Chapter Three


THE railroad Judah wanted, dreamed about, lusted for, was determined to build, had the support, if not the financial backing, of nearly all Americans. The swift growth of California and the West Coast, the obvious fact that as soon as the railroad was built farms and towns would spring up and land values would increase along much of the line across America, the slowness and costs of mail, Indian troubles on the Great Plains and in the Northwest, the so-called Mormon War that sent columns of troops into Utah during 1857-58, the opening of Japan and new commercial treaties with China, among other things, made the desirability of a Pacific railroad obvious to all

They could not agree on where. It was not just the Southerners who blocked the Northerners; within California, where slavery was never an important issue, the delegates to the 1859 convention from southern California and Arizona objected strongly to a San Francisco or Sacramento terminus. They wanted Los Angeles or San Diego, and argued that, since the Sierra Nevada were almost entirely in California, the railroad would have to be built to the south, where the mountains were not so awesome.

Building the railroad would be, according to William T Sherman in a letter to his brother John, a congressman from Ohio, “a work of giants. And Uncle Sam is the only giant I know who can grapple the subject.”1

Sherman was right. No railroad anywhere crossed a continent. To build it would take real men, dedicated men, adventurous men, men of muscle and brain power, men without equal. They must be giants to build it without steam shovels, pile drivers, or power saws, without pipes with water running through them, without portable houses and hospitals, with no internal-combustion-engine trucks and jeeps to move materials, or much of anything else commonplace in the twentieth century to build a railroad. The line had nearly two thousand miles to cross, with great stretches of desert where there was no water, plus vast areas without trees for ties or bridges, stones for footings, or game for food. Then there were three major mountain ranges, the Rockies, the Wasatch, and the Sierra Nevada. There the wind howled and the snow came down in great quantities, the creeks and rivers ran through one-thousand-foot and deeper gorges, the summits were granite, and neither man nor animal lived.

Over most of the route there were no cities except Salt Lake City, no settlements, no farms, no roundhouses, no water pumps, and, except for the mines on the flanks of the Sierra Nevada, there was nothing to carry in, nothing to carry out. The only way to get tracks forward to the end of line was to carry them across tracks already laid. The road would be of a size unprecedented anywhere in the world, and it would go in advance of settlement through an area whose remoteness and climate discouraged or completely precluded rapid migration.

In historian Oliver Jensen’s words, to travel the route of the first transcontinental railroad at the beginning of the twenty-first century “is to wonder whether we are today the equals of men who with their bare hands laid those long ribbons of metal over a century ago.”2

What it would take was the backing of the government, because only the government had the resources—money and land—to finance the project. No corporation, no bank was big enough. In a democracy, it was mandatory to turn to the elected representative body to get the thing done.

JUDAH had no doubt that it could be done. On October 20, 1859, he and Anna had set out from San Francisco on the Sonora headed for Panama and then it would be on to New York, where he intended to ride a train to Washington to seek money and land from the Congress and the President. Even before the couple left San Francisco Bay, Judah had met California Representative John C. Burch. “Our introduction was immediately followed by a statement to me in detail of the objects and purposes of his mission,” Burch later wrote.3 It was the only thing on Judah’s mind, the sole thing he would talk about. As Burch told a meeting of the Territorial Pioneers of California on April 13, 1875, “Never have I seen a more unselfish laborer for a public work, never knew a more self sacrificing spirit than his.”4

On the trip Judah worked on a bill incorporating the wishes of the Sacramento Convention, including a terminus at Sacramento. Burch, who accompanied them, went over the bill. He and Judah had become, in Burch’s words, “immediate and intimate friends. No day passed on the voyage that we did not discuss the subject, lay plans for its success, and indulge pleasant anticipations of those wonderful benefits so certain to follow that success.” Burch naturally wanted to know more than just an outline. Judah knew what information was wanted and was ready to answer any and all questions. “On the various provisions of a proper bill to invite the introduction of capital into the work,” said Burch later, “and, in short, on every conceivable point he was armed with arguments, facts and figures, and so thoroughly that all questions of political economy involved were of easy solution to his mind.”5

BURCH was so impressed with what Judah had to say and the way he said it that he agreed to sponsor Judah’s bill in the House. Anna helped. Senator Joseph Lane of Oregon was also on the Sonora and was naturally in on the Pacific-railroad discussion. One night, at dinner with Burch and Lane, Anna asked, “Would there be any advantage in establishing a Pacific Railway Exhibit on Capitol Hill?” She explained that she had packed the charts her husband had used at the convention, as well as samples of ore, minerals, and fossils she and he had picked up on their Sierra expeditions. Further, she had her sketchbook and a few of her paintings of the mountains. Her husband nodded yes. Burch said it was a splendid idea. Lane agreed.6

