Theodore Dehone Judah was the brilliant engineer and visionary who convinced a group of Sacramento merchants, and the United States Congress, that it was possible to build a railroad across the razorback spine of the Sierra Nevada.
Born in 1826 in Connecticut, the young genius graduated from Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute at age thirteen. When he arrived in California in 1854 to construct the Sacramento Valley Railroad—the first railroad built west of the Mississippi River—he had already superintended the construction of the Erie Canal, and engineered New York’s Niagara Gorge Railroad. And he had an even bigger dream: a transcontinental railroad. After the completion of Sacramento Valley Railroad in 1856, Judah turned his energies to a barometric survey of the Sierra, the barrier any coast to coast railroad route would have to conquer. Though convinced his plan was feasible, others dubbed him “Crazy Judah” for his seemingly impossible ideas. When he found investor-partners Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker and Collis Huntington—soon to be named the Big Four—and won construction approval with the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act, he thought his dream was soon to become a reality.
But as construction progressed in 1863, the relationship between Judah and his Sacramento associates soured. Embittered, he sailed east intending to acquire alternative financing to buy them out. It was not to be; he contracted yellow fever while crossing the Isthmus of Panama and died in New York on November 2, 1863, aged thirty-seven. The Big Four finished the project, reaping the substantial rewards of the project Judah had set in motion. America’s first transcontinental railroad was completed in May 1869, when the east-bound Central Pacific Railroad joined tracks with the west-bound Union Pacific at Promontory, Utah. Today it is difficult to understand that Theodore Judah’s 19th century feat of engineering a railroad through and over formidable mountains is analogous to the 20th century’s moon landing. A memorial honoring his memory and achievements stands in Old Town Sacramento State Park.