Theodore Judah

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Theodore Judah
CPRR Chief Engineer Theodore D. Judah.jpg
T.D. Judah, c1862, age 36
Theodore Dehone Judah

(1826-03-04)March 4, 1826
DiedNovember 2, 1863(1863-11-02) (aged 37)
New York City, US
EducationRensselaer Polytechnic Institute
OccupationCivil engineer
EmployerCentral Pacific Railroad
Known forrailroad pioneer
TitleChief Engineer, CPRR
Spouse(s)Anna Pierce Judah
Theodore D. Judah Signature.png
Sketch of the Sacramento Valley RR as provided by its engineer, Theodore Judah.

Theodore Dehone Judah (March 4, 1825 – November 2, 1863) was an American civil engineer who was a central figure in the original promotion, establishment, and design of the First Transcontinental Railroad. He found investors for what became the Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR). As chief engineer, he performed much of the route survey work to determine the best alignment for the railroad over the Sierra Nevada, which was completed six years after his death.

Early life and education[edit]

Theodore Judah was born in 1826 (perhaps 1825[1]) in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the son of Mary (Reece) and The Rev. Henry Raymond Judah, an Episcopal clergyman.[2] After his family moved to Troy, New York, Judah attended Rensselaer Institute for a term[3] and developed at a young age a passion for engineering and railroads.[4]

At age 21, Judah married Anna Pierce (1828-1895) on May 10, 1849. Theirs was the first wedding in the then-new St James Episcopal Church of Greenfield, Massachusetts.[5]


After studying briefly at Rensselaer,[3] Judah went to work on a number of railroads in the Northeast, including engineering for the Niagara Gorge Railroad. He was elected member of the American Society of Civil Engineers on May 1853; at that time there were fewer than 800 civil engineers in the United States.[6] Judah was hired in 1854 at age 28 as the Chief Engineer for the Sacramento Valley Railroad in California. He and his wife Anne sailed to Nicaragua, crossed over to the Pacific, and caught a steamer to San Francisco. Under his charge, it became the first common carrier railroad built west of the Mississippi River.[7]

Pacific railroad surveys[edit]

On January 1857 in Washington DC, Judah published "A practical plan for building The Pacific Railroad", in which he outlined the general plan and argued for the need to do a detailed survey of a specific selected route for the railroad, not a general reconnaissance of several possible routes that had been done earlier.[8]

Nominated in the 1859 California Pacific Railroad Convention in San Francisco, Judah was sent to Washington DC to lobby in general for the Pacific Railroad. Congress was distracted by the trouble of pre-Civil War America and showed little interest. He returned noting that he had to find a specific practical route and some private financial backing to do a detailed engineering survey.[9]

In 1860, he set out to make general reconnaissance studies, using a barometer to measure elevation, of several possible routes through the Sierra. That Fall, with the help of Daniel W. Strong, a storekeeper in Dutch Flat, California, Judah found a practical trans-Sierra railroad route. In November 1860, Judah published "Central Pacific Railroad to California", in which he declared "the discovery of a practicable route from the city of Sacramento upon the divide between Bear River and the North Fork of the American, via Illinoistown (near Colfax), Dutch Flat, and Summit Valley (Donner Pass) to the Truckee River". He advocated the chosen Dutch Flat-Donner Pass route as the most practical one with maximum grades of one hundred feet per mile and 150 miles shorter than the route recommended in the government's reports. Much of the Sierra Nevada where the practical routes were located was double-ridged, meaning two summits separated by a valley, Donner Pass was not and thus was more suitable for a railroad. From Dutch Flat, the Pacific road would climb steadily up the ridge between the North Fork American and Bear Rivers to the Pass before winding down steadily following the Truckee River out of the mountains into the Great Basin of Nevada.[10][9]

Judah's youthful interest in the general subject of a Pacific Railroad developed during this period into almost an obsession, his wife observing that...

