Whitney, Asa

Whitney, Asa

Whitney, Asa, 1797-1872, American merchant and transcontinental railroad projector, b. North Groton, Conn. He entered the mercantile business in New York City, acted as a foreign buyer for several years, and then was (1842-44) a merchant in China. Upon his return, he toured (1844-51) the United States, carrying on an extensive publicity campaign urging the construction of a railroad from Chicago to the Pacific; he also petitioned (1845) Congress to support his plan. Whitney's proposed route from Lake Michigan through South Pass to the Pacific was not accepted mainly because of the growing sectionalism before the Civil War. He also presented to the British in 1851 an unsuccessful plan for a Canadian transcontinental railroad. He retired in 1852, a decade before the U.S. Congress passed an act for the construction of a transcontinental railroad. He wrote National Railroad Connecting the Pacific (1845) and A Project for a Railroad to the Pacific (1849).
Whitney is an Old English surname that derives from the location of Whitney in Herefordshire, England. It was first mentioned in the Domesday Book with the spelling Witenie. The most plausible meaning for the name is White Water, from the Anglo-Saxon hwit (white) and ey (water), and probably refers to the River Wye which runs through the area and which can become a torrent when heavy rains in the Welsh mountains cause it to swell. This surname has also been used as a first name for both males and females, and many locations around the world have been named Whitney after individuals with this name.

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