Whitney’s journey toward his plan for a transcontinental railroad (and his maps) began when he set sail from New York City’s Pike Slip Wharf on June 18, 1842. He had seen some hard times. Twice widowed, his finances had collapsed in the lingering downturn following the Panic of 1837; he shipped out to recover his fortunes as well as his spirits. His destination was the rich port of Canton, China (Guangzhou), where he had never been before, but had heard that the chaos of the recent Opium War was creating new commercial opportunities for enterprising foreign merchants.
Even at its outset, Whitney hoped his new China voyage would not only improve his circumstances, but also lead to something grander. “It certainly is a great tryal at my time of life to recommence the work, too in a strange foreign Land,” he confided to his diary, but he hoped “above all things that I may yet be enabled to do some good to mankind & in some small degree make amends for the abuse of all God’s providences to me.”
(Whitney was pious man, but not an unassuming one. His physical resemblance to his hero, Napoleon Bonaparte, was noted, and some later viewers read in his brows character traits similar to those of the great general. A leading phrenological journal, writing after Whitney’s railroad plan was well known, averred that his physiology suggested he was “amply sustained by INDOMITABLE PERSEVERANCE, self-reliance, and ambition” –words likely welcome to the ears of an eager businessman trying to sell the public on a great (and expensive) project.)
Financially, his trip was a success. Returning to New York on September 9, 1844 with his fortune restored, Whitney retired from business to open a new chapter in his life. During his time away he had conceived the plan whose scope and “vast importance” he hoped would rival the deeds of his doppelgänger, as well as benefit mankind. Filled with zeal for his new project – a “RAILROAD TO THE PACIFIC,” a new road unprecedented in size, scope, and cost –Whitney set about writing up his ideas, and preparing to memorialize Congress to solicit support for federal government support.