"Everything he did from the time he went to California to the day of his death was for the great continental Pacific railway. Time, money, brains, strength, body, and soul were absorbed. It was the burden of his thought day and night, largely of his conversation, till it used to be said 'Judah's Pacific Railroad crazy,' and I would say, 'Theodore, those people don't care,' or 'you give your thunder away.' He'd laugh and say, 'But we must keep the ball rolling."[11] Wheat, A Sketch of the Life of Theodore D. Judah (1925)

Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR)[edit]

Failing to raise funds for the Central Pacific project in San Francisco, Judah succeeded in signing up five Sacramento merchants, : James Bailey, Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker. On June 28, 1861, the Central Pacific Rail Way of California (CPRR) was incorporated with Judah as the chief engineer. At this point in time, Judah had the CPRR backing to survey the route over the Sierra Nevada along which the railroad was to be built during the 1860s, as well as barometric reconnaissance of two other routes, which turned out to be inferior. In a report dated October 1, 1861, Judah discussed the results of the survey, the merits of the chosen Dutch Flat-Donner Pass route,[12] and the estimated costs from Sacramento to points as far as Salt Lake City. On October 9, 1861, the CPRR directors authorized Judah to go back to Washington DC, this time as the agent of CPRR, to procure "appropriations of land and U.S. Bonds from the Government to aid in the construction of this road". The next day, Judah published a strip map (a.k.a. the Theodore Judah map), 30 inches tall by 66 feet long, of the proposed alignment of the Central Pacific Railroad.[13][14] On October 11, 1861, Judah boarded a steamer in San Francisco headed for Panama.[10][9]

At Washington DC, Judah began an active campaign for a Pacific Railroad bill. He was made the clerk of the House subcommittee on the bill and also obtained an appointment as secretary of the Senate subcommittee. On July 1, 1862, President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act into law, which authorized the issuance of land grants and U.S. bonds to CPRR and the newly chartered Union Pacific Railroad for the construction of a transcontinental railroad. Judah then went to New York to order supplies and sailed back to California on July 21, 1862, having accomplished his mission in less than a year.[10][9]


Judah died of yellow fever on November 2, 1863. He contracted the disease in Panama on a voyage with his wife to New York City, apparently becoming infected during their land passage across the Isthmus of Panama. He was traveling to New York to seek alternative financing to buy out the major investors. Anna took his body back to Greenfield, Massachusetts, where he was buried in the Pierce family plot in the Federal Street Cemetery. He died before his dream [15] of a transcontinental railroad could be completed.

Legacy and honors[edit]

Theodore Judah monument (1930), northeast corner of 2nd and L Street in Old Sacramento, CA

Within days of Judah's death, the CPRR's first locomotive, Gov. Stanford, made a trial run over the new railroad's first 500 feet of track in Sacramento, CA.

  • The CPRR named one of its steam locomotives (CP No. 4) after him. Judah crossed paths with the 19-ton locomotive bearing his name while on his way to New York.
  • Mount Judah, an 8,245-foot peak in Placer County, CA, located adjacent to Donner Peak and Mount Lincoln in the Sierra Nevada Tahoe National Forest, was formally named for Judah on October 18, 1940 by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.[16][17][18] Running through the mountain about 1,000 below the summit is the 10,322-foot long single track UPRR Sierra Grade Tunnel #41 (aka "The Big Hole") which was opened in 1925 and carries both UPRR freight and Amtrak passenger trains in both directions over Donner Summit between Soda Springs and Eder. This route bypasses the original, now abandoned 1868 CPRR "Summit Tunnel" (#6) surveyed by Judah which is located a mile to the north and had remained in service until 1993.[19]
  • Judah Street in San Francisco and its N-Judah Muni streetcar line are named after him.
  • Memorial plaques dedicated to him have been erected in Folsom and Sacramento, California
  • Elementary schools in Sacramento and Folsom are named after Judah.[20][21]

