1863: The Passing of a Central Figure in U.S. Railroad History

November 2, 1863

Civil engineer Theodore Judah, whose vision and technical expertise helped bring about one of the most significant railroad accomplishments in American history, died of yellow fever at the age of 37 in New York City. He most likely contracted the viral disease in Panama while he and his wife Anne were en route from California to New York City.

After he had studied engineering at what is now the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, Judah began his career working on several railroads in the northeastern United States. He eventually became chief engineer of the California-based Sacramento Valley Railroad. It was during his time with this enterprise that Judah first became fully focused on building a major railroad that could serve as a transit link between the Pacific coast and the eastern part of the country.

In assessing the best possible route for that railroad, Judah seized upon the idea of creating a passage for those trains through the large portion of the Sierra Nevada range within California — something that many others saw as unrealistic due to the steep and rugged terrain of the mountains there. Judah forged ahead with his ambitions for that railroad and, throughout the 1850s and into the following decade, his advocacy efforts proved successful.

Judah became chief engineer of the Central Pacific Railroad, which was established to complete that route to California. He was instrumental in enlisting Sacramento merchants Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker to help fund and build the route; securing passage of the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act authorizing government bonds and land grants for the construction work; and coming up with a feasible way to allow trains to travel through California’s Sierra Nevada region.

While Judah died nearly five-and-a-half years before the First Transcontinental Railroad was officially opened, he had played a pivotal role in making that wide-ranging and consequential transportation network entirely possible.

Photo Credit: Public Domain

For more information on Theodore Jonah, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodore_Judah

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