This article traces the process by which people in the United States embraced the Continental Divide as a geographic feature of North America in the late 1860s. Building on recent work in environmental history, Civil War memory, geography, and the history of nationalism, the essay explains how accurate mapping alone did not reveal the Continental Divide. Instead, the divide’s conceptualization also depended on Americans’ history of thinking about the Rockies as a political boundary, southern secession, and the building of the transcontinental railroad. Many Americans found in that railroad’s construction solace for a nation recovering from the Civil War, and they cast themselves as conquering nature to unite the nation. Railroad boosters and passengers consecrated the Continental Divide as a symbol of national unity and an icon of obstacles overcome. In a nation trying to overcome its sectional division between North and South, aspirations for reunification formed a foundation for emphasizing the continent’s most prominent feature that separates East and West.
- © 2015 by the Pacific Coast Branch, American Historical Association