Thursday, May 30, 2019

T. D. JUDAH & THE BIG FOUR by Zina Abbott

This is part of an ongoing series about the first Transcontinental Railroad which will be shared on three blogs for which I post, and will eventually all end up on my own Trails & Rails blog.

Although there were many who advocated for a transcontinental railway system starting as early as the 1840’s, one of the earlier promoters of the enterprise was an engineer who dreamed of crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains, one of the steepest, most difficult mountain ranges in the United States. He may be credited with getting the ball rolling in California years before anything substantial had been organized and put into motion in the East.

T. D. Judah promotes a National Railroad and Organizes the Central Pacific.

Theodore D. Judah
Congress was in a gridlock, but the dream of a Transcontinental Railroad lived on through the efforts of private enterprise. In 1854, skilled engineer, Theodore D. Judah, left his secure job in the East and moved to Sacramento, California, to pursue his dream of locating a route over the Sierra Nevada range for a Transcontinental Railroad. He believed that it was “the most magnificent project ever conceived,” and he was obsessed with bringing it to fruition. He took a job as chief engineer for the Sacramento Valley Railroad and, as a result of his skill and engineering, the first railroad west of the Mississippi was operating to the Placer mines in February 1856.

Theodore  Dehone Judah was born in 1826 in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the son of Mary (Reece) and The Rev. Henry Raymond Judah, an Episcopal clergyman. After his family moved to Troy, New York, Judah studied engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

At age 21 Judah married Anne Pierce on May 10, 1847. Theirs was the first wedding in the then new St James Episcopal Church of Greenfield, Massachusetts.

After the Sacramento Valley Railroad, Judah resigned in order to devote full time to realizing his dream. Almost everything he did from then until the day of his death was for the great Continental Pacific Railway, and it was all done at his own expense. Judah knew that only the federal government had the resources to finance such an ambitious venture, and in 1856, he and his wife, Anna, made the first of four trips east to solicit federal support. In 1857, he wrote a pamphlet entitled A Practical Plan for Building the Pacific Railroad and distributed it to every member of Congress. He urged them to donate alternate sections of land to help finance the enterprise. The legislators were unable to reach consensus, and Judah return to California without success.

Although some called him “Crazy Judah,” he did not abandon his dream. On October 28th, 1859, he and Anna sailed to Panama and then continued to cross the Isthmus by land on their third trip to the East. On December 6th, Judah held an interview with President James Buchanan. The president was in favor of the Pacific Railroad, but Congress was still not behind the project. Theodore and Anna had brought charts, maps, ore samples, and fossils that had been gathered on their Sierra expeditions. With these, they opened a Pacific Railway Museum on Capitol Hill. However, the legislators doubted that a railroad could ever cross the formidable Sierra.

As the chief engineer of the Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR), Judah surveyed the route over the Sierra Nevada along which the railroad was to be built during the 1860s. Failing to raise funds for the project in San Francisco, he succeeded in signing up four Sacramento merchants, known as the "Big Four."

The Big Four

The Big Four of the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California: Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins

"The Big Four" was the name popularly given to the famous and influential businessmen, philanthropists and railroad tycoons who built the Central Pacific Railroad, (C.P.R.R.), which formed the western portion through the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. Composed of Leland Stanford, (1824–1893), Collis Potter Huntington, (1821–1900), Mark Hopkins (1813–1878), and Charles Crocker, (1822–1888), the four themselves personally preferred to be known as "The Associates." With T. D. Judah as their primary motivator and chief engineer, they managed financing and construction of the CPRR.

Realizing that they needed more detailed information to sway Congress to their cause, Theodore and Anna returned to California. Under Judah's direction, four parties of engineers went into the Sierra early in 1861 to survey an exact route over the mountains. Part of the road followed the old Donner Trail and continued over Donner Pass. Judah used the surveyors’ reports to solicit local funding for the incorporation of the Central Pacific Railroad of California. He interested the “Big Four,” Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker in the project. In April 1861, against the advice of friends, the four partners threw their entire resources and personal credit into the Central Pacific.

Leland Stanford, with a law degree and his new bride, Jane, had followed his adventurous inclinations to the West and settled in California in 1852. There he became a dealer in groceries and provisions. Today he is known for Stanford University, which was named for his son, Leland Stanford, Jr. Collis P. Huntington and Mark Hopkins were partners in a large and thriving hardware business in Sacramento. Huntington ultimately bore the responsibility of obtaining financing. He is known today for the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. Charles Crocker and his brother, Edward, were prosperous dry goods merchants. The Crocker National Bank of San Francisco is part of their legacy.

For the Central Pacific Railroad, Stanford was president; Huntington, vice president; Hopkins, treasurer; Judah, chief engineer; and Crocker, general superintendent of construction. Free enterprise had provided start-up funds for the fledgling company, but the railroad could not be built without land grants and subsidies from the federal government.

