CZ/SK verze

Railway Giants: Even the Civil War Didn't Stop Theodore Judah from Connecting America

Railway Giants: Even the Civil War Didn't Stop Theodore Judah from Connecting America
photo: Carleton Watkins / Wikimedia commons/Theodore D. Judah
12 / 02 / 2024

Connecting America from west to east over land was a task that seemed impossible 150 years ago, even more so with the American Civil War just around the corner. All the more remarkable is the story of a young engineer, Theodore Judah, who almost succeeded in this feat.

My Love of the Railroad

The year is 1826, and we are in Bridgeport in the northeast of the USA. It is here that a boy named Theodore is born to Episcopalian clergyman Henry R. Judah and his wife, Mary.

Theodore's passion for the railroad began to manifest itself in his youth. After moving with his family to Troy, New York, he graduated from the prestigious Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which sparked his love of technology for good. At the age of 23, another love, no less ardent, was ignited. He marries Anna Pierce. The wedding will take place at St. James Episcopal Church in Greenfield.

Not long after, he leaves to put his newly acquired engineering experience to work in the real world. He is hired successively on several railroad projects in his native Northeast. Here he works for the Lewiston Railroad, among others, for whom he will also work in the legendary Niagara Gorge. In recognition, he becomes a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1853. It should be noted, however, that the competition at that time was not very high, since at that time one could count only 8 hundred civil engineers in America. A year later, he heads west across the country for the first time. It is not an easy journey, for Theodore is forced to circumnavigate the whole of America with his family. Little can Theodore know at the time what a role he will soon play in greatly accelerating this tortuous journey.

Go West

But let's not get ahead of ourselves for now. It is 1854, and Theodore is hired to work as chief engineer of the Sacramento Valley Railroad in California. This is the first ever ordinary railroad to be built west of the Mississippi River. Theodore would remain on the West Coast for several years, working his way up to the position of Chief Engineer of the California Central Railroad, founded in 1857. Two years later, however, Theodore returns back east, specifically to Washington. He is chosen to lobby for the construction of the first transcontinental railroad across the United States. This project is vital to the West Coast since the vast majority of trade takes place in the East. An overland connection between the west and east would make the western part of the country much more attractive and would allow it to experience the same kind of booming growth that New York, Boston, Washington, and other East Coast cities are experiencing right now.

Cave cattum / CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia commons

But the times are not in favor of big projects; America is plagued by other problems. The dispute over the legality of slavery continues to escalate, and will soon culminate in the secession of 11 Southern states, which see the concept of slavery as vital to the functioning of their agrarian economies, from the Union, whose states have economies based primarily on expanding industry and see slavery as an ancient relic. This move will lead to the outbreak of the greatest conflict on US soil since the wars with the Native Americans, who have been gradually pushed off all American territory onto reservations. Despite this, Theodore will go to great lengths when he is promised support for the project, provided he puts forward a specific route and secures funding for the construction of the line.

Theodore is well aware that this is his life project. Fortune smiles at him when he meets Charles Marsh, and together they travel to the Sierra Nevada Mountains where they make countless measurements to determine whether the transcontinental railway can be built. The result is positive, which Theodore also publishes in November 1860 in the publication Central Pacific Railroad to California. In late 1860 and early 1861, Theodore and Charles meet again to discuss the project, which bears the working title Central Pacific Railroad of California. Theodore's obsession with this project begins to border on madness.

Everything Is Ready

After much negotiation, Theodore manages to convince five Sacramento merchants to provide funding for the project. In 1861, the Central Pacific Rail Road of California (CPRR) is formed, with none other than Theodore chosen as chief engineer. That same year he is again dispatched to Washington to secure land allocations and government bonds to aid this phenomenal construction. Theodore arrives in Washington with a map that lays out the exact route of the railroad as he had been asked to do a few years earlier.

Andrew J. Russell / Wikimedia commons

In Washington, Theodore begins an active campaign for the Pacific Railroad Act. He becomes secretary of the House of Representatives subcommittee on this bill and is also appointed secretary of the Senate subcommittee on the same bill. The hard work bears fruit, and on July 1, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signs the Pacific Railroad Act, authorizing the issuance of land grants and U.S. bonds to the CPRR and the newly formed Union Pacific Railroad for the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Theodore then travels to New York to order supplies, and in July 1862 he returns to California, capping his highly successful mission.

Not long after, Theodore and his wife head back east, this time to New York. There is a need to secure further funding for his megalomaniacal project. On the way, however, he contracts yellow fever, a deadly disease to which he also succumbs in New York in 1863 before he sees his transcontinental child grow up. The project to which Theodore has devoted his life will be completed in 1869, six years after his father's death. Theodore's body will be transported by Anna to Greenfield, where he will subsequently be buried.

Pedro Xing / CC0 / Wikimedia commons

Thus ends the story of a man who dedicated his short time on earth to one of the most important transportation structures in railroad history. A man whose passion for this project was beyond measure, as confirmed by the person closest to Theodore, his wife Anna, in the following words: "Everything he did from the time he left for California until his death was for the great Continental Pacific Railroad. It consumed his time, money, brain, strength, body, and soul. It was the burden of his thoughts day and night."