Pacific Railroad Crazy—The Story of Theodore Dehone Judah

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October, 1860. In a cabin near Dutch Flat, California, two men consummate a contract. Surveyor Theodore Judah and druggist Daniel "Doc" Strong, both worn out, had spent the day climbing and studying a ridge. Some twelve years earlier, along a poorly chosen route, a man named George Donner had led a hungry group of winter travelers along that same Sierra ridge.

The ground Judah and Strong had covered generally followed the path of present Interstate Highway 80, east of Sacramento. Strong that day revealed to Judah a way to cross the Sierra along a grade practicable for a railroad. The east side of the slope to Donner Pass led directly to Chicago and New York. The contract being executed by the two contained the "Articles of Association", a hatchling that would eventually become the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California.

Judah had spent the previous few years back East promoting a railroad that would stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to the gold fields of California, the Pacific Ocean and the emerging markets of Japan, China and Australia. His time was spent mostly in Washington City, studying the workings of the American government. In 1857, he published and distributed to the politicians A Practical Plan for Building the Pacific Railroad. His ideas were well received, enough to secure an office to promote a Pacific Railroad within the Capitol Building, across the hall from the Supreme Court. There, he established the Pacific Railroad Museum, a pleasant respite for the lawmakers mixed in the mire of Washington.

His "practical plan" was dismissive of the 1853-1855 government surveys sanctioned by Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, referring to that great undertaking as a simple reconnaissance. The plan held that only private capital—not politicians—could build the road

Judah’s plan contained great detail on the method of survey for a road. The engineer was to first examine the character of the ground, water courses, ravines, character of soils and decide on a general route. He would then organize a party composed of a transit and a leveling party. The transit party runs a line over the route measuring distances with a chain and taking directions by compass, leaving stakes along the way. They produce a miniature representation of the line showing curves and tangents along with the crossing of roads and rivers, noting property owners along the route. The leveling party follows, touching upon each of the stakes, observing the undulations of the ground, sections of river crossings, etc., and then plots the "profile". Grades would then be laid on the profile, with excavation and embankments balancing as nearly as possible. When completed, the investor would know the length of the road, land owners, grades, bridges, culverts and tunnels required, quantities of masonry and timber. It’s quite simple: cut, fill, bridge or tunnel.

It was later in the Practical Plan that Judah did get just a little crazy. He spoke of engines with 14-foot diameter drive wheels pulling cars 22′ x 75′ barreling across the plains at 100 MPH. This monster would travel on four rails having a gauge of 16 feet. When it came to the crazy idea of crossing the country with a railroad, Judah was the type dreamer the plan needed.

Theodore Dehone Judah was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1826. Early on, his family moved to Troy, New York. Gifted to a certain degree, he entered the Troy School of Technology (later Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) three years early. Railroads were the subject du jour. When Ted was 13, his father died and the family moved to New York City. His brother went to West Point while Ted went to the Schenectady and Troy Railroad as a chainman. At 18, he became surveyor for the New Haven, Hartford and Springfield line. Over the following years, with various railroads, he served as location engineer and assistant chief engineer, eventually becoming a Civil Engineer. In 1847 he married Anna Pierce, a cousin of Franklin Pierce, perhaps one of the best decisions in his life. The biggest accomplishment following the marriage had to be the survey and design of the line down the Niagara Gorge, telling the investors "Gentlemen, raise the money and I will build your road." He didn’t get to stay around to see it completed.

The fledgling State of California was flush with gold money. A ship owner and road builder named Wilson and a banker named William Tecumseh Sherman envisioned the first railroad to be built west of the Mississippi River. They needed an engineer. On a trip east, Wilson asked the governor of New York about qualified railroad engineers. Without a second thought, Governor Seymour said Ted Judah. In May of 1854, via the isthmus of Panama, Ted and Anna arrived in Sacramento, California, a capital filled with saloons, gambling establishments and prostitutes.