On his arrival in Washington, Judah sought out California’s senators, who read and supported the bill. On December 6, 1859, he got an appointment with President James Buchanan. Together with Burch and Senator William Gwin, he went to the White House to see Buchanan, who had problems of his own but allowed Judah to present the proceedings of the convention in Sacramento. “He received us graciously,” Judah wrote, and “expressed himself generally in favor of the Pacific Railroad.”7 In so doing, Buchanan was reversing his own earlier position, but his Democratic Party—like the Republicans—had in 1856 adopted a resolution favoring a Pacific railroad.8

Congress had recessed, so Judah and Anna headed west by rail, to promote his railroad bill and to collect “some reliable information with regard to the operating of engines on heavy grades, which becomes highly important in view of solving the question of crossing the Sierra Nevada mountains, as it established the fact that grades as high as one hundred and fifty feet per mile can be overcome and operated with perfect safety.” He found out that such was actually the case with the Baltimore and Ohio, which in crossing the Appalachian Mountains provided an example of what could and should be done. On his way west, he also spoke to investors, and at meetings in New York, Albany, Syracuse, Buffalo, Cleveland, Columbus, Chicago, and Cincinnati, in order, as he said, “to awaken as much interest as possible in our efforts.”9

ON returning to Washington, with Burch’s support, Judah was given a room in the Capitol to promote his railroad. Judah was a born genius at publicity, at pushing projects, and at persuasiveness. At Anna’s suggestion, he made the room into the Pacific Railroad Museum, displaying maps, diagrams, surveys, reports, and other data, as well as her collection and paintings. He had it completed by January 14, 1860, and from then until he left for California a half-year later he was, in his words, “constantly engaged in endeavoring to further the passage of a Pacific Railroad Bill.” Scores of members of both houses, officials of the departments and bureaus, plain citizens, reporters, and editors came to call. “His knowledge of his subject was so thorough,” Representative Burch said, “his manners so gentle and insinuating, his conversation on the subject so entertaining that few resisted his appeals.”10

More than a few, it turned out. Judah was not convincing enough. There were practical problems—how to get over mountains, across rivers, through deserts—and the location, ever the location. Southerners would not support any railroad north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Judah was in the galleries when Representative Samuel Curtis of Iowa, chairman of the House Select Committee on the Pacific Railroad, introduced a bill to build a transcontinental road from Iowa to Sacramento. Curtis had a number of inducements to investors in his bill, including giving land along the route to the corporation that built the road, but his bill differed from the one Judah and Burch were working on in that Curtis proposed a generous government loan of $60 million (thought to be about half of the projected costs). This loan was to be in the form of 5 percent thirty-year bonds which the newly formed corporation could sell on the open market. The debt would be repaid when the bonds matured.

Southerners tacked onto the measure a provision calling for a parallel route through the Southwest. Missouri and Iowa were fighting over the eastern terminus. Curtis’s bill was sent back to committee for further consideration. That was almost surely a death warrant, but Curtis and his supporters got the bill entered on the calendar for the coming session. It would not be debated until December 1860.

THERE was good news for Judah that spring of 1860. In May, in Chicago, Abraham Lincoln was nominated for president by the Republicans on a platform that called for full government support of the Pacific railway. In June, Congress passed an act granting federal aid to an overland telegraph from Missouri to San Francisco. That act cut through the quibbling over whether or not the federal government could support an internal improvement in states as well as in the territories. (The telegraph line was completed in 1861.)

There was bad news too. Visitors came to Judah’s Pacific Railroad Museum to gawk, to talk, to be impressed, and to ask questions—chiefly, How do you propose to get across the Sierra Nevada mountains? It was one thing for the Baltimore and Ohio to cross the Appalachians, another altogether to attempt the Sierra.

“He made up his mind,” according to Anna, that he would never go to Washington again till he had been on the Sierra Nevada and made a survey, so that when he returned it would be “with his maps, profiles, estimates etc. etc. for a railroad across the same.”11He was sure it could be done, but he had to convince the politicians, so that “what I believe without the surveys I can intelligently show to senators, members of congress, etc. With facts and figures they cannot gainsay my honest convictions, as now.”

