John Mullan’s Northern Overland Road & Other Early Frontier Transportation Routes

Irrepressible, young Lt. John Mullan conceived of an overland route across the northern Rocky Mountains as early as the spring of 1854 after being assigned the previous year as a topographical engineer to Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens’ epic northern transcontinental railway survey project. During the winter of 1853 Mullan crossed the Continental Divide six times and traveled over a thousand miles exploring the mountain passes in an effort to find the most practical route from Ft. Benton on the upper Missouri River to Ft. Walla Walla and the Columbia River.

A substantial portion of the Mullan’s “Northern Overland Road” passed through present eastern Franklin and Adams Counties. Mullan’s contingent also included twenty-eight-year-old Private Gustavus Sohon, fluent in English, German, and French. The Prussian immigrant would soon distinguish himself as expedition artist and Indian interpreter. Drawings by Sohon and John Mix Stanley provide the most comprehensive visual record places and life on of the inland Northwest frontier.


Mullan’s 1859-1860 roadbuilding crew consisted of some 100 civilian and military workers. The recent discovery of records from a territorial census-taker offers fascinating insight into their backgrounds substantial numbers being immigrants from Germany and Ireland. Mexicans Trinidad Castillo and John Sanchez workers as packers, and Thomas Towza, a Black from Jamaica, served as printer.

Historian Alexander C. McGregor’s careful study of ledgers from Palouse Ferry (Lyons Ferry after 1872) in eastern Franklin County and early issues of the Walla Walla Statesman dating back to 1869 reveals the composition of frontier immigrant traffic that passed over the Mullan Road. The lists represent a pioneer “Who’s Who” including the enterprising Schwabacher and Oppenheimer brothers, William “Virginia Bill” Covington, S. W. “Wild Goose Bill” Condit, “Uncle Dan” Drumheller, Ben Burgunder, and Rocky Mountain packers headed to the Kootenai, Blackfoot, and Birch Creek mining districts.

Among the most peculiar beasts of burden on the Mullan Road in the 1860s decommissioned army camels brought north from posts in the Southwest to carry goods to the mountain mining districts. The photograph above shows a horse and camel on the muddy streets of Missoula, Montana (c. 1865). Before completion of the Northern Transcontinental Railroad in 1883, Lyons Ferry became a principal destination of the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company’s sternwheeler fleet that plied the swift waters of the lower Snake and Columbia rivers from Portland.