Theodore “Crazy” Judah

When Theodore Dehone Judah moved from New York to the west coast in the 1850s to take on the role of chief engineer for the Sacramento Valley Railroad, he had his sights set on something massive: the First Transcontinental Railroad. But as Judah would soon learn, folks in California thought a rail over or through the Sierra Nevadas was a pipe dream. Eventually, Judah’s determination to prove them otherwise would earn him the name, “Crazy Judah.”

Though initial attempts for financial support in San Francisco failed, Judah finally won over a group of successful shopkeepers in Sacramento. The Central Pacific Railroad Company of California was born. These initial investors would later come to be known as the Big Four: Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins & Collis Huntington.

Having surveyed a feasible route through the Sierras and now with capital, Judah returned to the east coast and Washington D.C. where he garnered support from the Lincoln Administration for his transcontinental idea. The timing was perfect, as with the Civil War underway, the Union was able to easily pass legislation and fund such a project without conflict from Southern delegates who were now part of the Confederacy. In 1862, the first Pacific Railroad Act was passed.

While the pieces looked to be falling in place, back in Sacramento, Judah became frustrated. The other Central Pacific players were more interested in making a quick buck monopolizing supply lines in and out of Sacramento versus making crucial moves toward seeing the transcontinental railroad closer to fruition. With little patience for the monetary schemes going on, Judah sold out to the others for $100K with the option to at a later date buy each partner out for the same.

In October 1863, Judah and his wife Anna set off for New York City aboard the St. Louis. Judah’s plan was to drum up financial support from more experienced east coast railroad tycoons (like the Vanderbilts), buy out the Big Four, and set about finishing the First Transcontinental Railroad as quickly as possible. But on his way east, while crossing the Isthmus of Panama, Judah contracted yellow fever. Though he did ultimately make it back to New York, Judah died a week later, on November 2, 1863. He was thirty-seven.

Six years later, on May 10, 1869, “the last spike” of the First Transcontinental Railroad was driven into the ground by Leland Stanford in Promontory Summit, Utah.

Next time you ride the N Judah, something to think about.

The Russ House, 1860’s, approx. 235 Montgomery Street in S.F. today…where Theodore and Anna stayed when Judah failed to initially gain capital…destroyed in 1906.

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