Judah’s dream of building the continent-spanning road was building steam. Now, all that needed to be done was to find a route over the Sierra Range and the rest would follow. He spent a great deal of any spare time seeking out that route. Six short years later the letter arrived from Doc Strong. They developed a deep friendship.

With the contract executed, Strong went east to the gold fields, raising some $46,000 in promised funds. It was up to Judah and his western railroad connections to come up with the remaining $70,000. Rebuffed in San Francisco, Judah returned to Sacramento.

Collis P. Huntington met with Judah and chided him over his small thinking. Huntington owned a successful general store. Huntington had also come to California via Panama. He refused a ride over the isthmus because of the cost and walked. Huntington spent six weeks wheeling and dealing while waiting for a steamer to San Francisco. Trading with locals, would-be miners and others bound for the gold fields, he managed to make $3000. On the way to San Francisco, he and fellow passengers mutinied, setting the captain and crew aground in Mexico. Upon arriving in San Francisco, the argonauts sold the boat and split the profit.

At that point Judah had no idea about the shark with whom he was about to go swimming. Huntington could raise the required 10% or $7500 by bringing in only four men, instead of the small subscriptions touted in Judah’s practical plan. Entering the great project came Huntington’s partner Mark Hopkins, shopkeeper and politician Leland Stanford, dry goods merchant Charlie Crocker, and jeweler James Bailey. They would become the "Big 4" or "The Associates". These gentlemen along with Judah, Strong and a few others became the Pacific Railroad Company.

Judah commenced the survey at the time Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated and the southern states began seceding. In May of 1861, with water buckets freezing up in the mountains, the routine for the 10-man survey party began with breakfast before sunrise. They toiled all day and plotted their work in camp until late at night. One chilly evening after a few days of rain, a rattlesnake joined the group at fireside. At another place the grade was so steep they had to tie themselves off, making less than a mile each day. Finally at 7,027 vertical feet above the Sacramento levee, the line with a grade not exceeding 105’/ mile crested the mountain range. Judah produced many reports as well as a map 90 feet long at a scale of 1"=400′.

October 9, 1861. "Resolved, that Mr. T.D. Judah, the Chief Engineer of this Company, proceed to Washington, on the steamer of the 11’th instant, as the accredited agent of the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California, for procuring a
ppropriations of land and U.S. Bonds from [sic] Government, to aid in the construction of the Road." Surveys now complete, the Judahs headed East to become lobbyists.

In D.C., the Civil War was well under way. The Judahs once again opened their museum in the Capitol. Besides the war, railroads were on the legislators’ minds, now that a large portion of the country didn’t figure in the route location equation. Sectional deals could be made east and west. One day on the floor of Congress a freshman Congressman named Sargent from California spoke out of context about the railroad and national security. Suddenly T.D. Judah was named Secretary of the Railroad Committees for both the House and Senate, giving him free reign to wander the floors of both bodies, guiding the railroad legislation (as a lobbyist). The end product, the Railroad Act of 1862, was signed by Lincoln, unleashing the egos and desires of the Big 4 as well as satisfying and justifying the dreams of Crazy Judah. His telegraph to California: "We have drawn the elephant. Now let us see if we can harness him up."

With the political fight over in D.C., it was time to return to California. Leland Stanford had been elected Governor of that state as well as President of the Central Pacific Railroad. The Big 4 knew immediate profits could be gained with a wagon toll road over the Sierras to the Nevada territory. Governor Stanford lobbied the State for funds for the railroad. Some might possibly be diverted to a wagon road (you think)? The Judahs arrived in Sacramento amongst an oozing stew being brewed by the Associates.

The break started when Uncle Mark (Hopkins) approached Judah for his 10% on the 1500 shares (that the Board had awarded gratis) of the CPRR stock Ted held. Judah protested but eventually paid the money. Next, the matter of moving a mountain caused the fissure to grow. Judah had measured the profiles of the line himself. He knew that within the Railroad bill extra compensation would be provided for mountain work as opposed to flat, easy grades. The loan rate for flat grades was $16,000/mile. In the mountains, the rate went up to $48,000 a mile.

