Theodore Judah: Engineering Visionary for the Transcontinental Railroad

Mount Judah looking west to Lake Van Norden. | Greg Zirbel

Theodore Judah had some strange ideas. He wanted to build a railroad across the continent. People knew it could not be done. The grades would be too steep. The mountains couldn’t be crossed. Not only did he want to build the railroad, he wanted to start the western portion in California, 3,000 miles from the materials needed. Everything — locomotives, track, spikes, rail cars — would have to be shipped around Cape Horn. Judah thought the railroad could cross the Sierra, the hardest part of the journey for emigrant wagon trains. San Francisco financiers laughed at him. People thought it couldn’t be done calling him Crazy Judah. 

A transcontinental railroad had been thought about by many people as early as the early 1800s, but Theodore Judah, for whom Mount Judah on Donner Summit is named, and Doc Strong of Dutch Flat got the ball rolling. Judah had come to California to work on one railroad, but his dream was a transcontinental railroad.  

It was Judah who laid out the transcontinental route through Donner Pass. He had explored six possible routes but settled on the one over Donner Pass. It was the least difficult but still it would take 15 tunnels, carved through the Sierra granite. There were people who thought it was impossible. They thought railroads could not go up hill, that there would be no traction and Donner Pass was 7,000 feet high.  

To maintain the even grade, Judah laid out the 15 tunnels on the route. Tunnel 6 was the most ambitious. It was an amazing feat of 19th Century engineering. It had a curving slope and went through 1,659 feet of solid granite, one of the hardest natural materials. 

Something that grand had never been done before in the United States. 

Mount Judah from Roller Pass with a view of Donner Lake. | Greg Zirbel

The design of the route was maybe the easy part. It also took planning, wheeling, dealing and cajoling; overcoming opposition; finding and wooing investors; breaking with conventional wisdom; multiple survey trips; arguments and convincing Congress. He fought active opposition from other railroad interests, the ice company, stage companies, freight haulers and riverboat interests. In 1862, Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act authorizing the railroad. Judah did it all to get his transcontinental railroad started. 

Judah never got to see the completion of his vision. He had a falling out with the investors — Collis P. Huntington, ﷟HYPERLINK “https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/social-sciences-and-law/business-leaders/leland-stanford”Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker, who would later form Central Pacific Railroad — and headed to New York to find new investors. He died of typhoid fever in 1863 just after arriving in New York, the year construction started.  

In 1869, the railroad was completed using the route Judah had surveyed. Travelers could cross the country at the unheard of speed of 25 mph. Where the wagon trains had taken four to five months and stagecoaches 25 days, railroad passengers could cross the country in 10 days. 

Judah’s route was brilliant; he took advantage of the Sierra geography. Typically railroads went through river valleys but he took advantage of the ridges. When the Sierra was uplifted millions of years ago, the mountains hinged upward from the California side so the rise was gentle from Sacramento to Donner Summit. Faults on the eastern side ruptured as the Sierra rose so that the eastern side is steep — precipitous in spots. Look at the Sierra from the east and you see high, sharp, jagged Sierra peaks. From the west, it’s rolling hills going off into the distance. The railroad route followed the easy incline of the Sierra from the west to the summit.  

Then there was the job of getting back down 1,000 feet to Donner Lake. Judah took advantage of the gentle incline on the west and then wound the route around and through mountains to get down to Donner Lake. Along the way, hilltops had to be removed, bridges built and ravines filled. The hardest of the crossing part was the 15 tunnels though solid Sierra granite that had to be blasted through. At the very top, Tunnel 6 required extra effort. The tunnel had to be blasted through 1,659 feet of granite. It took two years. Chinese workers worked six days a week, three shifts a day. They only made progress of inches a day. 

Judah’s name should have been mentioned with that of the investors. Judah was the promoter of the entire plan to link the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic with a railroad. He was the chief civil engineer, the genius and trailblazer who chose and surveyed the 800-mile route up and over the Sierra and into Nevada.  

For a list of summer activities that celebrate the sesquicentennial of the Transcontinental Railroad, visit goldspike.org or Donner Summit-Truckee Golden Spike Celebration on Facebook. 

By Bill Oudegeest 

 Bill Oudegeest has had a house on Donner Summit for more than 40 years. He is a retired public school teacher and administrator and one of the founders of the Donner Summit Historical Society. He writes and edits the Donner Summit Heirloom, has published two books on local history, written a variety of pamphlets and exhibits, leads hikes and more.