Charles Nordhoff

Charles Nordhoff wrote a handbook in 1882 titled California—for Health, Pleasure and Residence—a handbook for travelers and settlers. This history originally appeared in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1872. He used the wordy and effusive language style of the day, but offered some interesting insights into the formation and operation of the Central Pacific Railroad:

The story of the building of the Central Pacific Railroad is one of the most remarkable examples of the dauntless spirit of American enterprise. The men who built it were merchants, who probably knew no more about building railroads, when they had past middle age and attained a respectable commence competence by trade, than a Colusa Pike knows about Greek. Huntington and Hopkins were hardware merchants. Stanford was at one time or a wholesale dealer in groceries, the later governor of the state; the two Crockers were dry goods men. These five, all at or past middle age, all living in Sacramento, then an insignificant interior town of California, believing in each other, believing that the railroad must be built, and finding no one else ready to undertake it, put their hands and heads and their means to the great work, and carried it through.

Mr. Nordhoff considered there to be five men, as he included Edward Crocker, brother to Charles, who was co-owner of the family retail business. Evidently, Edward minded the store while Charles was the one mostly involved with the railroad venture. Charles Nordhoff, again:

Moreover, you are to remember that these five Sacramento merchants, who undertook to build a railroad through eight hundred miles of an almost uninhabited country, over mountains and across an alkali desert, were totally unknown to the great money world; that their project was pronounced impractical by engineers of reputation testifying before legislative committees; that it was opposed and ridiculed at every step by the moneyed men of San Francisco; that even in their own neighborhood they were thought sure to fail; and a “Dutch Flat Swindle,” as their project was called, was caricatured, written down in pamphlets, abused in newspapers, spoken against by politicians, denounced by capitalist, and for a long time held in such ill repute that it was more than a banker's character for prudence was worth to connect himself with it, even by subscribing for its stock.

Everybody knows what is the common fate in this country of railroad projectors. A few sanguine and public-spirited men procure a charter, make up a company, subscribe for the stock, drag all their friends in, get the preliminary surveys made, begin the work—and then break down; and two or three capitalist, who have been quietly waiting for this foreseen conclusion-- foreseen by them, I mean—thereupon step in, buy the valuable wreck for a song, and build and run and own the road. This is a business in itself. Dozens of men have made millions apiece by this process, which is perfectly legitimate; for, as the French say, in order to succeed you must be successful; or, as we say in this country, to the victors belong the spoils.

The “Big Four” refused to be caught in that trap. They were businessmen who had built up their wealth using sound fiscal management. They were not playing at building a railroad for the glory and prestige; they understood the importance of having a means of transporting people and goods across the country for the sake of building up California and the businesses in that state. However, they, along with Judah, realized they needed government backing for a project of that size.

Eventually, T. D. Judah and the Big Four of California received enough of what they needed to get the project started. Mr. Nordhoff again:

Theodore Judah monument, Sacramento
Now the projectors of the Central Pacific Railroad completed it, and today control and manage it; they did not let it slip out of their fingers; and, what is more, being only merchants, totally inexperienced in the railroad building and railroad managing, they did their work so well that, in the opinion of the best engineers, their road is today one of the most thoroughly built and equipped and best managed in the United States. Their bonds sell in Europe but little if any below United States government bonds, and their credit as a company, in London, Frankfurt, and Paris, is as high as that of the government itself.

Unfortunately, Theodore Judah lived only long enough to see construction begin on the railroad to which he had been so devoted. He contracted malaria while crossing the Isthmus of Panama while traveling to New York to seek alternative financing to buy out the Big Four investors. He died in New York City on November 2, 1863. Anna took his body back to Greenfield, Massachusetts, where he was buried in the Pierce family plot in the Federal Street Cemetery.

Although it does not involve the Transcontinental Railroad directly, the nearest Transcontinental Railroad rail connection to the locality in the series, The Widows of Wildcat Ridge, is in Evanston, Wyoming. My book, Diantha, is now available on Amazon in both ebook format and print. Please CLICK HERE to access the book description and purchase link.

Museum Memories, Volume 1 (Salt Lake City, Utah: International Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 2009), Pgs. 398-401.
Southern Pacific First Century (San Francisco: Southern Pacific Public Relations Department, 1955) 3-8; Ambrose, Nothing Like It, 42 - 62.

Nordhoff, Charles, The Central Pacific Railroad, (Silverthorne, Colorado: Vista Books, 2008) originally published in 1882 by Charles Nordhoff.



  1. This is so very interesting! Thank you for sharing. :) God Bless you.

  2. What a great article. The above mentioned books are so good! But I've already read them ... Write some more!

  3. I thought I knew a lot about building the transcontinental railroad but you have expanded my understanding, especially about Theodore and Anna Judah's contributions. Many thanks, Zina!

  4. Really interesting article! We here at RPI are proud of both Theodore Judah and Edwin Crocker!


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