In the summer of 1860, Judah and Anna set sail for California. Judah wrote a report to the executive committee of the convention, which had sent him to Washington. He covered in considerable detail his own activities and what had happened to his bill, and Curtis’s bill, but had to confess that “the debate on the slavery question, and other matters of little moment [sic], left us no time for the consideration of the Pacific Railroad Bill.” Then he made up his expense account. He said the whole trip cost him $2,500, but he was charging the convention only $40, to cover his printing expenses.12

Never before, one would guess, and never again, one would be certain, has anyone turned in such a low expense account. Never before or since has anyone wanted a railroad so badly. Anna later wrote, “Oh, how we used to talk it all over on the steamer enroute to California in July, 1860.”13Judah was now determined that, rather than ask Congress again to support some hypothetical company which would pick its own route, they should first organize the company itself and then present to the Congress accurate and definite surveys of its particular route.

To make that possible, immediately on arrival in Sacramento, Judah set off for the Sierra. He may have been on the payroll of the Sacramento Valley Railroad, whose owners wanted him to hunt for a wagon road from Dutch Flat over the mountains past Donner Lake to the mines in Nevada. Or maybe not—it isn’t certain. In any event, he was doing what he loved best, sleeping in the open, camping out in wilderness mountain country, cooking over a fire, eating with his back to a tree, watching out for mountain lions, taking barometric readings to establish altitude, mapping out a route, noting the flora and fauna, looking everywhere, enjoying life as few people ever have.

Anna wrote that he went over the different passes, including Henness, Beckworth, and Donner. “No one knew what he was doing! The ‘engineer’ was in the mountains. I remained in Sacramento among friends.”14 Sometimes she joined him on his excursions, painting while he measured.

Judah was working his way up the ridge line between the North Fork of the American River and the Bear River in California, going from Auburn through Clipper Gap to Illinoistown (soon renamed Colfax), past Cape Horn, on to Dutch Flat, and then, possibly, to Emigrant Gap and Donner Pass. This was rugged mountainous country, extremely picturesque, but it seemed there was no chance for a railroad beyond Dutch Flat. At Cape Horn, for example, two miles above Illinoistown, the drops beneath the old unused wagon road Judah was following were as much as fifteen hundred feet. It seemed to everyone who had been there that it was impossible to build a rail line around Cape Horn.

Everyone, that is, except Judah. The man who had built the suspension bridge at Niagara Falls knew that it mattered not if grade for the track was built above a fifteen-hundred-foot drop or over a fifteen-foot drop. What interested him most were the widely spaced saddles in the ridge line. By weaving in and out of them, the railroad could ascend toward the ultimate crest of the mountains on an even grade not in excess of the capability of the locomotives, or a maximum of a hundred feet per mile.15

BY this time, early October 1860, most of America was discussing the presidential election, with the South threatening to secede if Lincoln and the Republicans won. But out in California, Judah was preparing his maps and reports on the Sierra. A letter arrived, from a Dutch Flat druggist, Daniel W. Strong, called “Doc” by his customers. Doc had heard about Judah’s exploring and wanted to show him the old emigrant road from Donner Lake, which had been abandoned after the Donner tragedy in 1846-47. Doc was sure it was the best place to build a railroad, because there the east-west ridge reached the summit of the chain on what amounted to a plateau. Everywhere else the Sierra crested twice, parallel ridges with a deep valley between them. Here there was only one crest, so a railroad climbing up from Dutch Flat would have to surmount only it. The chief engineering problem would be to find a way down a thousand-foot rocky wall past Donner Lake and along Donner Creek to the canyon leading to Utah formed by the Truckee River.

The day Doc Strong’s letter arrived, Judah set out to see him at Dutch Flat. Anna wrote about what happened when they met. The two men became fast friends immediately. Strong, “truly a mountaineer,” led Judah on horseback up the ridge to Donner Pass. “No one knew what they were doing!” according to Anna. She adds, “Dr. Strong used to tell a thrilling story of their last night in the mountains [when they] came near being snowed in and were obliged to get up in the middle of the night from their camp and started out in the darkness to find the trail and none too soon were they.” Her husband “could not sleep or rest after they got into Dutch Flat and Strong’s store, till he had stretched his paper on the counter and made his figures thereon.

“Then, turning to Dr. Strong, he said for the first time, ‘Dr. I shall make my survey over this, the Donner Pass or the Dutch Flat route, above every other.’”16

“The next morning,” Strong wrote, Judah “said to me, ‘Give me some writing materials’—I produced some and he sat down and drew up what he called ‘articles of association’ [for the Central Pacific Railroad] and he shoved them across the table to me and said, ‘sign for what you want’” in the way of stock.17

IT was mid-October. Judah wanted to create the corporation immediately. Under California laws, it was required that a railroad corporation have subscriptions to capital stock in the amount of $1,000 for each mile of road projected, 10 percent of which was to be paid in cash to the company treasury before incorporation. Judah estimated the mileage from Sacramento to the Nevada state line to be 115 miles, meaning he and Strong needed subscriptions of $115,000. While Judah went to work on a pamphlet designed to entice big investors in San Francisco, Strong worked on the mining communities of Dutch Flat, Illinoistown, Grass Valley, and Nevada City and brought in $46,500. Judah set out to get the nearly $70,000 remaining.

