Capt. John Mullan, the man behind the trail

By Dick Sheldon
| March 20, 2020 1:00 AM

In 1859, 1st Lt. John Mullan Jr. engineered and built a road (trail) from Fort Benton, Mont., to Walla Walla, Wash., passing nearby the current location of Coeur d’Alene. Three years later, with the help of 200 soldiers and civilians, the 611-mile trail was completed. The lieutenant became Capt. Mullan as a reward. The trail was considered an engineering marvel.

The following is a listing of 10 mostly unknown facts of the man John Mullan:

1. He graduated from West Point Military Academy 15th in a class of 41 in 1852 at age 22.

2. His patron in Congress to gain funding ($230,000) for the trail was Sen. Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, soon to become the first and only president of the Confederate States of America.

3. In 1854 while living in Colville, Wash., Mullan lived with an Indian girl who had a son with him.

4. He campaigned to become the first territorial governor of Idaho but his application was denied. Mullan the Democrat applied to President Lincoln the Republican, but the job went to Lincoln’s friend William H. Wallace, a Republican. (Later, Wallace and his wife would turn down the president’s invitation to go with him and his wife, Mary, to a play at Ford’s Theater.)

5. Mullan resigned his Army commission in 1863 in order to better explore his financial and political interests.

6. In 1863 Mullan married Rebecca Williamson. They had five children.

7. After marrying, they moved to Walla Walla to take over the farm, sawmill and livery that he had bought and left with his brothers in charge. There, he found that his brothers had incurred a tremendous amount of debt in his name. A year later, Mullan was bankrupt.

8. He moved to California in 1866 and became very wealthy as a land speculator.

9. He lost his California fortune when the state governor became angry with Mullan’s business practices and withdrew Mullan’s license to practice real estate.

10. He lived much of his life beyond his means and died broke in 1909 after suffering a long illness.

The memory of someone who has done great things is enhanced by filling in important pieces of their history. This allows us to see them as human beings. By today’s standards of conduct, John Mullan would not be acceptable as a public servant. Nonetheless, he deserves a notice of “greatness” for blazing a needed trail westward.