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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 7

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Great Iron Trail

Robert West Howard

G. P. Putnam's Sons
New York, 1962

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 9
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p98  Chapter VIII
"Crazy" Judah

How beautiful to think of lean tough Yankee settlers tough as gutta percha, with most occult unsubduable fire in their belly, steering over the Western Mountains to annihilate the jungle, and bring bacon and corn out of it for the posterity of Adam. . . . Thomas Carlyle (1849).

"He had always talked, read and studied the problem of the railway to the Pacific," Anna Judah later reminisced. "He would say, 'It is going to be built and I'm going to have something to do with it.' " This faith, asserted in the cottage overlooking the Niagara gorge, was compounded by the time the Judahs reached Sacramento in mid-May, 1854.

They sailed from New York in early April on one of Cornelius Vanderbilt's new ships. The icy blue eyes of the Staten Island ferryboat king — he still signed his name Van Derbilt​a — had observed that the Lake of Nicaragua empties into the Atlantic via the San Juan River. A road from the lake's west shore required only twelve miles of grading to loop down to the Pacific's beach. Vanderbilt ordered his bankers to transfer some of his ferry and Hudson River steamboat profits into a Nicaragua route fund. He negotiated a lease with the Nicaragua government and built a road, pleasantly surfaced with  p99 McAdam's composition, from Virgin Bay over the Cordillera. The trip via Nicaragua saved two days on the New York-San Francisco run via Panama. Vanderbilt's rates were lower than the United States Mail Line's. His boats were new, with better staterooms and meals.

Still the trip took five to six weeks, barring hurricanes and gales in the Atlantic, tropical floods in the San Juan River, mud or rock slides in the Cordillera, monsoons and fog on the Pacific sail. Ever present, too, was the likelihood of tropical disease, especially the mysterious and deadly yellow fever. Nevertheless, every cabin was filled and the holds were stacked with the ironware, yard goods, flour, and other commodities needed by the Californians. Judah introduced himself to the ship's officers as "the engineer engaged to build California's first railroad," and soon had the run of the ship. Prowling from boiler room to crow's-nest, his amiability enabled him to launch discussions with anyone from a cabin boy to a seasick missionary.

Continental maps were an old passion of Judah's. On the Pacific Mail run north past Acapulco and the misty fangs of the Baja California Sierras, Judah unrolled his topographic charts to restudy San Francisco's Bay, the twisting ship route to Sacramento, and the dappled black lines that marked the Sierra Nevada. San Francisco, he mused, had topographic parallels with New York City. Its throughway to the interior, comparable to the Hudson-Mohawk throughway, was the great bay fed by the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. The bay, roughly parallel with the Pacific shore, runs southeast by northwest to form a harbor 50 miles long and up to 10 miles wide. The city lies on the southern slopes of the Golden Gate, the bay's only channel. Thus any railroad from the east must swing across the California desert and Santa Lucia Range, then come up the peninsula from the south; or it must dead-end across the bay at the village of Oakland.

A bird, he mused, need fly only 75 miles from San Francisco to Sacramento. But steamboats, twisting through the  p100 estuary at the North end of the Bay, then dodging sand bars up the Sacramento River channel, groaned and shivered for twelve hours and traveled 150 miles. A railroad from the Bay to Sacramento could almost match the birdline.

East of Sacramento the Sierra Nevada leaped toward the sky. Sacramento was only 50 feet above sea level. East for another 10 miles the American River Valley crossed a gentle plain with a rise of only about 100 feet. The 1,000‑foot elevation lay 30 to 35 miles east of Sacramento. But over the next 60 miles the Sierra soared its coastal wall to peaks the Army's engineers estimated as 11,000 and 12,000 feet high. The descent to the 4,250‑foot average of the Nevada and Utah high plain was almost as much of a toboggan. Yet, it was less than 200 miles from Sacramento to the Nevada desert. That was the great challenge: To find a rail route through the Sierra's Gargantuan wall. The grade across Nevada and Utah to the Wasatch seemed to be child's play.

Judah's eagerness to finally see and gauge the Sierra Nevada made him as restless as a saddled colt when they crossed the gangplank to the Sacramento wharf. Several of the backers of the Sacramento Valley Railroad were waiting. Colonel Wilson made the introductions. Most of them were New Englanders or New Yorkers who had been to Greenfield and Troy too.

