THE BEALE WAGON ROAD – AMERICA’S FIRST INTERSTATE HIGHWAY
Edward Fitzgerald “Ned” Beale (February 4, 1822 – April 22, 1893) was a national figure in 19th century America. He was naval officer, military general, explorer, frontiersman, Indian affairs superintendent, California rancher, diplomat, and friend of Kit Carson, Buffalo Bill Cody and Ulysses S. Grant. Beale fought in the Mexican-American War, emerging as a hero of the Battle of San Pasqual in 1846 and achieved national fame in 1848 in carrying the first gold samples from California to the east, contributing to the gold rush of 1849.
Beale was born in Washington, D.C. His father was a paymaster in the U.S. Navy and his mother was the daughter of Commodore Thomas Truxtun, one of the first six commanders appointed to the new US Navy by President Washington. Ned was a student at Georgetown University when President Jackson appointed him to the Naval School in Philadelphia.
He graduated from the Naval School as a midshipman in 1842. In 1845 he was assigned to the squadron of Captain Robert F. Stockton, a wealthy New Jersey businessman, explorer and inventor as well as a career naval officer, who was an intimate of presidents. Beale sailed with Stockton’s squadron to Texas, where they met with the Texas Congress, which accepted annexation by the United States.
Beale’s Wagon Road and the “Camel Corps”
In 1857, President James Buchanan appointed Beale to survey and build a 1,000-mile wagon road from Fort Defiance, New Mexico to the Colorado River on the border between Arizona and California. Beale used camels that were imported from Tunis as pack animals during this expedition and on another in 1858 through 1859 to extend the road from Fort Smith, Arkansas to the Colorado River. The camels could travel for days without water, carried much heavier loads than mules and could thrive on forage that mules wouldn’t touch. The camels scared horses and mules and the Army concluded the experiment with camels. Nevertheless, the wagon road Beale built became a popular immigrant trail during the 1860s and 1870s. It was this survey which marked out for the first time a practicable highway along the 35th parallel that has been used from that day to this. The general route of the Beale Wagon Road was followed by U.S. Route 66, the Sante Fe Railway and Interstate 40.
Of this road, Beale wrote: “… It is the shortest (route) from our western frontier by 300 miles, being nearly directly west. It is the most level, our wagons only double-teaming once in the entire distance, and that at a short hill, and over a surface heretofore unbroken by wheels or trail on any kind. It is well-watered! Our greatest distance without water at any time being twenty miles … It crosses the great desert (which must be crossed by any road to California) at its narrowest point.”
Portions of the original wagon road are still visible on the prairie west of Borger and the trail crosses the Frank Phillips College campus in Borger, Texas. The Hutchinson County Historical Commission and the Texas Historical Commission placed a historical marker on the campus in 2015. Due to the notoriety of his use of camels, the route became known as the “Beale Camel Trail” and today it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Thirty-Fifth Parallel Route.
In his retirement, Beale lived at Decatur House in Washington, D.C., with yearly visits to his Tejon Ranch in California and more frequent visits to his horse farm at Ash Hill in Hyattsville, northeast of Washington, D.C. At Ash Hill he entertained friends such as Grant, who kept two Arabian horses stabled there, President Grover Cleveland and Buffalo Bill Cody. Ash Hill was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. Beale died at Decatur House in 1893.
His will was witnessed by Ulysses S. Grant and General William Tecumseh Sherman.
Article Contributed by: Hutchinson County Historical Museum