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Historian Keith Petersen Introduces the Real John Mullan

Updated: Apr 7

Join us on Tuesday, June 10 at 6:30 p.m. at Moscow’s 1912 Center, 412 E. Third Street, as we launch Idaho State Historian Keith Petersen’s new book, John Mullan: The Tumultuous Life of a Western Road Builder.


Between 1858-1862, Mullan constructed the first engineered highway in the Pacific Northwest, a road that helped cities like Walla Walla, Missoula, and Helena boom, and set the route for Interstate 90. Today, that accomplishment is recognized with dozens of massive monuments, interpretive signs, exhibits, and highway markers. But Mullan completed his road as a 32-year-old. He lived nearly another half century. Until now, his fascinating life after the road has been a mystery.

Come learn about the real John Mullan. We’ll have light refreshments and locally crafted beer from the Moscow Brewing Company, and Keith will be autographing books after his presentation.


Below is an excerpt from the Prologue of John Mullan.


“Twenty-five-year-old Rebecca Mullan found herself in Manhattan on May 7, 1863, Cyrus Field at her elbow. Yes, that Cyrus Field: The “world-renowned parent” of the first transatlantic telegraph cable. Field guided Rebecca through the grand Clinton Hall at Astor Place, selecting two seats from which to observe the evening’s lectures at the American Geographical and Statistical Society. Rebecca intently awaited the night’s first oration, by Captain John Mullan, her husband of ten days, there to discuss the Pacific Northwest, a region he knew as well as any man; a place Rebecca would soon call home.


“Rebecca sat anxiously as Henry Grinnell, the Society’s president and founder, advanced to the podium to introduce her husband. Grinnell, retired from the family transatlantic shipping business, now focused on financing polar expeditions. Grinnell Land, a peninsula deep in the Canadian arctic, bore his name, testimony to exploration philanthropy. A heady atmosphere filled the Hall, but the thirty-two-year-old Mullan, well educated, self-assured, and the focus of considerable press attention himself as “The Northwest Road Builder,” confidently commenced his address.


“Mullan described his time with Isaac Stevens’ Pacific Railroad Survey when he explored five possible rail routes through the Rocky Mountains. He detailed his multi-year effort to construct a military road connecting the Missouri and Columbia Rivers, finally fulfilling Thomas Jefferson’s vision when he had sent Lewis and Clark west fifty years earlier. He narrated tales of the region’s Indians.


“Mullan spoke on—and on: thirty minutes, sixty, ninety. Always meticulously well prepared for any task, Mullan’s zeal served him poorly on this evening. Henry Grinnell must have grown restless, for the main attraction remained to come, a report on Arctic explorations, now deterred well into the night. Mullan’s discourse underwhelmed The New York Times, which charitably termed his presentation “a lengthy but still interesting paper,” before devoting the bulk of its story to the ongoing Arctic excitement.


“As Mullan accompanied Rebecca out of Clinton Hall late that evening, it would not have occurred to either to ponder whether Mullan’s career might have peaked a few hours earlier as he prepared to give his invited presentation to the nation’s most prestigious geographical organization. Until then, Mullan’s life had been an ascending arc: Presidential appointee to West Point, explorer extraordinaire, Western road builder, aspirant to become Idaho’s first territorial governor, recently-appointed commissioner of a western railroad. Rebecca and John, still relishing this honeymoon evening spent with luminaries, would have had no way of knowing that their future held considerably less predictability.”

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© 2020 by the Latah County Historical Society.

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