He wrote a pamphlet, published November 1, 1860, entitled Central Pacific Railroad Company of California.* He opened with the statement that he and Strong had “some newly discovered facts with reference to the route of the Pacific Railroad through the State of California.” He claimed incorrectly that the line was short, only eighty miles from the foothills to Truckee Lake. “No serious engineering difficulties present themselves.”18

Five days later, Abraham Lincoln was elected president. The next day, the South Carolina legislature called by unanimous vote for a convention to meet on December 20 to consider secession. The only thing that mattered to Judah at the moment was that, with the Republicans in control of Congress and the distinct possibility that the Southern representatives would walk out, the chances for passing the Curtis Bill or something like it were greatly enhanced. All of which gave him added incentive to get the Central Pacific incorporated.

Anna wrote that “night and day he talked and labored with the capitalists in San Francisco.” On November 14, 1860, he wrote Strong, “I have struck a lucky streak, and shall fill up the list without further trouble. I have got one of the richest concerns in California into it.”19 The next evening, he left Anna at the San Francisco Russ House “firm in the faith that the gentlemen he was to meet that evening in the office of a leading law firm would give him the aid he required to make his survey the following spring; in other words—would be his backers, for the Pacific R.R. Co. He left me in high hopes.”

Judah was shattered by the reaction. His potential backers scoffed at his idea. For example, how did he know he could build a line across the Sierra Nevada for $70,000 per mile? Judah had not made a proper survey and needed money to do so. And what about the snow? Judah had not a shred of information about how to keep the road free of snow. Besides, there was no guarantee the Congress would pass the Curtis or any other bill aiding the railroad, and even if it did, building the thing would take twelve to twenty years. Judah shook his head—he asserted he could do it in seven years. They said they could make more money quicker in other investments.

Judah went back to his wife and told her, “Pack your bag, for I am going up to Sacramento on the boat to-morrow. Remember what I say to you to-night so you can tell me sometime. Not two years will go over the head of these gentlemen I have left to-night, but they would give all they have to have what they put away to-night; I shall never talk or labor any more with them—I am going to Sacramento to see what I can do with the wealthy business men of that city.”20

STARTING the day after he arrived, Judah held several meetings at the St. Charles Hotel in Sacramento, on J Street. At some as many as thirty men were present, at others fewer than a dozen. Dr. Strong was there, along with merchant Lucius Booth, James Bailey (a Sacramento jeweler), Cornelius Cole (later congressman and senator from California), B. F. Leete (one of Judah’s surveyors), and some others.

One of those present was Charles Crocker—now weighing 250 pounds—who was running a dry-goods store in town, had been present for the organization of the Republican Party in California (1856), and had just been elected to the state legislature. Collis Huntington was also there, with his partner in their general store, Mark Hopkins. So was Leland Stanford, also a storekeeper but intensely involved in politics as a Republican candidate for state treasurer and later for governor.

“We none of us knew anything about railroad building,” Crocker later said, “but at the same time were enterprising men, and anxious to have a road built, and have it come to Sacramento.”21

Judah presented his case. He had decided to forget about a transcontinental railroad and concentrate instead on getting up to the California mountains, perhaps crossing them to the Nevada line. According to Anna, what he told the assembled potential investors, nearly all of them Sacramento store owners, was: “You are tradesmen here in Sacramento city, your property and your business is here—help me make the survey, I’ll make you the Central Pacific railroad company and with the [congressional] bill passed, you have the control of business which will make your fortune in trades, etc. etc. If nothing more, why, you can own a wagon road [from Dutch Flat over the mountains] if not a railroad.”22

Ears turned up and attention concentrated on Judah. Here was what the merchants wanted to hear. They could sell more of their goods, expand their business, and stifle competition. Their property would become more valuable. They could control the traffic from their city to the Nevada mines and thus control that market. Judah told them that he had crossed the crest of the Sierra on twenty-three separate occasions, that he was convinced the Donner Pass route beyond Dutch Flat was the best, and that he had to have financial backing for the purpose of making a careful instrumental survey of the proposed line.

“I think every one present,” Cornelius Cole later wrote, “agreed to take stock in the concern. Several subscribed for fifty shares each, but no one for more than that. I took fifteen shares … and subsequently acquired ten more.”23 The initial money was to pay for a survey beginning on the levee on Front Street and then heading up the American River.