Where does a mountain begin? C.P. Huntington et al thought it should be the bank of the American River in Sacramento, after all, that’s where the slope from the crest of the mountains stops. Governor Stanford sent the State Geologist for an opinion. He decided it should be the banks of a tributary to the American. Judah was furious. President Lincoln signed off based on a recommendation by the U.S. Surveyor General. The CPRR was suddenly entitled to $240,000. It has been said that Lincoln quipped, "Here is a case in which Abraham’s faith moved mountains."

Judah, Bailey and Strong challenged the Board, especially after Charlie Crocker was chosen to be Contractor for the entire road. Charlie resigned his place on the Board, retained his stock and put his attorney brother, Edward, in his seat on the Board. Huntington proposed a grand bluff: if Judah and the others wished, they could buy out the Associates at $100,000 each. If Judah couldn’t succeed at that, the Associates could buy the surveyor out for $100,000. Theodore and Anna’s lives were miserable.

Once more they boarded a steamer bound for the East. Ted wished to raise the money to buy out the Associates. Some thought Cornelius Vanderbilt had an interest and wished to meet with Judah. On their way to the western shore of Panama, unknown to them, they passed a west bound ship carrying three locomotives to be unloaded in Sacramento, one bearing the name "The T.D. Judah". While helping some ladies and children in Panama, Judah became soaked in a rainstorm. That night he had a headache. Over the following days, crossing the Carribean, the headaches increased. On the way to New York, he was diagnosed with Yellow Fever. Theodore Judah died in the Metropolitan Hotel in New York City one week after docking. His stone in Greenfield, Massachusetts reads "He Rests From His Labors".

The railroad went on.

Though Judah was, by far, the catalyst in the starting of the road, many other factors fell into place. One of the primary reasons the railroad was finally begun and funded was the advent of the American Civil War (1861­1865). Previously polarized Congresses could never agree on a route. With the South seceding, compromise became possible. Gold and silver were being mined in California and Nevada in mass quantities, funding the war effort. A statement could be made that the Union could do a great and good project while crushing a rebellion. Later, once the road got going, individuals that had become adept at moving, feeding and equipping armies became supervisors and construction foremen. Following the war, there were now thousands of men, that unfortunately had become accustomed to killing, with nearly as many Natives on the plains intent on denying construction of the rails. It was a perfect storm.

The fateful meeting with Doc Strong at the Donner Pass began the ball rolling. The road was built, the Indians and buffalo perished, and our country was joined East to West by two steel rails. Folks like the Donners would never need starve crossing the country. Maybe young Judah wasn’t so crazy after all.

Bart Crattie sits on the Board for the Surveyors Historical Society and has studied The Road extensively over the last 6 years. Everyone is invited to the SHS Rendezvous in Council Bluffs in September, where the Pacific Railroads will be one of the main topics discussed.

Trivia about the Road

• Brigham Young was one of the first investors in the Union Pacific Railroad. The Mormons formed many construction and grading companies, working for both railroads.
• When the competing railroads met at Promontory Summit, both continued parallel grading with each other about 250 miles; they were being paid by the mile.
• While on the Promontory Plain, they had a race with the Central Pacific triumphant laying just over 10 miles of track in one day.
• One especially long tunnel was surveyed and constructed from each end, then a shaft was sunk with Chinese crews working out to the ends of the tunnel.
• Virtually every spike, rail, shovel, fishplate, rail chair, locomotive and any manufactured item on the CPRR required transport by boat around Cape Horn (14,000 miles).
• When one views the picture of the meeting of the rails, the engines have different smoke stacks; trains coming from the East burned coal, while Western trains had wood fired boilers.
• The gold spike driven at Promontory Point now resides on the campus of Stanford University in California. On the day of the celebration of joining the lines, the spike was wired to a telegraph device. When struck, it was heard across the world, hooked to fire alarm systems and cannons on both coasts. Quite a feat, it was the "Internet" of the day.

A 4.588Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE