PULLMAN, Wash.— It took tremendous effort to build a road in the 1850s. When Governor Isaac I. Stevens needed someone to direct construction of the U.S. Military Wagon Road, he selected John Mullan, an army lieutenant and West Point engineering graduate. That project—the first government-funded road across the Northern Rockies —came with exceptional challenges. The young engineer was obligated to navigate tensions between the U.S. Army and Native peoples. He had to motivate two hundred men performing the backbreaking work with shovels and pick axes while risking starvation and frostbite. Even his odometer caused problems; it was so large, it required its own wagon.
Initially intended to transport troops and equipment, the arterial helped transform the region and established Mullan as an accomplished engineer. Indeed, he chose the route so well that modern engineers retained a significant portion for Interstate 90. Today, he is commemorated by multiple monuments, and his name adorns schools, parks, streets, and more. More than two dozen monuments—often a statue of a man dressed in buckskin—stand between Fort Benton, Montana, and Walla Walla, Washington. There is one just off Interstate 90 on Fourth of July Pass in Idaho. Another sits in a ditch along a country road outside of Cheney, Washington. There are several in Spokane and the surrounding region. All mark the course of John Mullan’s 625-mile highway. Modern-day streets, schools, and parks also honor the road builder. Despite the past acclaim, no one had ever written much about the celebrated historical figure, whose road played a pivotal role in the development of the interior Northwest.
After completing the region’s first engineered highway at age thirty-two, Mullan lived for nearly another half century, a period of dynamic change. When he died in 1909, automobiles were making their initial crossings along his route. Yet despite frequent mentions in books about the nineteenth century Northwest, the soldier/explorer remained little more than a caricature: a dashing young Army officer who came West and built one of its most important thoroughfares. After that, he disappears from regional literature.
Now, in the first comprehensive portrayal of John Mullan’s life, Idaho State Historian Keith C. Petersen takes a fresh look at the road builder. The deeply researched biography probes the soldier/explorer’s complex personality, his rise to fame, and his fall from grace. The story includes business partnerships and personal relationships with some of the West’s most intriguing characters: Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet, General William T. Sherman, Chico founder John Bidwell, Idaho gold discoverer Elias Pierce, Yakama Indian chief Owhi, and others.