Judah had his start. He told Anna the next morning, “If you want to see the first work done on the Pacific railroad look out of your bed room window. I am going to work there this morning and I am going to have these men pay for it.”

She replied, “I am glad, for it’s about time somebody else helped.”24 Looking out the window later that morning, she saw her husband and a few helpers run their lines down the muddy streets with chains and stakes and heavy brass instruments.

• • •

ONE man, in fact, had refused to subscribe at the meeting. He was Collis Huntington, who later admitted: “I did not give anything. When the meeting was about to break up, one or two said to me, ‘Huntington, you are the man to give to this enterprise.’ I gave two or three hundred for a road…. I did not want any of the stock. This railroad was a thing so big there was not much use starting out expecting to do much towards building it. I told Mr. Judah as I left—‘if you want to come to my office some evening I will talk with you about this railroad.’”

Judah was there the next evening. He talked and talked, and convinced Huntington to put up $35,000 to do a thorough instrumental survey. “I said all right I will pay that, but I will not agree to do anything after that,” Huntington stated about the single best deal he ever made. “I may go on,” he added, “but don’t promise to do anything now but make a survey.” He, his partner Hopkins, Stanford, James Bailey, Crocker, and Lucius Booth were all Sacramento merchants with goods to sell to Nevada miners, who were almost as numerous and as much in need of goods as those in California had been a decade before.25

“We organized a corps of engineers in the spring [of 1861],” Crocker later said, “and sent them with Mr. Judah at the head to run a line along the mountains to the Big Bend of the Truckee River [today’s Wadsworth, Nevada]. It was merely a trial line; what we called a base line—but from that we found that the grades which Judah had said could be obtained were actually practicable, and were obtained.”26

JUDAH, accompanied by Strong and others, made his way to Dutch Flat that spring, then waited for the snows to melt before going on. Strong said that it took “pretty much all summer to make the survey to the State Line.”27 At various times Huntington, Crocker, and Stanford joined Judah in the Sierra for a personal look. At one point Huntington, Judah, and a hired Chinese employed to carry blankets and provisions spent a week in the canyon of the Feather River and decided it was wholly impractical for a railroad.

ON June 28, 1861, with the Civil War already under way, the Central Pacific Railroad of California came into formal existence. It was incorporated with Stanford as president, Huntington vice-president, Hopkins treasurer, James Bailey secretary, Judah chief engineer, and with Stanford, Crocker, Bailey, Judah, Huntington, Hopkins, Strong, and Charles Marsh as directors. Their combined wealth, according to Huntington, was $159,000. Neither Congress, the state of California, nor any syndicates of capitalists had put a single penny into the corporation. California’s first and greatest historian, Hubert Howe Bancroft, commented that for so “stupendous and hazardous an enterprise it appears an act of madness or of inspiration…. Many said that those Sacramento merchants who had ventured upon it would sink their personal fortunes in the canyons of the Sierra.”28

Stanford had become the Republican candidate for governor, which was still the chief political concern in California, despite the beginning of the Civil War back east. Judah wrote Strong, “Election and politics so monopolize everything here now that our people have very little time to talk railroad matters…. I am trying to put my little road upon its legs, and it looks rather favorable, but like everything else, can do nothing with it until after the election.”29

On August 7, 1861, Judah was quoted in the Union as saying, “The problem as to crossing the Sierra Nevada has been solved.”30 It had indeed. William Hood, for many years chief engineer of the Central Pacific, declared in 1925, “Were there now no railroad over the Sierra, the Donner Lake Route would still be selected over all others as the best possible route.”31

ON September 4, Stanford won election as governor. Three weeks later, Judah placed before the partners his written report on the results of his months of careful work.

It was a masterpiece. Judah opened by listing the most objectionable features of locating the railroad in the Sierra Nevada: first, the great elevation to be overcome; second, the impracticability of river crossings on account of the deep gorges cut by the rivers; third, that the Sierra possessed two distinct summit ranges to be crossed. But the line he had found ran up the ridge, with maximum grades of but 105 feet to a mile, and with no major canyons or rivers to cross. As for the double summit, he had found a route that entirely avoided the second range. His line ran up the divide between the rivers “from gap to gap” in order to secure the best possible gradients—and was in fact the line followed by the Central Pacific.

