This and That

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.

Theodore D. Judah, Part I – A Man With a Mission

Theodore JudahTheodore 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.

Cinco de Mayo – What is it all about?

5-de-mayoEach fifth of May we celebrate Cinco de Mayo, and while each year more and more Americans are celebrating it, few know exactly what they are celebrating. Most seem to believe that it is a celebration marking the Independence of Mexico from Spain in 1821, but that is celebrated on September 16.

Actually, Cinco de Mayo commemorates a small battle fought on May 5, 1862 called the Battle of Puebla. If it was just a small battle, then why such a celebration and why is it so important to both Mexico and the United States?

After gaining its independence from Spain, Mexico was in serious trouble. Not only was their economy in shambles, but by 1850 they had lost California and Texas, along with other territory, to the United States and much of the southern part of their country had become part of Central America. Faced with hard decisions, as a result of all of this, Mexican President Benito Juarez declared a two year moratorium on the payment of Mexico’s foreign debt. Needless to say, this did not go over well in Europe.

Spain, Great Britain and France held much of Mexico’s debts and on October 31, 1861, the representatives of these governments signed the Convention of London by which they agreed on a joint occupation of the port of Veracruz to collect their claims through the customhouse. The Convention text stated that they were there only to collect what was due them and that they were not to interfere with the right of Mexico to form its own government.

Soon England and Spain reached a settlement with the government of Mexico and withdrew from Veracruz. However, Napoleon III, taking advantage of their leaving, immediately landed 4,500 trained troops and began a march towards Mexico City, where he planned to occupy the country and establish new Mexican Empire with a Hapsburg prince named Maximilian as emperor, and his wife Carolota as empress.

Normally the French would not have been so bold, especially with the United States just to the north. But, in 1862 the United States was in the midst of its own civil war and not prepared to come to the aid of their southern neighbor, in spite of the fact that France had been supplying arms and other military equipment to the Confederacy.

Napoleon’s French Army had not been defeated in 50 years, and it invaded Mexico with the finest modern equipment and trained soldiers. Mexico’s army, on the other hand, was ill equipped and believed to be unable to fight such an army.

Under the command of General Latrille the French Army set out for Mexico City, believing Mexico would be theirs if they could take the capital of the country. After all, this was what always happened in European wars and why should Mexico be any different.

Some report that the French were told that they would be welcomed with open arms at the town of Puebla, some 100 miles from the capital, so they set out in that direction. Little did they know that they had been duped.

The “welcoming committee” at Puebla was under the command of Texas-born General Zaragosa, who had at his disposal a troop of well trained cavalry led by Colonel Porfirio Diaz, a man who would later be Mexico’s president and dictator. Some 4000 strong, the Mexican Army quietly awaited.

On May 5, 1862, over the horizon came the French Army, which, including Mexican “traitors,” had grown to some 8000 in strength. Leading them were the brightly dressed and very elegant French Dragoons, quite a contrast to the unstylish Mexican Army.

Under orders from General Zaragosa, Colonel Diaz and his cavalry attacked the flanks of the French Army. The French cavalry responded by going after Diaz and his men. Not realizing that Diaz’s cavalry were some of the best in the world, the French cavalry was soon butchered and driven off from the battle site.

With the flanks of his army now exposed, General Latrille sent his infantry charging forward towards the Mexican defenders, in an attempt to drive them from the town. Unfortunately, it had recently rained and the land was muddy, making progress difficult. To add to the problem, the French infantrymen found themselves in the middle of a cattle stampede created by Indians armed only with machetes.

The battle was soon over and the vastly outnumbered Mexican Army was victorious. Unfortunately, one year later the French Army would take Mexico City and install its puppet government.

Because of the Mexican victory at Puebla, and the need for the embarrassed French to rearm and resupply their military in Mexico, the supplies flowing to the Confederacy were substantially reduced. Fourteen months after the Battle of Puebla, the Union Army defeated the Confederate Army at Gettysburg, essentially ending the Civil War.

It is interesting to note that after the surrender of the Confederate Army, General Sheridan rushed Union soldiers to the Texas/Mexican border to supply weapons and ammunition to the Mexicans so that they could throw out the French government. It is also said that American soldiers were discharged with their uniforms and rifles if they promised to join the Mexican Army to fight the French.

How much of an effect those brave 4,000 Mexicans who defeated an army twice their size had on the outcome of our Civil War is often debated by historians. But, that, and our aid in expelling the French, does give us a reason to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, along with our Mexican friends.

William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr. (1810? – 1848)

William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr.

On the north side of Highway 50, just to the west of El Dorado County, there is a sign saying that you are traveling on the “William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr. Memorial Highway.” Few people know of this person, but he was one of the Founding Fathers of California, and likely of African descent.

The name William Alexander Leidesdorff is not as familiar as many of the others we know from the era when California was still controlled by Mexico. He was an astute businessman who came to California in 1839 and by 1841 had settled in Yerba Buena (later known as San Francisco).

He constructed and opened the first hotel in that city, served as its treasurer, opened its first school and even served as Vice Counsel for the United States.
Soon after his arrival, he became a Mexican citizen which allowed him to acquire a huge land grant. His 35,000 acre cattle ranch, which was known as “Rancho de Los Americanos,” would lie to the east of John Sutter’s Fort at “New Helvetia” and contain today’s City of Folsom.

