Theodore Judah

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Theodore Dehone Judah, around 1863. Portrait photo by Carleton E. Watkins

Theodore Dehone Judah (born March 4, 1826 - or maybe even 1825 - in Bridgeport (Connecticut) ; † November 2, 1863 in New York City ) was an American railroad engineer and the driving force behind the construction of the first rail link across North America Continent , from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast. As early as the mid-1850s, he proposed a route through the Sierra Nevada for this railway line , which many of his contemporaries thought technically impossible. This earned him the nickname "Crazy Judah" ("crazy Judah"). Judah found investors for what would later become the Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR) and, as its first chief engineer, carried out much of the necessary land survey work. The section of the route through the Sierra Nevada he had planned was not completed until six years after his untimely death under his successor James Harvey Strobridge .

Life path

Theodore D. Judah was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in March 1826 - but perhaps also in March 1825 - to Maria (Reece) and Henry Raymond Judah, a pastor. After his family moved to Troy, New York , Judah attended the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) there for a semester in the summer of 1838 .

Judah initially worked for several different railroad companies in the northeastern United States, first for the Schenectady and Troy Railroad under their chief engineer WS Hall, and later for the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad and for the Connecticut River Railroad . For a while he worked on a section of the Erie Canal and was involved in the construction of a large bridge in Vergennes (Vermont) . Under his direction, the Niagara Gorge Railroad from Niagara Falls (New York) to Lewiston (New York) was built through the river valley of the Niagara River , which was considered a remarkable engineering achievement at the time. In Buffalo (New York) he was the engineer responsible for the construction of the Buffalo and New York Railroad , which later became the Erie Railroad .

While Judah was working for a railway company in Greenfield, Massachusetts , he met Anna Ferona Pierce, the daughter of a local dealer. He married her on May 10, 1847, at the age of 21. The couple had no children.

In May 1853 he was nominated for a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

Map of the Sacramento Valley Railroad, by Theodore D. Judah, September 1854

In 1854, at the age of 28, Judah was appointed chief engineer of the Sacramento Valley Railroad (SVR) in California , the first railroad west of the Mississippi . To get to California, Judah and his wife Anna took a ship to Nicaragua , crossed the American continent to the Pacific coast and then took a steamboat to San Francisco - the Panama Canal was not opened until 1914. Only one year after this trip, in 1855, the Panama Railway , which connects Colón on the Caribbean with Panama City on the Pacific, opened the first transcontinental railroad in (Central) America.

In Sacramento , Judah opened his own engineering office, TD Judah & Company, Civil Engineers & Railroad Contractors, with an office in the Hastings Building on 2nd Street. He employed two young engineers, namely his younger brother Edward D. Judah and a certain Benjamin Leete.

In January 1857 in Washington, DC, Judah published his "Practical Plan for Building the Pacific Railroad".

In 1859, Judah was sent by the California Pacific Railroad Convention in San Francisco to Washington, DC, to lobby for a rail link to the Pacific. However, his ideas initially met with little interest in the American capital, probably also in view of the looming US civil war (1861–1865).

In the same year Judah carried out the planning and surveying work for the establishment of Lincoln, California in Placer County, on the intended railway line of the California Central Railroad (CCRR). The Lincoln settlement was named after Charles Lincoln Wilson, one of the directors of the CCRR.

In 1860 Judah explored several possible routes through the Sierra Nevada. In the fall of 1860, with the help of Dr. Daniel W. Strong, a drugstore owner in Dutch Flat , California, suggested a suitable route through the mountains. In November 1860, Judah published his "Discovery of a Workable Route from the City of Sacramento on the watershed between the Bear River and the northern arm of the American River , via Illinois Town (Colfax), Dutch Flat and Summit Valley ( Donner Pass ) to the Truckee River ". He considered the route through Dutch Flat and over the Donner Pass to be the most suitable because it had an incline of a maximum of one hundred feet per mile (i.e. almost 19 meters of incline on a 1000 meter route, about 1.9 percent) and 150 miles (approx. 241 km) was shorter than the route recommended in previous government reports.