Judah beamed shamelessly during luncheon when one of the stockholders suggested that it might be helpful to promotion if some estimate could be obtained of potential traffic over the route. Splendid idea, the engineer agreed; it could be secured during the preliminary survey. If the directors wished to place a half-dozen men at his disposal he would begin both the traffic count and the survey the next day.

The first division of the Sacramento Valley Railroad would operate only 21 miles up the American River to Folsom. The best that could be said for it was that it would save wagon trains a day's haul from the steamboat wharves. The real challenge was the Sierra Nevada, hulking 20 miles beyond Folsom. Judah took a wandering route to Folsom, zigzagging between  p101 the roads to Placerville, Grass Valley, and other mining centers of the Mother Lode. He ordered a man out at each road intersection and told him to camp there for a week to count each wagon that passed and make an estimate of its load. He left the rest of the crew at Folsom, then cantered east toward the mountains. At sunset he stood on a rise behind Placerville. In 1894, John Muir recorded the emotions experienced by Judah and other sensitive pioneers in that first sunset view of the Pacific's guardian range: "From the eastern boundary of this vast golden flowerbed rose the mighty Sierra, miles in height and sp gloriously colored and so radiant, it seemed not clothed with light, but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city . . . It seemed to me that the Sierra should be called, not the Nevada or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light."

The Sierra Nevada became Judah's Range of Light too. He was, by birth and conviction, a Northerner and a devout Episcopalian. He perceived the utter impossibility of human "equality." Heredity and environment both denied that, and would keep on denying it. But freedom and equal rights to improve both individual and community Council Bluffs were human birthrights. A Pacific railroad, as a technologic instrument that bound the Union to its Pacific states and territories, was a vital step toward the achievement of freedom and equality of opportunity. The railway, then, was a project in ethical goals as well as military expediency and the economic realization of Northwest Passage. As such, it must run through the freemen's territory of the North, rather than through the lands of the slavers.

The survey for the Sacramento Valley Railroad was a pleasure after that first view of the Sierra. The tallies of the crossroads scouts totted up heavier traffic to the mines than the directors had anticipated. The explanation was simple. Most of the $200,000,000 worth of gold taken out of the creek beds and sand bars since 1848 had been mined by hand operations. A prospector could hike toward the mountains with a  p102 shovel, pick and tin pan, then set to work at the first spot that appealed to him. By 1854 most of this "placer" treasure had been recovered. California's gold mines settled into the prosaic, and expensive, routines of washing down dirt banks with high-pressure water jets, or rock-mining the ore by the techniques used in lead and coal mines. Both hydraulic mining and quartz mining required heavy equipment. The railroad could do a splendid job of filling this demand.

On May 28, 1854 — the day Grenville Dodge married Anne Brown in Danvers, Massachusetts — Judah began the final draft of his survey report. The report was approved. The house-to‑house and meeting-to‑meeting chores of stock sales began. Decision was reached to engage the New York firm of Robinson, Seymour & Company to do the construction work and provide the rails, locomotives and cars. This was not too surprising. The Seymour in the firm was Governor Horatio Seymour's brother Silas — the engineer who had recommended Judah to Colonel Wilson.

The final surveys began in midsummer. The Judahs rode east out of camp almost every weekend to picnic on the Sierra slopes, hike up gullies, and take endless measurements of the terrain. Hopefully, Judah pushed the survey a few miles beyond Folsom to the settlement of Mormon Bar. It would be ready and waiting, he reasoned, when the day came to build the Pacific Railway.

A locomotive and 400 tons of rail were finally eased onto a Sacramento wharf after a 130‑day sail around Cape Horn. (The clipper Northern Light set the all-time record that spring with a trip of 76 days and 6 hours from the San Francisco wharf to Boston Light.) On August 19, 1855, the locomotive L. L. Robinson, an eight-wheeler grossing twenty tons, hauled two flatcars loaded with stockholders and their families from Sacramento to Folsom. The Sacramento Union published a lavish report. San Francisco papers echoed. Business was brisk the first few weeks; families waiting in line agreed on the alibi: "We want our youngsters to have a ride on the thing." But the  p103 directors shook their heads against the notion of further construction "for the time being." There was a whopping debt of $700,000 to be paid off to Robinson, Seymour & Company. And Wells Fargo, having already lowered its wagon rates on direct hauls to the mines, now threatened to boycott hauls out of Folsom.

