managed to get to Tacoma in 1864, before the Civil War had even ended. Carr had been 47 years old when he enlisted with the Indiana Volunteers in 1861. During the war he was twice wounded and was honorably discharged in 1864 after three years’ service.
Carr came to the West Coast because he heard that railroads would be built. He staked a land claim at what is now Old Town, on the waterfront of Commencement Bay. He chose this site because of his stated belief that Tacoma would be the likely terminus of the transcontinental railroad. Carr was right, but it took another ten years before the railroad route to Tacoma was completed.
Seattle and Tacoma compete for dominance
In the 1870s directors of the Northern Pacific Railroad visited Puget Sound and looked over possible sites for the terminus of their transcontinental line. There was intense competition between the cities of Seattle and Tacoma with each striving to gain the economic advantage of the rail line. Seattle investors were sure that their city would be chosen. A boomtown prosperity bubble was created in Seattle in anticipation of the railroad, which burst when the telegram from the Northern Pacific came on July 14, 1873, announcing the choice of Tacoma as terminus of the railroad. It was a huge shock and some businesses closed and moved away from Seattle, convinced that Seattle would never amount to anything.
Seattle fights back: The May Day Picnic of 1874
In the aftermath of the shocking disappointment, a turning point in Seattle history was its determination that if the railroad corporation wouldn’t build a route, then Seattleites would do it themselves. A company was organized and stock sold for the Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad. The intention was to build a rail line over Snoqualmie Pass to connect with agricultural communities on the east side of the mountains. Commerce could then more easily take place between growers in Walla Walla and the export point for products at the port city of Seattle.
Seattle called a mass-meeting for May 1st, 1874, at which the entire town went out to start laying the grade of the railroad which they would build themselves. The exertion of the day was replenished by an abundance of food provided by the ladies of Seattle. The event, written up in the newspaper the next day, was described as the Seattle Spirit of determination to succeed.
Although this home-grown railroad never did reach Walla Walla in eastern Washington, the rail line did get to the coal fields of Renton located to the southeast of Seattle. In that, the rail line achieved its purpose.
Civil War veterans catch the Seattle Spirit
The story of Seattle Spirit was picked up by other newspapers and it’s likely that, across the nation, some Civil War veterans read about Seattle’s May Day Picnic of 1874. Veterans were attracted to Seattle by the story of its economic vigor and determination to make something of itself, including a railroad.
John Scurry, who had fought with the Confederacy, got an engineering degree after the Civil War and arrived in Seattle in 1870 in his work as a surveyor for railroads. Horace Chapin Henry was a railroad contractor who fought for the Union and may have been on the other side of the same battles that John Scurry fought in. But the two men had something in common: they fell in love with Seattle and spent the rest of their lives here, investing in the growth of the city.
The best-known “railroader” of all was Daniel Gilman who had fought for the Union in a Maine regiment. After the Civil War Gilman gained experience in business and real estate in New York City, and he obtained a law degree.
In 1883 Gilman came to Seattle for its development opportunities. He was most interested in tapping the resources of coal and iron in the mountains to the east of Seattle. Together with attorney Thomas Burke, the two men created the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad which went eastward to the town of Gilman (Issaquah) to bring raw materials such as coal and lumber into the city. Today that railroad line has been preserved as the Burke-Gilman Trail.
It is estimated that by 1880 there were about 75 Civil War veterans who had migrated to Seattle, a seemingly small number, but these were men who were outsize in their influence upon their adopted city. They would become active in investment in rail, streetcars and other economic growth of Seattle.
“The Critical Role of Railroads in Influencing Military Strategy in the Civil War,” by Lloyd W. Klein, essay on the Emerging Civil War blog, February 15, 2022.
Four Wagons West by Roberta Frye Watt, 1931.
“News of November 6 election with Abraham Lincoln ahead, reaches Olympia on November 22, 1860,” HistoryLink Essay #901 by Greg Lange, 1999.
Peace Weavers: Uniting the Salish Coast Through Cross-Cultural Marriages, by Candace Wellman, 2017. Capt. George Pickett and Lt. Robert Hugh Davis were among the white men who took native wives during the time the men were stationed at an Army post in Whatcom County, prior to the outbreak of the Civil War.
Pioneer Days on Puget Sound, Arthur Denny, 1890.
Riding the Rails in the USA: Trains in American Life, by Martin W. Sandler, 2003. KCLS j385.0973.
“Seattle citizens start work on Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad on May 1, 1874,” HistoryLink Essay #924 by David B. Williams, 2013.
“Seattle Coal and Transportation Company begins operating Seattle’s first railroad on March 22, 1872,” HistoryLink Essay #5412 by Jennifer Ott, 2012.
Seattle in the 1880s by David Buerge, 1986.
Seattle Municipal Archives, Quick Information Page/Seattle population figures.
The West the Railroads Made, by Carlos A. Schwantes and James P. Ronda, 2008. KCLS 385.0978.
Writes of Way — Seattle street names.