By Bill George
2019 marks the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Here is a look at one of the men most responsible for creating the railroad.
A few blocks from the California State Railroad Museum at 2nd Street and L streets, almost hidden on a tiny patch of lawn, is a marvelous, 20-foot high monument honoring the genius who conceived, plotted, publicized, sold, lived and even died creating the Pacific portion of the Transcontinental Railroad, the famed engineer Theodore Judah. Most people don’t even notice the monument as they drive past. But it is worth some time to examine the monument’s symbolic detail. You will notice pine trees pointing to a bridge spanning a wide crevice. A tunnel cuts through the granite of the Sierra Nevada as the road winds its way higher and higher through seemingly impassable alpine terrain. One is moved by the fact that this monument was paid for by the workers of the Southern Pacific Railroad during the Great Depression, thanking Judah for creating the industry, which supported them and their families for generations. The plaque reads:
“That the West may remember Theodore Dehone Judah, pioneer, civil engineer and tireless advocate of a great transcontinental railroad. This monument was erected by the men and women of the Southern Pacific Company, who, in 1930, were carrying on the work he began in 1860. He convinced four Sacramento merchants that his plan was practicable and enlisted their help. Ground was broken for the railroad January 2, 1863, at the foot of K Street, nearby.
Judah died November 2, 1863.
The road was built past the site of this monument, over the lofty Sierra - along the line of Judah's survey - to a junction with the Union Pacific at Promontory, Utah, where on May 10, 1869, the last spike was driven.”
How did Judah pick the route? The ancient Greeks said you could find a path through mountains by loading a hundred pounds on a burro and following as it picked a path. Judah, a trained and experienced railroad surveyor, was much more methodical and had the benefit of many previous surveying parties who had explored possible transcontinental routes. With slavery the burning issue of the day, Union supporters were determined to find a route through the North. The South waged its own attempt to land the transcontinental railroad, with no less a luminary than Jefferson Davis (later President of the Confederate States of America) leading that failed effort.
Theodore Judah was that rare bird, a visionary engineer who could lobby politicians, buttonholed business tycoons for sales pitches, and promote his project to the public. In a publicity stunt that would be the envy of any large public relations firm today, he took a room in the U.S. Capitol and turned it into a Pacific Railroad “museum” to “educate” members of Congress about his scheme.
It was in Old Sacramento that Judah sold the idea of the transcontinental railroad to local investors, but only after he had been shut down by the big money boys in San Francisco, who refused to bite on his $70,000 stock offering. Called “Crazy Judah” by the San Francisco sophisticates, Judah returned to Sacramento and met the team that would form the core of the project, Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker. Crocker’s brother, Edwin “E.B.” Crocker was also an important early player and would provide legal advice to the men who called themselves “The Associates” but are known today as the “Big Four”. Also present at the creation were Dr. Daniel Strong, Lucius A. Booth, jeweler James Bailey, Cornelius Cole, later congressman and senator from California, and B. F. Leete, a prominent railroad engineer. On the 28th of June 1861 the “Central Pacific Rail Road” of California was incorporated, however cautiously. The new investors would only pay for the remaining mountain surveys, then re-evaluate the situation. Judah convinced them that if the railroad failed, at least they would have a wagon road over the mountains to tap into the lucrative Nevada mining trade.
The railroad would have to climb 7,000 feet from Sacramento to Truckee. The experts of the day thought it was impossible, and predicted the investors would lose their money in the desolate Sierra canyons.
It was east of Sacramento that geography provided a break in the Sierra topography that the builders could use to their advantage. The rivers descend from the mountains, flowing uniformly east to west. The rivers carved out canyons with firm ridgelines that rise gently uphill, shadowing the American River. If you drive along Interstate 80 you will see the ridges running for miles with scarcely a gap. The Sierra here has been described as a series of curling waves, similar to ocean waves that surfers love to ride. It was the slope needed to ascend the Sierra on a grade of less than 2%, an ascent that steam trains could master. Judah did not finally settle on the Donner Summit route until his survey of the Sierra in 1860-61, when Doc Strong, a Dutch Flat druggist, showed him how the ridgeline between the Yuba River and the North Fork of the American River would provide a route from Dutch Flat over Donner Summit. This “Truckee route” had fallen into disuse well before the end of the Gold Rush. The Truckee route was difficult for wagon trains to climb up from the east, so the wagon trains of the mid-1800s sought lower mountain passes that were easier for pioneer wagons. But Judah was surveying for a railroad, not a wagon train. He saw that a large labor force could build the trestles and tunnels needed to make it up the western slope of the Sierra.
Modern surveys done with the assistance of satellites confirm Judah picked the best route. But Judah did not live to see his dream realized. In 1863 Judah died of fever on a trip back east before construction had begun in earnest. He was 37 years old, but the route he chose for the railroad is in use to this day, the greatest memorial and tribute to Judah’s brilliance.