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Honoring Theodore Judah

Updated: Jan 15, 2020

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.