Mullan Road

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Mullan Road (1862-18??) - A 624-mile military wagon road constructed between Fort Benton, Montana and Fort Walla Walla, Washington. Constructed under the supervision of 1st Lieutenant John Mullan, (Cullum 1550), 2nd U.S. Artillery, for whom the road was named. This was the first wagon road to cross the northern Rockies to the Inland Northwest.

Mullen Road Cantonments and Forts, Showing the General Route.

Mullan Road History

Capt. John Mullan Statue at Fort Benton.

The origin of the Mullan Road began with a five year exploration and survey undertaken to find a railroad route through the Rocky Mountains from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. The expedition was headed by the Washington Territory Governor Isaac I. Stevens, (Cullum 986), and 2nd Lieutenant John Mullan, (Cullum 1550), 1st U.S. Artillery, participated in that expedition, demonstrating great skill and leadership. Congressional funding was later provided to build just a wagon road between Fort Benton and Fort Walla Walla and 1st Lieutenant Mullan was selected as the project superintendent.

The project began in June 1858 at Fort Walla Walla with Lt. Mullan and his official party, 100 laborers and 100 U.S. Army troopers. News of the defeat of Colonel Steptoe on 16 may 1858 had thrown the whole region into turmoil and the road project was temporarily cancelled while military operations were conducted to round up the hostile Indians. Lieutenant Mullan disbanded his command and returned to Washington DC arriving in December 1858. By March 1859 things were under control and Mullan had secured an additional Congressional appropriation of $100,000 to restart the project.

Lt. Mullan arrived back at Fort Walla Walla on 28 Jun 1859 and resumed the expedition. The first stretch between Fort Walla Walla and Spokane was relatively easy because of the terrain and the existing Oregon Trail. On 16 August 1859 Mullan was at the Coeur d'Alene Mission. The hard work of cutting through the mountains began after the Coeur d'Alene Mission. Mullan did not reach his winter camp site, Cantonment Jordan, in the St. Regis Borgia valley until 4 Dec 1859. He spent the 1859-1860 winter there. Mullan divided his work crew into teams that tackled the difficult parts of the road construction and the building of many bridges so that by 1 Aug 1860 the road was passable. He demonstrated passibility by arranging for 300 troops to be assembled at Fort Benton and marched over the road. Major Blake and his 300 troops arrived at Fort Walla Walla after a 57 day march from Fort Benton. Lt. Mullan and a work crew preceded the troops to clear any problems and he advised the command on suitable overnight camp sites.

Almost immediately immigrants and gold miners began to use the road even though Mullan did not consider it complete. Mullen embarked then on a second phase of construction to finalize the route and correct problem areas. He recognized quickly that there was no provision for maintenance and attempted to mitigate the problem areas. Bridges were especially vulnerable to the heavy spring run-off and snow would block narrow roadways in forested area well into the summer months. To alleviate the snow problem and blockage by fallen trees he increased the cleared width of the normal 25' roadway to 60'. To solve the bridge problem he attempted to engineer survivable footings but was not totally successful at this. This second phase of construction found Mullan in Cantonment Wright during the winter of 1861-1862 with his crews working on a large bridge across the nearby Big Blackfoot River.

On 23 May 1862 Cantonment Wright was abandoned and Mullan made his way down to Fort Benton arriving on 8 Jun 1862. On 12 Jun 1862 he started back up the road on what would be a final inspection and cleanup trip all the way to Fort Walla Walla where he arrived in late August 1862. Mullen disposed of his public property, disbanded his work crew and departed for Washington DC on 11 Sep 1862.

The road Mullan built exists to day as parts of the modern I-90 and other roads traversing the mountains. Along this route are some 12 identical statues of John Mullan along with many markers, carin and displays honoring his accomplishment.

Military Wagon Road Critical Staff



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