[image ALT: An old locomotive pulling just one boxcar; it is actually stopped, although the large turnip-shaped smokestack at the front, to our left, is spewing smoke. Two men stand by its side, and one stands at the front of the car just behind the locomotive's engineer cab. It is the 'L. L. Robinson', a mid‑19c locomotive.]

The L. L. Robinson, the first steam locomotive on the Pacific Coast, was used by the Sacramento Valley Railroad. The man standing in front of the tender in the gray top hat is Ted Judah, then Chief Engineer of the line.

A larger version (0.3 MB) is also available.

Judah's work was done. He had been hired as chief engineer for the construction of California's first railroad. The job was finished. The logical thing to do would be to go back East and sign on with one of the railroads building across the prairie. Jobs were available there for a man with his experience.

But Theodore Judah had fallen in love with the Sierra. Somehow, sometime, he knew that the first Pacific railroad would cross that Range of Light between Sacramento and Salt Lake. There would not be the three Pacific railroads proposed by Senator Gwin in the bill just passed by the Senate (but never let out of committee by the House). The first iron Northwest Passage would run down one of those ridges, send side spurs out to the Mother Lode, then sprint across the seventy-five miles of flatland to San Francisco Harbor. Sacramento had just succeeded Monterey as California's capital city. The San Joaquin Valley was already abawl with cattle; and wheat, fruit and dairy farmers were pushing in fast. Coal and copper deposits, kaolin clay pits, jet-black venation marbles, dolomite limestone, soapstone and scores of other minerals lay back in those mountains waiting for railroads to furnish bulk transport to markets. The Pacific slopes for a thousand miles gloried in forests of fir and redwood. Judah echoed Brigham Young: This is the place.

A few surveying jobs straggled in. But the stage lines, steamboats and bullwhackers were established, had credit at the banks, and fought shrewdly to retain their monopoly. ("Railroads are, of course, most desirable projects. But, public projects, young man! A matter for the Government.") He did find backing for the survey of a line from Sacramento to San Francisco Bay, and — some allege — for another line from San  p104 Francisco down the coast to San Jose. These more than paid his living costs. Between assignments he sought interviews with legislators to urge state action on "the Great Pacific Railroad," or disappeared into the Sierras for weeks at a time — transit, barometer​b and gauges wrapped in chamois bundles and strapped to the lead mule's back.

In the fall of 1856 he and Anna stored their few possessions and sailed back to New York. The records are scant. Anna went home to Greenfield to visit her parents. Judah took the train to Washington. There is the little pamphlet titled "A Practical Plan for Building the Pacific Railroad" and signed by T. D. Judah, Civil Engineer, San Francisco. It was published in Washington on January 1, 1857, and advocates that the railroad should be built by private enterprise without government aid. "The General Government," Judah wrote, "is a house divided against itself; it cannot be done until the route is defined." He pleaded for a survey "on one selected route," estimating it would cost $200,000. The final railroad, he believed, would cost an average of $75,000 per mile, a total of $150,000,000 from the Mississippi to the Pacific.

It was a gallant try but never got as far as a committee. Senator Gwin was still committed to the compromise of three Federal routes, to be named Northern Pacific, Central Pacific and Southern Pacific. No Congressman would lend his name to Judah's idea. By the summer of 1857 the Judahs were back in San Francisco again. The pattern resumed. The engineer drummed up enough odd jobs to pay the bills, then channeled the rest of his energy into speeches and interviews about "The Great Pacific Railroad." It became a simple, obvious reaction, whenever the subject came up at an Odd Fellows' meeting or a business luncheon to ask, "D'you know that crazy engineer Judah?"

The editors of the Sacramento Union proved a godsend. They had taken a liking to Judah during the survey for the Sacramento Valley Line. Time after time through the Buchanan Panic of 1857‑58, Judah was lifted from gloom by  p105 editorials that urged "action about the railway," and by casual column mention that "we have just talked with Theodore Judah about plans for the Pacific Railway. This amiable engineer believes . . ."

