Mullan Road: Coeur d'Alene River Crossings Part 1

Robert H. Dunsmore

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Key: Mullan Road       Original River Channel
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Commentary by Kris Townsend and Robert Dunsmore

In his 1863 report to Congress, Mullan included two listings of river crossings and other notable landmarks. W. W. Johnson, civil engineer, wrote the listing, dated January 2, 1860 and found on page 124 of Mullan's report. John Wiesner, meteorologist and astronomer, wrote a similar list dated January 25, 1860 and found on pages 128–133. Both lists were prepared under Mullan's supervision while wintering at Cantonment Jordan near the St. Regis river.

Johnson measured distance and elevation from a spring near the river's edge on the west side of the 'Mission Hill'—just inches above the river level at that time. Wiesner measured distance from Fort Walla Walla and elevation above sea level. Selected data from both listings were combined into the table provided below.

Mullan called today's river between Cataldo and Wallace simply the Cœur d'Aléne river. On his skeleton maps, Mullan denoted today's North Fork Coeur d'Alene river as North Branch. The first crossing was on today's Couer d'Alene river just east of the Mission. The remaining crossings, using today's geographical nomenclature, were on today's South Fork Coeur d'Alene river.

During his 1859 construction season, Mullan did not build any major bridges between the first crossing (Cataldo) and seventeenth crossing (Wallace area). All these crossings were seasonal fords as Mullan did not have time or resources to build major bridges. Mullan did build the center pier for the third crossing (east of Kellogg) on his return to Walla Walla preceding Major Blake in the fall of 1860. The pier was a crib of pyramid triangular shape built with logs 22 feet long. It was 12 feet broad and 10 feet high, with a floor, and filled with rocks.

Mullan’s criteria for bridges included the following. All spans over fifty feet required a center pier.  Red fir or white pine was used for portions subject to be under water. Stringers were made from either white pine, red fir, or tamarack. Whenever at hand, cedar for covering when at hand.

During the 1861 construction season, Mullan moved the ferry boat from the St Joe River crossing (on the 1859-60 route) to an area downstream from the first Coeur d’Alene River crossing to serve as a ferry in the Mission area. The fathers and brothers at the Mission were given charge of the ferry operation.

In 1861, Mullan’s crews built bridges at the second through seventeenth crossings (16 major bridges). He also built a bridge at the first crossing of the "North Fork" near present Canyon Creek (See Crossings Part 2). This was his last bridge on what is now called the South Fork.

The distances listed in the table below are for the 1859 route. The 1861 route added approximately 10 miles between Walla Walla and the Coeur d'Alene mission. Thus, to determine distance using the newer 1861 route, add 10 miles to the numbers provided here.

Johnson Wiesner
Elev. Miles Elev. Miles
Mission Hill spring 89 0.00
Crossing 1 10 1.13 2226 199.59
4-Mile Prairie (Kingston) 40 4.00
7-Mile Prairie (Pinehurst) 138 6.50
10-Mile Prairie (near Smelterville) 83 9.00 2286 207.81
Crossing 2 112 10.65 2307 209.00
Crossing 3 188 13.27 2387 211.69
Crossing 4 193 13.45 2397 211.88
Crossing 5 199 13.65 2400 212.02
Crossing 6 206 14.15 2405 212.47
Crossing 7 212 14.30 2411 212.69
Crossing 8 217 14.55 2418 212.90
Crossing 9 224 14.80 2424 213.17
Crossing 10 242 15.52 2446 213.91
Crossing 11 257 16.25 2455 214.65
Crossing 12 293 17.38 2475 215.74
Crossing 13 311 18.00 2489 216.39
Crossing 13, 2nd branch 2490 216.45
Crossing 14 488 22.10 2664 220.49
Crossing 15 521 22.93 2704 221.29
Crossing 16 566 23.90 2761 222.30
Crossing 17 584 24.20 2766 222.51
Crossing 17, 2nd part 2780 222.65


Mullan, John. 1861. Military Road from Fort Benton to Fort Walla Walla, House Executive Document No. 44. 36th Congress, 2nd Session (1860-1861), Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

—.1861. United States Military Road Expedition from Fort Walla Walla to Fort Benton, W.T., Senate Executive Document 1. 37th Congress, 2nd Session (1861-1862), Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

—. 1861. Military road from Fort Benton to Fort Walla-Walla : letter from the Secretary of war, transmitting the report of Lieutenant Mullan, in charge of the construction of the military road from Fort Benton to Fort Walla-Walla. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

—. 1863. Report on the Construction of a Military Road from Fort Walla-Walla to Fort Benton. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

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