Theodore D. Judah, Part II – The Transcontinental Railroad Begins

Judah's Map

Judah’s Map of the Donner Lake Area

On June 28, 1861, the new Central Pacific Rail Road of California incorporated with Leland Stanford serving as president, Collis Huntington vice president, Mark Hopkins treasurer, and Theodore Judah as chief engineer. A transcontinental railroad was now more than just an idea, but, the government had to be convinced of its need and also the need to help finance it.

Judah would soon start making trips to Washington D.C. to lobby for a Pacific Railroad, and spend hours trying to convince others of its need. And, this time people would start listening to the man that they once shrugged off and called “Crazy Judah.” After all, the Civil War had started and Judah, along with many others, believed that there was now even more a need for a railroad line connecting the east and the west. But, before going to Washington, he had to be able to prove that the route was feasible.

Judah and his survey crews spent much of the summer of 1861 surveying his hastily sketched route over the Sierra Nevada. Working around the clock, they finally completed the work and found a solution to the problem that many thought could not be solved: a railroad could be built over the Sierra Nevada. Best of all, the surveyed route varied little from his original sketch. Now, Judah was ready to put his engineered plans before the government officials in Washington, D.C.

That same year Leland Stanford campaigned for the governorship of California and in September won a two-year term in that office. With this the “Big Four” had increased its power – significantly.

The Union Congress no longer had to choose between several routes for the transcontinental railroad. It absolutely had to be through northern territory and its construction was no longer a matter of convenience, but a serious matter of national urgency. But, the Union was engaged in a war that would determine whether or not it would even survive.

The costs of war came first and there was no government money available for the building of a railroad, no matter how good the idea. President Lincoln stated the feelings of many when he said, “Private enterprise must build the Pacific Railroad. All the government can do is aid,” while admitting its construction is a political as well as a military necessity.

Judah was finally sent east in October of 1861 as the official agent of the Central Pacific Rail Road Company of California. Since they all knew that there was no money to be obtained, he lobbied for land and bonds from the government. He had been in Washington, D.C. three times before trying to get the support of Congress for his railroad, but this time he was much better prepared, with his engineered survey maps, the support of the “Big Four “and an urgent national need for the railroad. But, in spite of all of this, action was not immediate.

The congressional debate lasted through the winter and far into the spring. Finally, on May 6, 1862, the House approved the railroad bill, followed about six weeks later, on June 10, by the Senate. On July 1, 1862, President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act. The act empowered the Central Pacific to build from California toward the east, and chartered a new company, the patriotically named Union Pacific Railroad, which would build westward from Nebraska Territory.

In exchange for building the railroad the companies were given a 400 foot right-of-way over federal land, a gift of ten alternating sections on both sides of every mile of track and a subsidy in the form of United States bonds for each mile of track completed. In exchange for the bonds, which were really a 30 year loan at 6%, the government was given a first mortgage on the railroad. For this, all the railroads had to do was to successfully complete the task in 12 years.

Some people questioned the grant of so much land to the railroads. But, without a viable means to get to it, this unclaimed land was probably worthless. So, this system of land grants, something which had been used to build railroads before, would prove to be of benefit to both parties.

With Judah now back in California and Huntington in New York raising funds, purchasing rails, locomotives an rolling stock, it was time to begin.

On January 8, 1863, the groundbreaking for the Central Pacific’s part of the track took place at the foot of “K” Street in Sacramento.

Charles Crocker received the contract to build the first section of rails from Sacramento eastward. Unfortunately, the work progressed slower and the costs were much higher than anticipated. One big problem was that they could only get supplies that the military did not need for railroads being built to fight the war. And, what supplies they could get had to come by ship around Cape Horn, a five to eight month trip, passing initially through waters where the Confederate Navy could, and often did, sink the ships and their cargo. To make things worse, the government subsidy would not be paid until the first 40 miles of track was completed.

By summer things looked bad and Judah was not at all happy with the lack of progress. To top it off, the “Big Four” continued to go deeper into personal debt rather than borrow money against the completed sections, something Judah wanted to do. Finally, the relationship between Judah and the other owners collapsed.

Judah was offered a deal by the others which he accepted. They would buy him out for $100,000 or he could buy them out for $100,000 each. If he wanted to run the Central Pacific Rail Road of California, all he had to do was raise the money and purchase their interest.

On October 10, 1863, Theodore Judah boarded a ship bound for the Isthmus of Panama, which he would cross and then board another ship to New York. The “Big Four” believed that he was going to New York to raise the funds to buy out their interest, although he had not said so. But, whatever the reason for his trip, it didn’t matter. While in Panama, Judah contracted Yellow Fever and, on November 2, 1863, died in New York City.

Both the Sacramento Valley Railroad and the original transcontinental railroad are a monument to the hard work and perseverance of Theodore Dehone Judah, a man with a vision and a mission who would not give up, in spite of ridicule and seemingly impossible tasks.

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