The Union carried occasional advertisements, too, for "Fresh lots of the best merchandise" at Huntington & Hopkins' large brick store on K Street, the "Complete Mining Supplies" at Stanford Brothers Wholesale & Retail Groceries, and the "Wonderful new patterns in calico and dimity" at Crocker Brothers. During 1855, alongside a report of progress on the Sacramento Valley Line, the Union announced the return of Mr. Leland Stanford of Stanford Brothers from New York State with his lovely wife Jane, and their decision to build a permanent home "in our city." The next year, while the Judahs were packing for the trip East, the Union announced the elections of Leland Stanford and Mark Hopkins as city aldermen, and commented on the prominence of both in the new state organization of the Republican Party. During 1857, Leland Stanford paid for several modest advertisements proclaiming his virtues as the Republican candidate for state treasurer. Mr. Charles Crocker also scribbled some text about his qualifications as the Republican choice for assemblyman. The Union duly reported, with regrets, that both candidates were defeated.

There are no records of meetings between Stanford, Crocker, Hopkins, Huntington and Judah before 1860, despite the Republicans' 1856 campaign slogan of "Freedom, Frémont and the Railroad" and the Union's continuing promotion of both Pacific Railway and Judah. Through the winter of 1858, Judah returned to Sacramento as a one-man lobby arguing for an official state-sanctioned convention that would consider plans — then prepare "memorials" for Congress — for the Pacific Railroad. California, he argued, was the western terminal for most of the routes being proposed to Congress. Therefore California should summarize her views on the railroad, decide which route it preferred, and thus possibly break the vicious deadlock between the Slavers and Freemen. The new Butterfield Stage  p106 route, he pointed out, had been assigned to an all-Slaver route by the Buchanan Administration. What would happen to its United States mails — especially if addressed to known Abolitionists? Furthermore, the coaches' 25 to 30 days for the run from St. Louis to El Paso, Los Angeles and San Francisco was little improvement over the Nicaragua and Panama routes.

Perhaps some of the assemblymen who voted Aye on the proposal to call a State convention on the Pacific Railroad were adopting the simplest method to "get shed of that Crazy Judah." However, on April 5, 1859, the resolution passed. Anna worked all spring and summer assembling Theodore's notes and clippings into tables of statistics that would prove, in a two-minute perusal, the advantages of the California-Mormon Trail route over all others. Back east at Latin School she had shown a flair for painting, so usually took a sketchbook or oils and easel along on the expeditions into the mountains. She packed some of her mountain scenes with the other materials for the convention. What was it that the Union's editor had said? "A picture has a clearer voice than a headline!" Something like that.

The convention opened in San Francisco on September 20. More than a hundred delegates registered as official representatives from the assembly districts. Some were obvious stooges for the coach, freighter and steamboat lines, determined to scuttle all Pacific railroad proposals with sighs about "illogical thinking" or "a matter for Federal action." Yet Anna, after a day of seemingly inane chatting, reported that the majority favored the California-Mormon Trail route and were willing to back it in a floor vote.

She was right. The motion to formally approve the "Central route" won through. On October 11 the convention appointed Judah its accredited agent to carry its "memorial" to Congress. It just might be a good idea, some of the members advised, if the Judahs could book passage on the Sonora. She was scheduled to sail on the 20th. J. C. Burch, the new California Congressman,  p107 would be aboard. This would be Burch's first session. He might be looking for a nice hobbyhorse to ride.

John Burch proved to be intelligent and objective. Reminiscing years later on the shipboard meeting and the friendship that cemented during the five weeks' journey, he said: "Our introduction was immediately followed by a statement to me in detail of the objects and purposes of his mission . . . No day passed on the voyage to New York 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."

Senator Lane of Oregon was aboard, too, and occasionally entered into the discussions. He was bound, of course, to be cautious. His constituents favored Senator Gwin's compromise plan, since it included a Northern Pacific Railroad from St. Paul to Portland. Both he and Burch were intrigued, nonetheless, by an idea Anna shyly advanced one dinnertime. "Would there be any advantage," she asked with studied innocence, "in establishing a Pacific Railway Exhibit on Capitol Hill?" She had packed the charts used at the convention, as well as samples of ore, minerals and fossils she and Ted had picked up on their Sierra expeditions. Also, she had her sketchbook and a few paintings so that Greenfield relatives and friends might sense the majesty of Eastern California.

