Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Discovery and Naming of Stevens Pass

Continued from Stevens Pass, Washington.

In the latter half of the 19th century, James Jerome Hill was looking toward the future. Hill foresaw transcontinental railroads replacing riverboats and wagons as the primary mode of moving goods and people across America. In 1889, Hill and his financiers acquired the bankrupt St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, and turned it into the Great Northern Railway, with the intent of connecting St. Paul to Seattle. The Northern Pacific Railroad had already reached Tacoma, Washington by way of Stampede Pass in the Cascades, so time was of the essence.

While the railroad was being built across the plains of North Dakota and eastern Montana, engineers and surveyors were sent ahead to lay out the route through the mountains. As the winter of 1889 approached, no route through the Rocky Mountains had been found. The Northern Pacific had followed a more southerly route through the mountains, however Hill was determined to have his own route through the Rockies rather than parallel his competition.  With time running out to find a pass, Hill sent a young engineer named John F. Stevens to find the pass through the Rockies before construction of the railroad would be delayed. If Stevens could find the pass in time, Hill promised to name a pass after him.

Stevens and a Flathead Indian guide explored several known passes in the fall of 1889, including a pass noted by the Lewis & Clark Expedition called Marias Pass, but had yet to find a suitable route. With winter moving in and time running short, Stevens decided to make a last attempt at Marias Pass, which he considered the most promising. The temperature was 40 degrees below zero in December 1889 when Stevens, unable to stop to rest without risking freezing to death, discovered the summit of Marias Pass at 5,214 feet. Stevens returned to send word to Hill, and construction of the railroad continued.

Stevens was praised by Hill for finding the route through Marias Pass, and in Spring 1890, Hill sent Stevens to find a route through the Cascade Mountains of Washington. After searching 4,500 square miles of the Cascade Range, Stevens followed a creek flowing into Lake Wenatchee from the west. The creek led him to the summit of the pass. Stevens sent his assistant, engineer C. F. B. Haskell, to survey the route through this pass. After confirming the route was indeed feasible, Haskell carved "Stevens Pass" on a cedar tree, naming the pass as Hill had promised.

Continue to Stevens Pass Today

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