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       The Men Who United the States: America's Explorers, p.1

           Simon Winchester
The Men Who United the States: America's Explorers


  February 23, 2012, was the eightieth birthday of my mother-in-law,


  Shortly before the family celebration, I told her of my plan to structure my book around the five so-called classical elements. She briefly left the room, returning with this card on which she had handwritten this aide-mémoire for me, the five elements rendered in English, Chinese characters, and Japanese.

  Three hours later, toward the end of her party, happy and surrounded by friends and family, Mrs. Sato collapsed and later died.

  This card was thus the very last thing she ever wrote in her life—one ample reason among many for me to offer this book as dedication both to her daughter


  and, with gratitude and respect, to the memory of


  Born, Tokyo, 1932. Died, New York, 2012.

  May this small offering be her memorial.


  Think of the United States today—the facts of these thirty-eight or forty empires solder’d in one—sixty or seventy millions of equals, with their lives, their passions, their future—these incalculable, modern, American, seething multitudes around us, of which we are inseparable parts!

  —WALT WHITMAN, A Backward Glance o’er Travell’d Roads (PREFACE TO THE 1888 EDITION OF Leaves of Grass)




  List of Maps and Illustrations

  Author’s Note

  Preface: The Pure Physics of Union

  PART I: When America’s Story Was Dominated by Wood, 1785–1805

  PART II: When America’s Story Went beneath the Earth, 1809–1901

  PART III: When the American Story Traveled by Water, 1803–1900

  PART IV: When the American Story Was Fanned by Fire, 1811–1956

  PART V: When the American Story Was Told through Metal, 1835–Tomorrow





  About the Author

  Also by Simon Winchester



  About the Publisher


  Illustrations noted as “(pd.)” are in the public domain.

  Dedication page: The five classical elements. (Lettering by Mrs. Akiko Sato; courtesy of the author)

  The Point of Beginning, East Liverpool, Ohio. (Courtesy of the author)

  The B-2 bomber squadron at Whiteman Air Force Base. (Courtesy of the US Department of Defense, photograph by SrA Jessica Kachman, June 1998)

  William Maclure in New Harmony. (Painting by Thomas Sully, courtesy of the Academy of Natural Sciences, Ewell Sale Stewart Library, Drexel University)

  Maclure’s geological map of the United States. (Courtesy of David Rumsey Map Collection,

  Gouverneur Warren’s 1858 map. (Courtesy of Derek Hayes)

  John Wesley Powell. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

  Steamboat Rock. (Courtesy of the author)

  The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (Painting by Thomas Moran, 1893; courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC/Art Resource, NY)

  Clarence King in the field. (Courtesy of the US Geological Survey Photographic Library)

  Ada Copeland (also known as Mrs. King or Mrs. Todd) with her son Wallace. (Courtesy of the New York Daily News)

  The Youghiogheny River. (Courtesy of the author)

  A column by “Hercules” in the Genesee Messenger. (Courtesy of The New-York Historical Society)

  “Wedding of the Waters” ceremony, New York. (Copyright 1905, C. Y. Turner)

  Asian carp. (Courtesy of Nerissa Michaels)

  The Chancellor Livingston. (Courtesy of The New-York Historical Society)

  Donner Pass. (pd.)

  On the 1919 motor convoy. (Courtesy of the National Archives)

  The “Good Roads Train.” (Courtesy of Project Gutenberg)

  Thomas MacDonald. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

  “Good Roads Everywhere” map. (Courtesy of Derek Hayes)

  Map of the Interstate Highway System. (Courtesy of Derek Hayes)

  Opening of the I-94, in Wisconsin. (Courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society)

  Cal Rodgers. (Courtesy of Stephen White)

  Cal Rodgers’s plane. (Courtesy of Stephen White)

  Farny’s The Song of the Talking Wire. (Courtesy of the Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati)

  Samuel Morse’s patent, No. 1,647. (Courtesy of the US Patent Office)

  Samuel Morse sending the first telegraph message. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)

  Telephone wires in New York City. (Courtesy of Stephen White)

  Electricity demonstration. (Courtesy of Stephen White)

  Nikola Tesla. (pd.)

  “PWA Rebuilds the Nation” poster. (Courtesy of David Rumsey Map Collection,

  Reginald Fessenden and his transmitter lab. (pd.)

  Family grouped around a radio receiver. (Courtesy of Stephen White)

  Johnny Carson. (pd.)

  Joseph Licklider. (pd.)

  Vint Cerf. (Courtesy of Joi Ito, 2007)

  Robert Kahn. (pd.)