He discussed the snow problem and was unduly optimistic—“a Railroad Line, upon this route, can be kept open during the entire year,” even though the snow would constitute a not inconsiderable problem. He thought that eighteen tunnels, mainly through the mountains towering above Donner Lake, would be driven with relative ease, even the longest, at 1,370 feet. The route contained extensive forests of pitch and sugar pine, fir, and abundant quantities of cedar and tamarack, which would make excellent supports for bridge trusses and crossties and provide lumber for buildings. He concluded the report with a list of the maps and profiles attached to the original copy.32

If Huntington, Crocker, Hopkins, Stanford, and the others needed any convincing that Judah knew more about the Sierra Nevada and about railroads than anyone else, his report did it. Judah, meanwhile, spent September mapping his surveys, making profiles, and gathering information for use with the Congress. He was confident he could go to Washington on a ship to get at least some aid. On September 2, he had written Strong, “I think the next Congress will be a favorable one to procure lands from the Government, and perhaps it may be money; but of the latter I do not feel by any means so certain; but the lands [i.e., alternate sections granted by Congress to the railroad for every mile built] do not create any debt, and the feeling towards California ought to be a good one.”33 That last phrase was very much on the mark, for California’s gold and silver—and Nevada’s—were helping pay for the war just started, and there was a fear in Washington, sparked by some loose talk in California, that the state might follow the South and leave the Union.

The directors—one of whom had just been elected governor on a Republican ticket—would have none of secession. Instead, on October 9, well pleased with Judah’s report, they adopted a resolution: “That Mr. T. D. Judah … proceed to Washington, on the steamer of the 11th Oct. inst., as the accredited agent of the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California, for the purpose of procuring appropriations of land and U.S. Bonds from Government, to aid in the construction of this Road.”34

Judah was off. He had with him everything to convince the congressmen, including charming sketches of Donner Pass done by Anna to hang in his railroad museum in the Capitol, not to mention his own intimate and unique knowledge of railroads and the mountains. Best of all, the Deep South congressmen represented states that had left the Union, meaning they had left Congress, which meant that the votes to block any route north for slavery were no longer there. Let them go, Judah must have thought, and good riddance to such bad seeds. A prominent historian of the railroad, Robert Russell of Western Michigan University, puts it as his opinion that because the Southerners were gone “Congress was enabled to enact Pacific railway legislation several years earlier than it otherwise could have done.”35

To add to Judah’s already overflowing pleasure and confidence, a fellow passenger was newly elected Representative Aaron A. Sargent of California. Thus, as Judah explained it, “a good opportunity was afforded for explaining many features of our project not easily understood … which explanations were of great service to us in future operations.” As indeed they were. Judah spent the days during the long voyage showing Sargent his maps, the evenings extolling the benefits of a transcontinental railroad.36 Sargent was convinced and promised his help.

On arrival at New York, Judah worked up a report on the Sierra surveys of which he published a thousand copies. He distributed it, as he said, “among railroad men, where likely to do us most good, sending copies to President Lincoln, the heads of Departments and to our Senators and Representatives in Congress.” And he saw to it that the report was published in the American Railroad Journal.37

Even before Judah arrived in Panama, there was an event of grand importance to the scientific and industrial revolution and for the building of railroads: the first transcontinental telegraph line was opened. By the time Judah reached New York, the glamorous year-and-a-half life of the Pony Express was over.38

BACK on the Pacific Coast, the principals of the Central Pacific—Stanford, Crocker, Huntington, and Hopkins—moved on their own, apparently without Judah’s knowledge, by drawing up on November 27, 1861, articles of association for the Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road Company. Four hundred shares of stock at $1,000 each were issued, with Crocker as president and Hopkins as secretary and treasurer. The owners’ explanation was that the wagon road ran along Judah’s line into Nevada and was to help the Central Pacific cross the mountains. It would be used to transport supplies such as rails in ox- and mule-drawn wagons to construction forces working in advance of the railroad as far away as the eastern slope of the Sierra. But the real object may have been to collect tolls on the road from Nevada miners and California merchants. Three toll gates were established—at Dutch Flat, Polley’s Station, and Donner Lake. Whatever Judah (who had thought of the road first) was able to get out of Washington, these guys were going to get their investment back—and make some money—off the wagon road.39

In Washington, Judah had much to work with, including the fact that he had been in the capital three times already, was well known to the congressmen, had been lobbying for land grants and money, and had convinced most of the non-Southerners. And this time, December 1861, he had with him a detailed engineering plan and supporting data and a bona fide corporation ready to start. And he had the active support of Congress. And the president of the corporation was the incoming Republican governor of California. A few days before the session began, Senator James A. McDougall of California helped Judah draft a bill that followed, in general, the Curtis Bill. Sargent took active charge of it in the House, where it was introduced.