In 1848, just after the discovery of gold at Coloma and the acquisition of California by the United States, Leidesdorff died of typhus and was buried at Mission Dolores in San Francisco. He was 38.

In memory of this early pioneer, there is a five block long street in San Francisco named for him.

That much we know for sure. The rest of the story about him comes in at least two versions.

A substantial majority of those who have written about Leidesdorff, place the year of his birth as 1810 and the place of his birth in the Danish West Indies (often St. Croix). His mother was an unmarried mullato woman and his father was either a Danish sailor or a Danish man involved in the sugar cane industry.

As a young man Leidesdorff traveled to the eastern and then southern part of the United States where he was befriended by a New Orleans plantation owner and became wealthy.

In his late 20s, he fell in love with a French woman. Unfortunately, his mixed racial background came to light and her family forbid the marriage. She, we are told, died of a broken heart.

Leidesdorff ran away to sea and in 1839 arrived in California. We know what happened from there on. But, let’s go back and look at a different version of Leidesdorff’s early life.
The 12 volume “Jewish Encyclopedia,” published between 1901 and 1906, has a significant discussion about William Leidesdorff (or Leidesdorfer) that differs from this account.
According to it, he was born not in St. Croix in 1810, but probably in Szathmar, Hungary about 1802 . “He was the son of Mordecai Leidesdorff. (His cousin Yitl (Henrietta) married Akiba Eger, and their daughter married Moses Sofer (Schreiber),” it also states).

He left his home when about fifteen years of age, and his family never heard from him again. The encyclopedia then states, “A tradition became current in the Eger and Schreiber families that he had ‘gone to America’ and ‘become a great man.’”

He went to San Francisco (Yerba Buena) in 1840, but his history before his appearance there is obscure.

In Jamaica he passed as a native of Danish extraction. On leaving that island he went to New York, and subsequently to New Orleans, in which latter city he held the office of ‘Captain of the Port.'”

That, you can see, is much different from the first version and from there the story gets even more interesting.

The generally accepted version of what happened following Leidesdorff’s death has Capt. Joseph Libby Folsom going to St. Croix and buying all of Leidesdorff’s holdings including his San Francisco properties, from his mother for $75,000.

When the rest of Leidesdorff’s family heard about gold being discovered at Negro Bar, they believed that they had been taken and filed suit in a California court, claiming that they had been swindled and that not all of the legal owners of the property had sold their share to Folsom. Unfortunately for them, there was an 1850 California law that would not allow blacks, or any other non-whites for that matter, from testifying against whites in a court of law.

The version provided in the “Encyclopedia” is similar to this, but adds a few important points. It indicates that Leidesdorff died without a will and that Captain Folsom was appointed administrator of his large estate. Folsom visited Jamaica and “found some ‘relatives’ – even a woman who claimed to be Leidesdorff’s mother – and purchased the claims of all these people.”

But they obtained no standing in court. The uncertain condition of the probate laws, together with the fact discovered that William Leidesdorff, though he had held federal offices, had never been a citizen of the United States, and the additional fact that these Jamaica ‘relatives’ had sold titles to Captain Folsom which the courts could not approve, created so much confusion regarding the estate that, in 1854, Governor Bigler, in a special message to the senate, recommended the escheat of the estate (reversion of the property to the state), then worth a million and a half, and suggested that proceedings be commenced for its recovery (“Journal of the Senate of California,” 1854).”

The “Encyclopedia” continues, “Another reason why the courts refused to admit the title of the Jamaica relatives was that there were ‘other heirs, who had never conveyed away their rights in the estate’ (Sweasy, “Early Days and Men of California”). These ‘other heirs’ lived in Europe.

“While Leidesdorff passed as a Christian and was buried in a Roman Catholic churchyard, he had never been known to be identified with any church. Some of his intimates claimed to have known that he was of Jewish extraction.

He is said to have been a man of fine appearance, ‘swarthy’ (Sweasy), and of an irascible temperament. He never spoke of his relatives; he never married; and, though conducting a great establishment, he practically lived alone.

The following facts appear in connection with his estate: (1) The claims of his Jamaica ‘relatives’ were thrown out of court, their evidence of relationship being summarily rejected. (2) No Danish family of the name of Leidesdorff ever appeared to claim the estate of William Leidesdorff of San Francisco. (3) Since 1854 the descendants of the Leidesdorfers, and the Eger and Schreiber families of Hungary, through legal representatives, have continued to contest the escheat of the estate, and have established their claims to the satisfaction of many eminent attorneys, though there is at the present time (1904) not the remotest chance of their recovering anything, the statute of limitations covering and protecting every title obtained from John L. Folsom and others who acquired possession.”

The “Encyclopedia” adds as a basis for its contentions the followings references: California Reports, 1854; Journal of the Senate of California, 1854: Soule, “Annals of San Francisco” (1855); Hittell, “History of California,” vols. ii. and iv. (1885-1897); Sweasy, “Early Days and Men of California.”

Whether one of these versions is true and the other wrong, we will probably never know. As with many stories, including some of those that are daily reported in the news, the truth may actually lie somewhere in between. One would think that after a century and a half we would be able to sort out historical facts about early California from fiction or rumor. Unfortunately, even though there were newspapers and books being written and published as this occurred and many of the early settlers were well educated, literate people who kept meticulous journals, that is not always the case.