Judah managed to win four investors from Sacramento, later known as the "Big Four", for his venture: Leland Stanford , Collis P. Huntington , Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker . On June 28, 1861, the Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR) was established with Judah as chief engineer. Daniel W. Strong also invested significantly less in CPRR.

In a report dated October 1, 1861, Judah published the results of his survey, the arguments in favor of the route via Dutch Flat and the Donner Pass, and the estimated cost of building the route from Sacramento to Salt Lake City . On October 9, 1861, the directors of the CPRR authorized Judah to return to Washington, DC, as their agent, to "obtain land grants and US Treasury bonds from the government to aid in the construction of this line." The next day, Judah published a map of the Central Pacific Railroad's planned route, known as the Theodore Judah Map. On October 11, 1861, Judah began his journey to the US capital by boarding a steamer to Panama (which was part of Colombia until 1903 ) in San Francisco .

In Washington, DC, Judah was made secretary of the House of Representatives subcommittee on Pacific Railroad Bill and was also made secretary of the relevant Senate subcommittee. On July 1, 1862, US President Abraham Lincoln (term of office: 1861 to 1865) signed the Pacific Railroad Act , which approved land grants and US loans to the CPRR and the newly formed Union Pacific Railroad for the construction of a railway line to the Pacific. On July 21, 1862, Judah returned to California after completing his duty in the capital in less than a year.

After tensions arose between the "Big Four" and Judah, Judah traveled again to New York City in 1863 in search of new donors with whose money he wanted to pay off the "Big Four" and continue the Central Pacific Railroad without them . However, on the trip on which his wife Anne accompanied him, he fell ill with yellow fever while crossing the Isthmus of Panama . He died of the disease on November 2, 1863 in New York City; at the age of only 37 or 38 years. His wife Anna took his body to Greenfield, Massachusetts , where it was buried in Federal Street Cemetery.

His successor as chief engineer at the Central Pacific Railroad was Samuel S. Montague .


Memorial to Theodore D. Judah, erected in 1930 in Old Sacramento, California.
  • The CPRR named one of their steam locomotives (CP No. 4) after him.
  • Mount Judah, a 2513 m high peak in Placer County , California , located in the Tahoe National Forest in the Sierra Nevada, was officially named after Judah on October 18, 1940 by the US Board on Geographic Names. About 1000 meters below the summit runs the 3,146 m long, single-lane "Sierra Grade Tunnel" (also known as "The Big Hole") of the Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR), which opened in 1925 and serves both UPRR freight and Amtrak Passenger trains are transported in both directions over the Donner Pass between Soda Springs and Eder. This route bypasses the original "Summit Tunnel" of the CPRR, measured by Judah in 1868, which is one mile (1609 meters) north and was in operation until 1993.
  • Judah Street in San Francisco and the N-Judah Muni tram line that runs through it are named after him.
  • Plaques dedicated to him were erected in Folsom and Sacramento, California.
  • The elementary schools in Sacramento and Folsom are named after Judah.


  • John Debo Galloway (1869–1943), "The First Transcontinental Railroad", Dorset Press, New York, 1989, chap. 4: "The Builders of the Central Pacific Railroad", pp. 52-93,
  • John Debo Galloway, "Theodore Dehone Judah - Railroad Pioneer", Part I .: "Concept of Conquest"; Part II .: “Sourmounting the Sierra Nevada”, reprint from: “Civil Engineering”, October and November 1941, Vol. 11, Nos. 10 and 11 [Part I, Concept of Conquest (Oct.); Part II, Surmounting the Sierra Nevada (Nov.)], 1941,

Web links

Commons : Theodore Judah  - Collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Wendell Huffman, Theodore Judah's Birthdate , in: "Railroad History" No. 175, Fall 1996, letters to the editor, reproduced at,
  2. ^ Theodore D. Judah, A practical plan for building The Pacific Railroad , January 1, 1857, in: Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco. H. Porkinhorn, Washington, DC, , Retrieved October 21, 2019.