"In purely engineering retrospect, Judah’s achievements would seem nothing short of providential, especially in comparison to modern route surveying efforts. With a minimal survey crew utilizing crude instruments and only draft animals for transportation, Judah was able to lay out a remarkably accurate alignment across the most difficult natural obstacles undertaken up until that time (1861)." J. David Rogers and Charles R. Spinks, ASCE Golden Spike 150th Anniversary History Symposium, Sacramento, CA, May 6, 2019[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Huffman, Wendell (1996). "Theodore Judah's Birthdate". Letters to the Editors, Railroad History, 175. Retrieved 21 October 2019.
  2. ^ [1]
  3. ^ a b "Theodore Dehone Judah". Alumni Hall of Fame. September 2001. Retrieved 21 October 2019. Student in 1837
  4. ^ "Theodore Judah's Golden Ring". Retrieved 21 October 2019. Even though he had to leave his formal schooling behind at the age of 13, he had developed a passion for civil engineering and railroads.
  5. ^ Anon. "Anna Feron Pierce". Find-A-Grave. Find-A-Grave. Retrieved 14 December 2020.
  6. ^ "Golden Spike 150th Anniversary Historical Symposium". ASCE. 6 May 2019. Retrieved 19 October 2019.
  7. ^ Putnam, John Rose (June 12, 2011). "Crazy Judah and California's first railroad". Retrieved 19 October 2019.
  8. ^ Judah, T. D. (1 January 1857). "A practical plan for building The Pacific Railroad". Virtual museum of the City of San Francisco. H. Porkinhorn, Washington DC. Retrieved 21 October 2019.
  9. ^ a b c d e Rogers, J. David; Spinks, Charles R. (May 6, 2019). "Theodore Judah and the blazing of the first transcontinental railroad over the Sierra Nevada" (PDF). Sacramento, CA: ASCE Golden Spike 150th Anniversary History Symposium. Retrieved 21 October 2019.
  10. ^ a b c Galloway, John Debo (1941). "Theodore Dehone Judah--Railroad Pioneer". Civil Engineering. 11 (10 (Nov) and 11 (Dec)). Retrieved 21 October 2019.
  11. ^ Wheat, Carl I. “A Sketch of the Life of Theodore D. Judah.” California Historical Society Quarterly, vol. 4, no. 3, 1925, pp. 219–271. JSTOR, Accessed 14 Dec. 2020. page 227
  12. ^ Galloway, John Debo. "Locating the Central Pacific Railroad". Retrieved 21 October 2019. The reports by Judah give details of the location of the line up the Sierra Nevada, based upon his preliminary survey. Later location surveys varied from the original location at a number of places, but the line as built followed his first selection of the ridge between the Yuba and Bear rivers on the north and the North Fork of the American River. The route down the Truckee to the Big Bend at Wadsworth was also followed and it remains today the line of the Southern Pacific eastward from California.
  13. ^ "State Archives' 'First Complete Rail Map of the Sierra' Available Digitally, On Public Display for the First Time". CA State Archives. 7 May 2019. Retrieved 21 November 2019.
  14. ^ "Central Pacific Railroad: proposed alignment (10 October 1861)". Stanford Digital Repository. Retrieved 21 November 2019. [1] From Barmore Station to Clipper Gap -- [2] From Rattlesnake Bluffs to summit of Sierra Nevada -- [3] From summit of Sierra Nevada to Truckee River -- [4] From Dutch Flat to Rattlesnake Bluffs
  15. ^ Debbie Hollingsworth and Chuck Spinks. "The First Transcontinental Railroad". Stanford Libraries. Retrieved 14 December 2020.
  16. ^ "Feature Detail Report for Mount Judah, Placer County, CA (ID #262032) bound on the west by Sugar Bowl basin, 1.1 km (0.68 mi) south of Donner Peak and 1.6 km (0.99 mi) northeast of Mount Lincoln. (US-T121)" U.S. Board on Geographic Names, Washington, D.C.
  17. ^ U.S. Board on Geographic Names Decision Card, October 18, 1940
  18. ^ "OnTheSummit: Donner/Judah Peaks
  19. ^ "Central Pacific Transcontinental Railroad, Tunnel No. 41, Milepost 193.3, Donner, Placer County, CA Library of Congress
  20. ^
  21. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2016-11-30. Retrieved 2016-10-30.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)


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