Railroad’s pathfinder didn’t live to see his dream come true

Time Before Now, March 1826  Erie Canal was finally completed, a 363-mile water route between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes.  And Russian explorer, Fyodor Litke, circumvented the globe, discovering 12 new islands in the process. (Right, 1947 commemorative stamp) John Quincy Adams, son of founder John Adams, was president.  An ambitious abolitionist, his vice-president, South Carolina’s rabidly pro-slavery  John C. Calhoun, was his mirror opposite.  The “big ditch,” the 363-mile Erie Canal from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes was finally finished and Russian explorer, Fyodor Litke, circumvented the globe, discovering 12 new islands in the process. (Right, 1947 commemorative stamp)

 March 4, 1826

On this day, Theodore Judah, chief engineer of California’s Central Pacific Railroad was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  He would become the nation’s  “pathfinder” over  the Sierras, three decades later. 

Often labeled “Crazy Judah” for his unflagging enthusiasm for a transcontinental railroad, he was a key figure in the passage of President Abraham Lincoln’s Pacific Railroad Act in 1862, only to be marginalized by his wealthy California partners.

Young Judah’s stay at New York’s Rennselaer Institute has been characterized  as“brief.”  At a time when there were fewer than 800 civil engineers, he began working for a number of railroads in the railway-rich Northeast.  In 1854 at just 28, he was hired as chief engineer for  California’s Sacramento Valley Railroad,  the country’s first rail line west of the Mississippi River.  

An unflagging cheerleader for Lincoln’s vision, he was convinced he could conquer the Sierra Nevadas, he set out on a reconnaissance mission in 1860, using a barometer to measure elevation.  Surveying the infamous Donner Pass, he enlisted the help of a local storekeeper, Daniel W. Strong, (right) in Dutch Flat, California.

One of the first Gold Rush mining ditches, it was used by mule drivers in and out of near-by camps like Green Valley.  Strong sufficiently demonstrated to Judah the existence of easy grades across the mountains.

Mule route at Dutch Flat, California

All of Judah’s surveying, however, failed to impress potential investors in San Francisco.  Instead, he persuaded four Sacramento entrepreneurs to back the project. Merchants Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker, all had made huge fortunes during California’s Gold Rush and came to be known as “the Big Four.”  

Hopkins, owner of a wholesale grocery business, would later become secretary of the Central Pacific.  Huntington got rich selling mining supplies to 49ers and Stanford partnered in his brother general store after his law library burned down.  Crocker prospered with a saw mill and an iron forge,  investing in railroads with the proceeds.  After Lincoln had signed the enabling legislation, Judah telegraphed his partners, “ We have drawn the elephant, now let us see if we can harness him up.” Judah had, in fact, spawned four elephants, all intent on quickly slipping the traces.

By the time he returned from Washington, Crocker had been put in charge of construction and the money men began effectively keeping their engineer in the dark about many decisions as disputes arose over the route.  The son of an Episcopal clergyman, Judah was offended by Crocker’s deal-making and what he termed his investor’s  “flexible morals.” 

Believing the visionary quality of the project had been lost, he was determined to find funds to buy out his errant associates.  In October of 1863, Judah and his wife, Anna, (right) boarded a steam ship bound for New York.  While crossing Panama, however, he contracted yellow fever and died at New York’s Metropolitan Hotel, November 2, at the age of 37.

The Central Pacific went on to complete the western leg of the country’s Transcontinental Railroad, six years later meeting up with the Union Pacific at Promontory Point, Utah, May 10, 1869.   It earned the “Big Four” unimaginable wealth due in large measure to Judah’s path across the Sierra Nevada at  Donner Pass Tunnel No. 6, completed two years earlier.

Donner Pass #6

No surprising, Central Pacific was reluctant to give Judah credit for pointing the way to its riches.  Finally the company managed  a measure of faint praise, naming one of the stream Locomotive, #4, the Judah. 

Promontory Point, Utah, 1869

Anna Judah did not attend the ceremony at Promontory Point.  “It seemed as though the spirit of my brave husband descended upon me and together we were there unseen, unheard of by man,” she wrote later.  The date would have been Theodore and Anna’s 22nd wedding  anniversary.

Pencil in California’s State Railroad Museum on your “to do” list.  Located at Old Sacramento, 125 I Street, at present only exterior grounds in Old Sacramento are open.  The museum is worth the wait.  Housing 21 restored locomotives and cars from as early as 1862, it includes a full-scale diorama of construction in the Sierra Nevadas and an elevated bridge 24 feet above the floor of the museum. 

Excursion trains offer a 45-minute, six mile  round trip journey into the past starting at the Central Pacific Freight Depot at Front and K Streets weekends from April through September departing and 11 and 5 each day.  For more information go to parks.ca.gov/ California Railroad Museum,     e-mail info@parks.ca.gov call (916) 445-7387 or write CSRM, 111 “I” Street, Sacramento, CA 95814-2265.

 Before planning a visit, go to the website listed above or www.covid19.ca.gov to find current information on closures and health safety regulations for park use.  

© Text Only – 2021 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.