The Pioneers: Theodore Judah

Theodore Dehone Judah was the brilliant engineer and visionary who convinced a group of merchants, and the United States Congress, that it was possible to build a railroad across the razorback spine of the Sierra Nevada. His dream was the 19th century equivalent of today’s Space Program. Born in 1826 in Connecticut, the young genius graduated from (today’s) Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute at age 13. Judah had already superintended the construction of the Erie Canal and engineered New York’s Niagara Gorge Railroad when he arrived in California in 1854 to build the Sacramento Valley Railroad.  By 1856, Judah was doing a barometric survey of the Sierra. Though convinced his plan was feasible, others dubbed him “Crazy Judah” for his seemingly impossible project. After many setbacks, the Central Pacific Railroad at last headed east from Sacramento in 1863, to join the west-bound Union Pacific tracks at Promontory, Utah. America’s first transcontinental rail road was completed in May 1869, the manifestation of Judah’s vision, but he didn’t live to see it. He contracted yellow fever and died in New York on November 2, 1863, aged 37.