Huntington came to the capital right after Christmas to find Judah discouraged. Although he had his survey maps and Anna’s Sierra paintings on display in his railroad museum, and had shown them and talked to many members of Congress, nothing concrete had happened. The House Select Committee on the Pacific Railroad had not even met.40

INDEED, it was almost impossible, in those first months of the war, to get Congress to concern itself with anything other than raising and equipping the Northern army. The North had lost Fort Sumter on April 12-13, 1861. Lincoln had called for militia to suppress the Rebellion and proclaimed the blockade of Southern ports. On July 21, the North had lost the First Battle of Bull Run. On July 24, Lincoln had replaced General Irvin McDowell with General George B. McClellan. In December, Dakota Territory was formed from parts of Minnesota and Nebraska Territories, along with Nevada Territory from part of Utah Territory.

Despite these events, on January 21, 1862, Sargent—encouraged by Judah and Huntington—took a bold step when, in the midst of debate on another subject, he got the floor and spoke at length on Judah’s work, accomplishments, and estimates, and pointed to the Pacific railroad as a military necessity to the nation. He made all the familiar arguments: the government would save millions of dollars in transporting troops, munitions, and mail; the Western Indians would be quelled; emigration to the coast would speed up; the Great Plains would be developed; trade with Japan and China would jump; California’s loyalty to the Union would be assured; no foreign army would dare attack California.

Judah complained that Sargent spoke before an empty hall, but the speech had its effect. Within a week, the House appointed a special subcommittee of the Pacific Railroad Committee to work on Judah’s bill.41

Judah was an excellent lobbyist. He got an appointment as secretary of the Senate Pacific Railroad Committee (with Senator McDougall as chairman) and as clerk of the subcommittee on the Pacific railroad in the House, where Sargent was a member. The appointments gave Judah what amount to a semiofficial standing before Congress. He had charge of all the committee papers and documents, and, even more surprising and momentous, the privilege of the floor of both Senate and House. Any lobbyist at any time would give his right arm for the privileges Judah had. He held the key position and he used it well.

The debate over the bill in the House was ferocious. At one point in the spring of 1862, Judah had to step in to deal with the grave danger that consideration would be extended until the next session, which probably meant the end of the bill. Much of the debate centered on the amounts of money or land to go to the corporations building the road, or on how to ensure the construction of the middle part of the line by companies that were to start at either end. Judah would give a little here, take a little there, while keeping focused on getting the bill as a whole passed.42 He accepted—knowing vaguely what it would cost—an amendment by Representative Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens, who owned a foundry in Pennsylvania, insisted on a requirement that all rails and other ironwork be of American manufacture. Stevens declared he was for passing the law not because of the iron rails he could sell but because someday the Southerners would return to Congress “with the same arrogant, insolent dictation which we have cringed to for twenty years, forbidding the construction of any road that does not run along our southern border.”43 There were other quibbles—the gauge of the track (to be decided by the President), the grade (no higher than 116 feet to the mile), the curves (none over ten degrees, which eliminated the use of switchbacks and forced the companies to resort to far more expensive tunnels), and more.

• • •

FORTUNATELY for Judah, for the Central Pacific, and for the line running west from the Missouri River, whatever it was to be named, the President took as active an interest as his time allowed. Lincoln made it clear to the congressmen that despite the war he advocated the bill’s passage and the construction of the road, and he wanted it started right away. Grenville Dodge, then serving as a general in the Union Army, said that Lincoln told him and others that the road had to be built “not only as a military necessity, but as a means of holding the Pacific Coast to the Union.”44

On May 6, 1862, one month after General Ulysses Grant won the first victory for the Union at Shiloh—but at a tremendous cost in lives—and after the Union Monitor fought for five hours against the Confederate Merrimac in the first battle ever between ironclad gunboats, and while General George B. McClellan and his army were stuck in the Peninsula of Virginia, the House passed the Pacific Railroad Bill by a vote of 79 to 49.

