Theodore D. Judah was born on March 4, 1826 in Bridgeport, Connecticut to an Episcopal minister and his wife. After his family moved to Troy, New York, Judah studied engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. His first experience with railroading occurred when he worked on a line being laid from Troy to Schenectady. There he realized that he had found his career and from that day forward he never left it.
Early in 1852, a group of men in California had gathered together and incorporated the Sacramento, Auburn and Nevada Railroad, which was to be built to serve Sacramento, Negro Bar and Nevada City. Their scheme collapsed when it was reported to them that the first section of track they wished to build would cost in excess of two million dollars.
Colonel Charles Lincoln Wilson, who with his wife operated a steamboat line on the Sacramento River, reorganized this abandoned railroad company as the Sacramento Valley Railroad. His plan was to first connect Sacramento to Negro Bar and Mountain City (Marysville) with future extensions to Tehama, Sonora and San Francisco.
On August 16, 1852, the Articles of Incorporation were filed and Colonel Wilson left for the East Coast to acquire more capital, rolling stock and to engage an engineer to build the railroad.
Once in New York, Wilson contacted the engineering firm of Robinson, Seymour and Company. Seymour’s brother, the Governor of New York, sent Wilson to see Theodore Judah, a young survey engineer who had just put a railroad through the Niagara Gorge and was very interested in the Pacific Railway.
On April 2, 1854, Wilson and Judah left for California and, shortly thereafter, Judah followed and opened up an office in Sacramento’s Hasting’s Building, at the southwest corner of 2nd and J Streets. From there he started the business of surveying the Sacramento Valley Railroad’s proposed route. This fueled the beginning of Judah ‘s unquenchable thirst for building the Transcontinental Pacific railroad.
By 1852, the population of California had reached a quarter million, an increase of 15 times the 1848 population. Nearly all these people had either walked their way across the continent, survived the dangerous voyage around the tip of South America, or risked often incurable diseases while crossing through the jungles of Central America. Obviously, the people of California wanted a railroad that would connect them with the rest of the Union. But, the country was on the brink of a civil war and a railroad was not the top priority with the government in Washington, DC.
Those in Congress with anti-slavery interests had great fear that a railroad that started in a slave state would carry that position westward. On the opposite side, those who were in favor of slavery feared the similar development of more free states. Congress was at an impasse, but it was obvious that an undertaking this large would require government involvement if it was to succeed.
Over the next years there was plenty of discussion in Congress, but almost no action. However, Congress did agree to finance Army surveys that were to come up with possible railroad routes, should one ever be built. The five feasible routes were published in 1855 as The Pacific Railroad Surveys of 1853-55. But, the report made no recommendation of one route over another.
With the first 21 miles of the Sacramento Valley Railroad completed to the new town of Folsom on February 22, 1856, Judah now turned his attention to bigger projects. He believed that a railroad could be built from Sacramento over the summit of the Sierra Nevada and then across the Great Basin and Rocky Mountains to connect with the eastern railroads. People who believed themselves more “practical,” disagreed with Judah, saying that the idea was foolish, too expensive and impossible.
“Crazy Judah,” as he was now often called, first went to those who he believed would most benefit from the railroad, the business people of San Francisco. They rejected his idea wholeheartedly and refused to give him any financial support. But, in spite of this setback, he was not slowed down by their dismissal. He became the strongest advocate around for the transcontinental railroad and began to look closely at possible routes.
In 1860 a man in the Sierra foothill town of Dutch Flat named Daniel Strong showed Judah an easier passage through the Sierra Nevada that bypassed the route the Donner Party had taken. Returning to Strong’s drugstore, Judah laid out a map of this route and also drew up the articles for the Pacific railroad.
Judah, armed with his map and passion, spoke to everyone he could, to promote his ideas and raise as much money as possible. Things were looking grim until he spoke to a group of wealthy Sacramento businessmen in November of 1860. Silver and gold had recently been discovered in the Comstock Lode of Nevada, and he believed they would be interested in owning a railroad from Sacramento to Virginia City that would benefit financially from the lucrative freight traffic that now traveled over the Sierra by wagon. He was correct this time.
Among these businessmen were, Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker, men who would later be known as “The Big Four.” And, they were not only businessmen, but members of the new Republican Party and strong supporters of the recently elected President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. They saw patriotism in the railroad and, as Judah had pointed out to them, substantial profit. After all, a railroad through the center of the country would bind the Union together in the event of the impending civil war and, at the same time, pass very near Virginia City. What could be better.
On the morning of April 12, 1861 Confederate guns fired on Fort Sumter and formal hostilities began between the North and South. When this news reached California, it was time to move. Just two weeks later an organizational meeting for the Central Pacific Rail Road of California, was held on April 30, with the company being incorporated on June 28. Stanford became president, with Huntington vice president, Hopkins treasurer, and Judah as chief engineer. The railroad was now more than just an idea. But, the government had to be convinced of its need and the need to help finance it.