Updated: Apr 2, 2020
On September 20, 2014, Idaho State Historian Keith C. Petersen led a Latah County Historical Society group on a guided tour of parts of the Mullan Road. May 6, 2014 Petersen released his new book, John Mullan: The Tumultuous Life of a Western Road Builder. His book chronicles the life of John Mullan, a man well known in the Pacific Northwest for his role as architect and builder of the military road between Fort Walla Walla, Washington and Fort Benton, Montana. The book covers John Mullan’s entire life, while the bus tour we took focused on the construction of this military road commonly known as Mullan’s Road. In the comfort of an air-conditioned touring bus, Petersen painted a picture of what it took from 1859 to 1862 to build a 600-mile road.
Following the stop at Rosalia, Washington, the group turned east following the route of the Mullan Road and stopped at Hangman’s Creek historical marker. As the name suggests, Colonel Wright hung seven Native Americans here on about September 24–25, 1858, without a trial, effectively ending native resistance. Petersen argued that the defeat of the confederation of inland northwest tribes including Yakamas, Palouse, Coeur d’Alenes, and Spokanes in 1858 allowed Mullan to build his road through that area of Idaho, Washington, and Montana that would otherwise be impossible.
Throughout the bus tour, Petersen aptly pointed to historical figures of regional and national prominence. These included Gustavus Sohon (renowned artist of the Pacific Railway plates, 1855–1861) and Theodore Kolecki (a topographer and assistant) both who were members of his road building party. Sohon in addition to providing early sketches of the Pacific Northwest, including the image on the front of Petersen’s book, provided us the first written description of Latah County, Idaho. Washington Territorial Governor, Isaac Stevens, recognized Mullan’s potential choosing him to build the military road. Stevens acted as a mentor to Mullan, who had financial ambitions of his own. As a devout Catholic and by necessity, Mullan had connections to Jesuits Father Joseph Cataldo and Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet.
Pictured above is one of dozens of Mullan Road markers that stretch from Walla Walla, Washington to Fort Benton, Montana. Petersen argues successfully that the dozens of markers installed from 1916 to 1941 indicate the road’s historical significance. The installation of these markers was not a national project but instead local communities recognizing the 600-mile road’s importance. Petersen points out that the roadbed became a route for the railroad, US Highway 10 in 1911, and Interstate 90 in 1958; thereby affirming Mullan’s choice of the Fourth of July Pass as the best for a road nearly a century later.
While on the way back to Moscow, winding down, and enjoying a glass of wine, Keith explained how William Wallace in 1863 defeated Mullan’s design for Washington Territory, see the map below, eventually resulting in the northern panhandle we have today in Idaho.
The bus tour was quite enjoyable providing both interesting company, good food, and historical relevance all at once. Luke Sprague wrote this post and I am a local professional historian who provides people with customized research for ancestry, family searches, book manuscripts, screenplays, building histories, and military records, find out more at: HistoryMint.com