Two days later, on May 8, Judah called for a meeting of the Senate Pacific Railroad Committee. Once again there were troubles and delays. Representative Justin Morrill of Vermont, who could be farseeing on some matters,* commented sourly that those who were putting up the capital were not interested in building a railroad west from the Missouri River, or in the Central Pacific, if it went farther east than the Nevada silver mines, through uninhabited territories. The railroad, he charged, was interested in grabbing off subsidies at either end. Besides, Morrill grumbled, the nation could hardly afford both guns and railroads. Why not wait until after the war?45

Judah stayed with it. When the war was over—surely not too long now—there would be lots of ex-soldiers looking for work, lots of money from investors seeking profitable ventures, lots of need for the railroad. Robert Russell argues that, because the war had accustomed Congress to appropriations of vast proportions, the bill went through; he adds that it was a matter of pride with many congressmen “to demonstrate that the Union was strong enough to crush rebellion and take measures to insure its future prosperity at the same time.”46

On May 23, 1862, Judah wrote to the editors of the Sacramento Union, “The Pacific Railroad is a fixed fact and you can govern yourselves accordingly.” He added that the bill would come up for a vote “in about 10 days when, should our armies have met with no serious reverses, we may reasonably expect the passage of the Pacific Railroad Bill through the Senate.”47 That same day, Confederate General Stonewall Jackson led eighteen thousand men on an attack at Front Royal in the Valley of Virginia to force the Union forces to retreat to Winchester, where he again struck and routed them on May 25. Jackson then marched north, and suddenly the capital was under threat.

But Jackson was stopped—he had to march toward Richmond because of McClellan’s threat to that city—and the Senate passed the bill on June 20, by a vote of 35 to 5. The House concurred in the Senate amendments a few days later and sent the completed bill forward to the President. Lincoln signed it on July 1, even as Malvern Hill, the last battle of the Seven Days’ Battles in the Peninsula, was being fought, costing McClellan’s army a thousand dead and three thousand wounded and greatly depressing the nation.

THE Pacific Railroad Bill was complicated to an almost incomprehensible degree. It had to be substantially changed two years later, and still was the basis for innumerable lawsuits over the next two decades and eventually the creation of the Populist and the Progressive parties. But its basic outline was what Judah wanted. It called for the creation of a corporation, the Union Pacific (the name being a nice touch in 1862), that would build west from the Missouri River, while the Central Pacific would build east from Sacramento. Capital stock of the UP was to be a hundred thousand shares at $1,000 each, or $100 million. Both roads would have a right of way of two hundred feet on both sides of the road over public lands and would be given five alternate sections (square miles) on each side per mile, or sixty-four hundred acres per mile.*

The railroad corporations would receive financial aid in the form of government bonds at $16,000 per mile for flat land, $32,000 for foothills, and $48,000 per mile for mountainous terrain after they had built forty miles approved by government commissioners. They would also get land for stations, machine shops, sidings, and other necessary structures, as well as whatever they needed in the way of earth, stone, timber, and other available materials for construction.

The corporations could get advance money in the form of 6 percent government bonds. This was a loan, not a gift; the bonds were to constitute a first mortgage on the railroads. The government was loaning its credit, in other words, not its money—the railroads would have to sell the bonds. And pay for them. The contract was that the government should pay the 6 percent interest on the bonds in semiannual payments, but that the whole amount of the loan, principal and interest, should be repaid in thirty years, minus the sum of the value of the services performed for the government during that time in carrying mails, transporting troops, government stores, and so forth.

The Central Pacific was required to complete fifty miles within two years and fifty miles each year thereafter, and the entire road was to be completed by July 1, 1876, under pain of forfeiture.48

That was by no means all of it, but it was enough for Judah to flash the first word to his Sacramento colleagues by the newly established telegraph: “We have drawn the elephant. Now let us see if we can harness him.”

HOW well he had done his work can hardly be imagined today. At the time, forty-four members of the House, seventeen senators, and the secretary of the Senate tried to sum it up. They gave Judah a signed written testimonial of appreciation:

Learning of your anticipated speedy departure for California on Pacific Railroad business, we cannot let this opportunity pass without tendering to you our warmest thanks for your valuable assistance in aiding the passage of the Pacific Railroad bill through Congress.

Your explorations and surveys in the Sierra Nevada Mountains have settled the question of practicability of the line, and enable many members to vote confidently on the great measure, while your indefatigable exertions and intelligent explanations of the practical features of the enterprise have gone very far to aid in its inauguration.49

If any one man made the transcontinental railroad happen, what Horace Greeley called “the grandest and noblest enterprise of our age,” it was Theodore D. Judah.

Henry V. Poor, at the time the editor of the American Railway Journal, said that the North, upon the outbreak of the Civil War, “inferring its powers from its necessities, instinctively and instantly made a bold and masterly stroke for empire as well as for freedom.”50

* This was the first public use of the name Central Pacific.

* He was the sponsor of the Morrill Act, which granted to each loyal state thirty thousand acres for each senator and representative for the purpose of endowing at least one state agriculture college. The “Morrill Land Grant” act made possible the great state universities. It passed on July 2, 1862.

* Far from costing the government anything, the granting of land meant that the alternate sections retained by the government would increase enormously in value as the railroads progressed and finally joined.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!