Theodore Dehone Judah

Theodore Dehone Judah (1826-1863), American engineer and railroad promoter, developed the plans that led to construction of the first transcontinental railroad.

Theodore Judah was born in Bridgeport, Conn., where his father was an Episcopal minister, but the family moved to Troy, N.Y., while he was still young. He attended the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the first private engineering school in the world. After graduation he took a job helping build the Troy and Schenectady Railroad. Then, in rapid succession, he worked for three other railroads, planned and built the Niagara Gorge Railroad, helped build the Erie Canal, and erected a large bridge in Vermont.

Following the example of a brother who had gone to California in the gold rush of 1849, Judah went west in 1854, shortly after marrying. Two years earlier a group of California promoters had conceived of a railroad from Sacramento, where ships arrived from San Francisco, up to the gold country in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Judah was hired as chief engineer of the project, and the line was completed to its terminus at Folsom, Calif., 22 miles away, in 1856. Almost immediately the company wanted to extend the line into the mountains, but a general business depression made this impossible.

Judah left the railroad shortly before its completion and spent the next 3 years working at various engineering tasks connected with projected railroads in California. During these years he nurtured his dream of building a railroad across the mountains and eastward. In the spring of 1859 he made his third trip to Washington, D.C., hoping at last to persuade Congress to allocate Federal aid for a transcontinental railroad. Throughout the 1850s Pacific Railroad surveys had been made of the three potential routes (northern, central, and southern), but strong sectional rivalries prevented any one route from being selected.

Judah continued his promotional efforts and took a prominent part in the Pacific Railroad Convention of 1859. In 1860 his announcement that he had discovered a practical route through the forbidding Sierra Nevada enhanced the prospect of congressional action. In the following year he succeeded in bringing together the group of men—Collis P. Huntington, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker—who would eventually build the Central Pacific Railroad. On July 1, 1862, with Southern opposition removed by the ongoing Civil War, Congress passed an act to aid the construction of the transcontinental railroad.

But Judah did not live to see the road completed. Disagreements arose with the Huntington group, and they offered to buy Judah out for $100,000. He died on Nov. 2, 1863, from typhoid fever contracted while crossing the Isthmus of Panama on his way back to New York.

Further Reading on Theodore Dehone Judah

There is no full-length biography of Judah. Some information on him is in Lucius Beebe, The Central Pacific and the Southern Pacific Railroads (1963).