  Google server farm. (Photograph by Connie Zhou; courtesy of Google)


  On Independence Day, July 4, 2011, I swore a solemn oath before a federal judge on the afterdeck of the warship USS Constitution in Boston Harbor, and by doing so I became, after half a century of dreaming, a naturalized American citizen. The following day I acquired my voter’s registration card; a week later I was issued my first American passport, a document on which I have traveled ever since. When I returned to Kennedy Airport after my first trip overseas as an American, I was little prepared for my reaction when the immigration officer remarked with casual warmth, “Welcome home.” I felt almost overwhelmed by at last now being a part of all of this.

  The most recent design of an American passport incorporates a series of declarative epigraphs at the top of each visa page. Samuel Adams: “What a glorious morning for our country.” The inscription on the Golden Spike at Promontory Summit in Utah: “May God continue the unity of our country as the railroad unites the two great oceans of the world.” And Jessamyn West’s description of the railway as “A big iron needle stitching the country together.”

  But of all the quotations, the one I like most is a paragraph taken from Lyndon Johnson’s inaugural address of January 20, 1965. The nation was at the time still shocked by the tragic shooting of President Kennedy—the event that elevated LBJ to the presidency. The country, still mired in Vietnam, was in a liverish mood, and many more tragedies were yet to come. But Johnson, seeking by his speech to help salve the country’s wounds and to better the temper of the times, spoke in an optimistic vein:

  For this is what America is all about. It is the uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge. It is the star that is not reached and the harvest sleeping in the unplowed ground. Is our world gone? We say “Farewell.” Is a new world coming? We welcome it—and we will bend it to the hopes of man.

  The pages that follow are devoted in large part to those men who, in the overarching interests of welding the nation together, traversed those uncrossed deserts and scaled those unclimbed ridges, offering in their own times and their own ways the promise of a better place and of better times ahead.


  E pluribus unum.


  Early in the crisp sm
all hours of November 7, 2012, a weary but exultant Barack Obama was thanking his countrymen for just handing him a second term as forty-fourth president of the United States. His speech was brief, but it rang with an eloquence that moved well beyond the platitudes of the pitiless election season that had mercifully ended in this culmination just moments before.

  It was a speech that spelled out President Obama’s unyieldingly optimistic belief in the future of a country that had allowed him, a young black man, to be invested, now for a second term, as the most powerful human being on the planet. He had been given this role, he said, with a new chance to perfect still further the immense entity that is the American union, more than two centuries after his country had declared its independence from colonial rule.

  Such was the crowd’s exuberance that much of what the president said was drowned in a cacophony of cheering and frenzied delight. Sensing the mood, he prudently kept what he had to say brief and to the point. After no more than ten minutes of high rhetoric, the tone of his voice fell and quieted—he was coming to the end.

  “I believe we can seize this future together,” he said, “because we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be”—and here he paused for just a beat, to add solemn emphasis to the adjective—“the United States of America.”

  The United States. This unique national quality—of first becoming and then remaining so decidedly united—is a creation that, in spite of episodes of trial and war and suffering and stress, has been sustained for almost two and half centuries across the great magical confusion that is the American nation. The account that follows, then, is on one level a meditation on the nature of this American unity, a hymn to the creation of oneness, a parsing of the rich complexities that lie behind the country’s so-simple-sounding motto: E pluribus unum.

  America is, after all, a nation founded as a home for the single simple ideal of universal human freedom. The country was established as a grand experiment, with people invited from all over the world to take part, to help build a nation of free souls, each to be given an equal opportunity to seek as each saw best the greatest happiness for themselves. The question I try to address in the following chapters is: just how has it managed to adhere, to keep itself annealed into one for all the years and decades since?

  Unity among peoples, in a country as complicated as America, is just not an organic thing. In countries with less convoluted pedigrees it might well be. By way of analogy, people in tribes tend toward natural unity—whether they are Kikuyu, Comanche, Wurundjeri, or Micmac, individuals within each tribe bond together tightly. Clans in Scotland are proud of being firm-welded entities of great antiquity—all McKenzies and MacNeils are one, Scots like to say, whether fortune or happenstance has led them to be dukes or dustmen. Elsewhere class and the tendency toward an intellectual aristocracy have magnified a sense of union—Etonians, graduates of Hotchkiss and Science Po, Harvard and Christ Church may all bond clubbably, as may most European marquesses and counts or their American equivalents, the Biddles, Lowells, Cabots, and Saltonstalls. Race likewise has an annealing affect: Harlem and Hough and Watts and a score of other places have long offered local concentrations of great resilience, strength, and pride.

  But America as a whole, once its early Puritan settlement had been diluted by those who followed or those already there, became too much of a mongrel nation to enjoy the simpler organic benefits of union. Lacking the communal simplicities afforded in some other countries—Japan, say, or Norway—by the existence of one race, one ethnic group, or a single class or a dominant intellectual or spiritual tendency, the great experiment that is America has had to make a union for itself, not wish it to grow in the dark out of time and nothing. It has done so purposefully by the deliberate acts of its own people. Man has had to do the hard work in bringing America together, forging something that in other, less complex places has been accomplished much more simply.

