The Maps, and the Vision
Whitney first had these maps prepared for an 1846 Senate report on his proposal, but he made a great deal of use of them thereafter, featuring them in his public lectures that followed 1840s as well as an 1849 tract published to explain his proposed transcontinental railroad to a wider audience. They are simple charts by even by the standards of his day: black ink on white paper with few shadings, they feature outlines of continents and mark important settlements and polities, but they do not reveal much in the way of topographical detail beyond those major features – like river systems and mountain ranges – that might affect the construction of railroad lines.
While the three examples of Whitney’s maps shown here differ in scale and specific details, what they share is a focus on the unnaturally consistent curves of human-created routes of travel, the “second nature” skein that makes topography into human geography. And while they feature some differences in representation, his maps are surprisingly catholic in their regard for modes of transport – so long as it is driven by steam. Rail lines, proposed and already built, show up in bold; steam lines are similarly bolded, but with dotted gaps; and Whitney’s annotations, where they appear, provide data on population centers and the distances between them, as marked by steam-driven modes of travel.
In the end, Whitney’s aim was not to merely show his road, but rather to reveal this potential commercial web and its hotspots. By doing so, he hoped to demonstrate how his route would complete the already-in-progress network of world commerce, thereby binding the globe together as one. His maps therefore provide more than a proof that his road could be built; they aim to provide key evidence of his railway’s geopolitical importance, too.
Unusually for maps of the period, Whitney’s maps put the Americas at the center. This was no accident; Whitney designed his map to correct what he saw as a fundamental epistemological error. Whitney typically began his public remarks with reference to his “skeleton map” – a world map like this – so that his audience might clearly “see our actual position on the globe.” Standard atlases, he averred, placed the meeting place of “Europe, Asia and Africa” at their centers, shifting North America “to one side of all, as if of no importance.” Whitney’s cartography unskewed this bias, showing America as it “really” was: “in the centre of all.”
More than a salve to national geographic pride, Whitney’s map showed that the “belt of the globe,” the east-west band running across Europe and Asia that contained “the population and the commerce of all the world,” was incomplete. He observed that if one followed this “belt” it “makes a straight line across our continent” – and here lay the opportunity. Whitney used his maps to demonstrate that a railroad across North America would make the United States the center of global trade, a “grand thoroughfare for all the nations of the earth.”
Whitney’s innovation did not lie in imagining a path from Europe to Asia across the Americas, but rather in what he imagined it would do. The search for a path to Asia was an old one, motivating explorers since Columbus. Indeed, by the time Whitney first proposed his plan in 1845 Americans had been contemplating various schemes for finding or building transcontinental canals and roads for decades. But thought he was not the first to imagine a transcontinental road, Whitney’s campaign was instrumental in making it seem not only desirable but possible – even inevitable.
Whitney’s plan linked the profits of a supposedly lucrative Asian trade to a supposedly inevitable destiny of national greatness; that was the key to its popularity. In part, this was a matter of good timing. Commerce with Asia was on Americans’ minds in the 1840s because of Britain’s recent invasion of China (the First Opium War, 1839-1842), which gave Western traders new access to formerly closed ports of the Qing Empire, sparking a trading boom. (It was no accident that Whitney had first formulated his railroad plan while on a trading voyage taking advantage of this new access). Further, when Whitney first proposed his plan, the U.S. was at the height of its embrace of manifest destiny, and on the precipice of war with Mexico. The violent acquisition of new territory on the Pacific Coast made his plan especially interesting to those officials seeking ways to quickly strengthen and secure the nation’s new empire.
To his fellow Americans, Whitney presented the case for his railroad as a simple commercial undertaking, albeit one with geopolitical implications. A railroad across North America, he argued, would reduce the cost of freight so significantly that it would out-compete all other modes of transport, rejiggering global commercial networks to deliver all the traffic of “the commerce of all Asia” into American hands. This “Pacific road” (his term, subsequently widely adopted) would enable the quick settlement and “civilization” of the American West, and supply the means for U.S. domination of the Pacific Ocean as well as the Atlantic. Providing cheap, convenient transit would benefit all mankind, of course, but as Whitney explained, the road’s “first great object” was a nationalist one: “to change the route for the commerce and intercourse of Europe with Asia, and force it, from interest, to pay tribute to us.” In other words, Whitney’s railroad was a scheme for making the American republic a global hegemon by securing it a monopoly on the most important artery of world trade.