Longmont is named for the famous 14,259-foot mountain peak that you can see throughout town, known to Coloradoans as a fourteener (or 14er), one of 53 Colorado mountain summits that exceeds 14,000 feet in elevation. Longmont comes from the French phrase, mont, or mountain and Long for Longs Peak. (Sounds a lot fancier than LongMountain, doesn’t it?)
So who is Major Stephen H. Long and why was a mountain named after him? Stephen Harriman Long was born in Hopkinton, New Hampshire on Dec. 30, 1784, one of 13 children. He received both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, studying engineering, and in 1814 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant of engineers in the U.S. Army. Long taught mathematics for two years at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, before being appointed Major in the Corps of Topographical Engineers on April 16, 1816.
Long married Martha Hodgkiss on March 3, 1819, and established residency in Philadelphia. In July 1819, he joined General Henry W. Atkinson’s “Yellowstone Expedition,” bound from St. Louis to the Rocky Mountains aboard the United States Steamboat, Western Engineer. Western Engineer became the first steamboat to travel up the Missouri River into the Louisiana Purchase territory, and the first with a stern paddle wheel. On September 17, the steamboat arrived at Fort Lisa, a trading fort of the Missouri Fur Company, approximately five miles south of Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Within a month, camp was set up and Major Long returned to the east coast. The following May, he returned with orders from the Secretary of War to cease work along the Missouri and instead begin exploring the Platte River and its sources. President James Monroe felt this expedition was important since John Quincy Adams had just signed a treaty with Spain which drew a new border to the Pacific Ocean. The expedition left their quarters on June 6, 1820.
Long set out west from the Missouri River with 19 men including artists, naturalists, a zoologist, and a physician. The men ascended the Platte River and its south fork heading to the Colorado Rocky Mountains where they discovered and named Longs Peak in honor of Major Long. On July 5, the party reached modern day Denver, and on July 12, they reached Colorado Springs. The physician, Edwin James, was very knowledgeable in geology and botany, and on July 14, 1820 he led the first successful ascent of Pikes Peak with two other members of the expedition.
After they spent time in Colorado, Long divided his party: one group, led by Captain John R. Bell, continued south to the upper Arkansas River, while the other group, led by Long, went south to explore the Red River. Long’s journey was arduous. Food was scarce, the men got lost, and they battled rough terrain as they crossed the Texas Pandhandle. Long deemed the area “The Great American Desert.” The expedition ended with neither of their main objectives being met – neither the source of the Arkansas nor the Red River was found.
In 1823, Long explored the sources of the Minnesota and Red rivers in the north and the United States-Canadian boundary west of the Great Lakes. He became Lieutenant Colonel in 1826 and was assigned by the War Department as a consulting engineer to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) in 1827. While in that position, he promoted wooden bridge adaptation for railroad use and formulated a series of tables for determining curves and grades, which he published in his important Rail Road Manual in 1829.
Long remained with B&O until 1830. From 1834 to 1837, he surveyed railroad routes in Georgia and Tennessee. For the next three years, he was chief engineer of the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad, where he was promoted to regular Major when the Topographical Engineers became a separate corps in 1838. Along with his army duties, Long continued his consulting services to various railroads until 1856, when he was put in charge of navigation improvements on the Mississippi. In 1858, he moved his home and headquarters to Alton, Illinois, where four of his brothers had settled. In 1861, he was promoted to Colonel and called to Washington, D.C., to succeed Colonel John J. Abert as Commander of the Topographical Engineers. Long remained in that position until his retirement from the army in June 1863, three months after his corps had been merged with the Corps of Engineers. He died at his home in Alton on September 4, 1864.