Ted gulped, then reached under the tablecloth to pat her hand. Senator Lane's eyebrows were up. His head was nodding agreement. Burch was saying, "Splendid idea." Thus in December, Judah secured an audience with John A. Logan, the Illinois Congressman who headed the House Committee on Contingent Expenses. Again the engineer displayed his mastery of the problem. Logan assigned Judah the use of a room in the Capitol for the Pacific Railway Museum. There during the tense weeks of John Brown's trial in nearby Charles Town, Virginia, and the glowering debates over Hinton Helper's book, The Impending Crisis in the South, hundreds of Congressman, lobbyists and government clerks visited the display of charts,  p108 sketches, mineral and fossils — then argued the merits of Pacific railroad routes with the suave, brown-eyed custodian.

During the Christmas holidays, while John Brown's final challenge, "You are guilty of a great wrong against God and humanity," echoed in thunderous editorials throughout the North, Judah rejoined Anna in Greenfield for a few days then headed West. Again details are scant. There is evidence that he traveled as far as Chicago and visited officials of the Rock Island and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy railroads to discuss their plans for surveys west of St. Joseph and Council Bluffs. Here Judah could logically have heard rumors of the most exciting development yet for the California-Mormon Trail.

The whisper was out that a Pony Express service was being organized for weekly deliveries of mail and dispatches between St. Joseph and Sacramento. It was a foolhardy venture, railroad officials felt. Russell, Majors & Waddell had lost a fortune when the Mormons burned the Utah Expeditionary Force wagon trains in 1857, and had never been able to get a nickel of it back from Congress. The next year Russell borrowed heavily to establish a Leavenworth & Pikes Peak stage line. All in all, this Pony Express seemed a desperate last gamble to win a United States mail contract and save the firm from bankruptcy. Nevertheless, it bid to be a daredevil display that should win newspaper headlines. The Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad was backing it to the hilt. Why not? They'd like to carry United States mail for the Pacific too!

On April 4, 1860, Judah sat gloomily at his Washington desk in the Pacific Railway Museum. Repeat and repeat. Burch had introduced a bill for a Central Pacific survey in the House. Senator Gwin, still wondering whether to plunk with the Slaver or Compromise blocs in the Democratic party, had recompromised his bill in the Senate and included an appropriation for surveys. But both measures were tabled in committee for "consideration next session." This was another election year.

Judah glanced at a morning newspaper and saw the headline  p109 Pony Express Starts. Ten days? He pulled the paper across the desk and began reading. The first run had set out from St. Joseph just before sunset on the 3rd. Another was scheduled to leave San Francisco at the same hour. Charles Russell, president of the firm, the report rumored, had placed a large wager that the dispatches carried on those initial runs would be delivered in San Francisco and St. Joseph, respectively, within 10 days. The relay stations linked across Kansas and a corner of Colorado to South Pass followed the Mormon Trail into Salt Lake, then headed arrow true toward Fort Carson, Lake Tahoe and the American River Gorge into Placerville.

April 14th's papers were jubilant. The eastbound run of the Pony Express reached St. Joseph five minutes before the expiration of the 10 days. The rider, an ex-jockey named John Fry, had heard that the Sierra relays bucked blizzards and deep drifts most of the way from Placerville to the Nevada line. There it was! Mail from California in 10 days. And via the California-Mormon Trail.

Judah folded the paper carefully, locked the Museum door, and walked down the hall to John Burch's office. He and Burch studied the Sierra Nevada maps again. A few days later in Greenfield, Anna received a letter, laughed, and began packing. The time was ripe, Theodore explained when he reached Greenfield. Every newspaper in the country was featuring Dispatches by Pony Express. The Central route and the gallantry of those blue-and‑red clad horsemen were causing almost as much comment as the Democratic convention's split. Now was the time to determine a railroad route through the Shining Mountains and begin the struggle to actually incorporate a Central Pacific railroad.

Thayer's Notes:

a For an example of his signature, see the illustration in Harlow, The Road of the Century, p292.

b For the barometric determination of altitudes; the details of the (theoretically straightforward) procedure can be found in Florian Cajori, "History of Determinations of the Heights of Mountains".

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