  And surely all must agree that man in America, bent to this single task, has done most creditably. Excepting of course the tragic period in the 1860s when the union was so cruelly tested by civil war, this work has been performed with a consummate degree of success. The states are now generally united, and as a body united, the nation has enjoyed a steady growth of prosperity and power known by no other country on earth. And all the while, the American people have managed to remain staunchly together while countries in so many rival regions around the world—in Europe, Russia, China, and India—have been plagued by bickering and struggling and division, and have been rendered much the lesser thereby.

  But just how has America’s uniquely stable union been achieved? What factors have ensured that, say, a Chinese migrant in rain-swept Seattle can find himself locked in some near-mystical concord with a Sephardic Jewish woman in Manhattan or a Cherokee student in Minnesota or a Latina stallholder in a market in Albuquerque—all of them being able to enjoy the same rights and aspirations, encapsulated in their shared ability to declare so simply, I am an American?

  How did the notion of creating a more perfect union of such peoples and of such administrative entities—the now fifty states, comprising the 2,955 counties of forty-eight of them, the 64 Louisiana parishes, and the 18 Alaska boroughs—first come about? And how did this idea of union translate into the practical, physical, and concrete terms we know today, which have worn so well and lastingly?

  The main purpose of the pages that follow is to consider what might be called the physiology and the physics of the country, the strands of connective tissue that have allowed it to achieve all it has, and yet to keep itself together while doing so.

  For the ties that bind are most definitely, in their essence, practical and physical things. It would of course be idle to dismiss the adhesive nature of the ideas on which the nation was founded. It would be a grave mistake to forget that the guiding national concept is based on a set of common purposes, on ideals and constitutionally guaranteed freedoms that are so publicly cherished by all. But over the years, these inchoate things have all been of necessity underpinned by innumerable real, visible, tangible connections—by survey lines and marks; by roads; by canals; by railways, telephone lines, power grids; and, more recently, by submerged rivers of electrons—all of which have proved crucial both in maintaining the union and in preventing, or at least lessening the likelihood of, its fracturing and spinning into a thousand separate parts.

  This book tells the story of making such connections as these and of the remarkable and visionary figures from the country’s history who first made them.

  Most of them were already Americans when they did so. Though we might nowadays wish it were otherwise, most—but not all—were men. Most of their achievements—but not all, most especially that which permitted the private ownership of land—were made after the Louisiana Purchase, which suddenly doubled the country’s size into the truly transcontinental entity it is today. Most of their achievements—but not all—remain as vital to the nation’s preservation as they were when first they were created.

  From the very visible nineteenth-century explorations of the Lewis and Clark expedition, by way of the geological surveying expeditions and the highway-building ventures and waterway excavations, to the less easily describable twenty-first-century mystery makings of the Internet communications backbone—there are fully two centuries of inventive zeal that have left as legacy a nation now as comprehensively interconnected and as practically unified as it is possible to imagine.

  But how best to organize the wealth of work that has brought about this unity? The sheer complications of it all—the overlappings of the work of road builders and survey makers, of the pioneers of flight and the makers of radio, of the work of those who dug canals and those who excavated the tunnels for the railroad lines—made it well-nigh impossible to narrate the story in purely chr
onological terms. By the same token, to list the characters who were involved in the forging of the union would lend the account the feel of a catalog or an encyclopedia. A device was needed, it seemed to me, that would link the achievements thematically and give the story some greater degree of structure and logic.

  An idea came to me one morning when I was writing a letter to a friend in China.

  Beginning in the mid-1970s, I had lived for many years on the far side of the world and had spent much time tramping the territories between Vladivostok and Vietnam, between Manchuria and Malaysia, and between Kashmir and the Khyber Pass. All the countries of Asia—as well as the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean—had held for centuries a philosophical view that everything and everyone can be reduced to the barest essentials, the five so-called classical elements. While the ancient Greeks revered just four elements, most other civilizations, from India eastward, nominated five.

  The various eastern countries in their histories have made subtle variations in just what these five elements are, but those most commonly selected are wood, earth, water, fire, and metal. While I was writing the letter to my friend in Shanghai that day and explaining the idea behind the book, it suddenly seemed to me that the five elements could be a logical way of placing into context the basic themes behind the making and joining together of the United States.

  The earliest explorers of the country, for example—Lewis and Clark and all the others in the years immediately following—were confronted by endless stands of ancient forest. Despite the myths, these forests were seldom as impenetrable as those in Russia or the tropics: Native Americans regularly set fires to manage and to thin them, to create pasture and to make usable landscape. But they were woods nonetheless, and they were vast and ancient.

  The early explorers paddled through them and up and along the various rivers of their expeditions in wooden boats. In winter and at night, they kept themselves warm by building fires of oak and ash wood. They framed their earliest houses of timbers of cedar and pine.

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