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Congress directed Jefferson Davis to conduct surveys for potential railroad routes in the West

PHOTO COURTESY OF BOWMAN MUSEUM
 - Lt. Robert S. Williamson, shown in 1857, led an expedition into Central Oregon in 1855.

Lt. Robert Stockton Williamson was with the party that explored Central Oregon on the Pacific Railroad Survey of 1855.

Williamson was born Jan. 21, 1825, in Oxford, New York. He was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and graduated fifth in his class in 1848. He was appointed a 2nd Lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers.

He and fellow Lieutenant Henry Lacom Abbot led a survey party of the Pacific Railroad Survey in 1855. It was one of several expeditions conducted by the U.S. Corps of Engineers exploring potential railroad routes in the west.

In March 1853, Congress had directed Secretary of War Jefferson Davis to conduct a series of surveys in order to ascertain the most practicable and economic routes for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Davis charged Williamson and Abbot with the task of determining probable routes from the Sacramento Valley in California to the Columbia River in Oregon Territory, either by way of the Willamette River or Deschutes River.

The two lieutenants received orders in early May 1855, and Williamson would serve as the official head of the expedition, while Abbot would hold the rank of second in command.

Williamson and Abbot departed New York on May 4, 1855, and arrived in San Francisco on May 30. They took six weeks making necessary preparations, assembling a crew and securing pack mules. The expedition left in July 1855. The party included 18 civilian packers, John S. Young, artist, John Strong Newberry, geologist and botanist, Dr. E. Sterling, physician and naturalist, H.C. Fillebraun, assistant engineer, C.D. Anderson, a computation specialist, and Charles Coleman as pack master. A military escort comprised of 100 officers and soldiers accompanied the expedition. Included in the escort were 1st lieutenants Phil Sheridan and George Crook.

Over the next five months, the survey party explored northern California, the Klamath Basin, Central Oregon Cascade Range and the Willamette Valley. Lt. Abbot took full command of the expedition when Williamson became ill and returned to California.

Williamson served in the Army during the Civil War and after the war, he returned to California as Chief Topographical Engineer of the Department of the Pacific. He became the United States Engineer and achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel. He retired from the Army due to illness in 1882. He died in San Francisco, California, on Nov. 10, 1882.


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