Theodore Dehone Judah was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut on March 4, 1826. The family moved to Troy, New York, soon after his birth. His father, an Episcopal Minister, died while Theodore was a youngster and he was raised by his mother. He attended a local technical school and, upon graduation, went to work on a railroad being built from Troy to Schenectady. Following that first exposure to railroads he worked on a long series of railroad and canal construction jobs in Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. In 1848 he helped plan and build the Niagra Gorge Railroad.
In 1854 he was overseeing construction of a segment of the Erie Canal when he was offered the position of chief engineer for a planned railroad in California. Judah and his wife, Anna, traveled by ship from New York to Nicaragua, crossed to the Pacific and caught a Pacific Mail steamer to San Francisco. From San Francisco they traveled by riverboat to Sacramento arriving in the middle of May 1854. The Sacramento Valley Railroad was to run from Sacramento, the new capital of California, twenty-one miles to the edge of the gold fields in the foothills of the Sierras. Judah's initial survey work was completed by the end of the month and grading work started in February 1855. This first railroad to be built on the Pacific Coast was completed in February 1856 and the town of Folsom was established at its eastern terminus. After completing the Sacramento Valley line, Judah worked on a number of other proposed transportation projects in California but none got beyond the conceptual stage.
In September 1859 the Pacific Railroad Convention was held in San Francisco. Judah attended as a delegate from Sacramento. California desired the construction of a transcontinental railroad to remedy transportation problems between the new state and the rest of the Union. The convention initiated a set of recommendations for federal assistance and gave Judah the task of presenting them to Congress. He left San Francisco in October 1859 and quickly established himself in Washington. With the assistance of Congressman John A. Logan of Illinois he set up what came to be known as the Pacific Railroad Museum in an office in the Capitol. He did a great deal of basic education among the members but was unable to get a railroad bill through Congress. The issue of slavery dominated Congress and consideration of the transcontinental railroad was postponed.
On his return to California Judah went into the Sierras in search of a viable route for a railroad to cross. Once satisfied that the crossing was feasible he wrote up the Articles of Association of the Central Pacific Railroad of California and began attempting to raise the capital necessary to finance it. His initial efforts in Dutch Flat were promising but he failed to generate any interest in San Francisco. After failing in San Francisco he went on to Sacramento where initially once again he failed to spark much interest in his new venture. Eventually, however, he managed to convince a small group of investors to provide the minimum amount necessary to bring the Central Pacific Railroad into being.
The key financiers of the project were Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Mark Hokins, James Bailey and Lucius Boothe. Stanford was named President, Huntington Vice President, Bailey Secretary, and Hopkins Treasurer. Crocker and Boothe were made Directors and Judah was named Chief Engineer. Judah's selected route crossed the mountains near Donner Summit in order to provide direct access to the newly discovered Nevada mines. Because the Sacramento financiers were merchants interested in controlling the flow of supplies to those mines they accepted Judah's proposal even though other groups suggested alternatives that might prove easier to construct. Judah was sent to Washington to present the CP plans to Congress and to request federal assistance for the project.
Judah arrived in Washington just after the start of the Civil War. The issue of slavery no longer clouded consideration of the project and Judah presented his plans as a war measure designed to tie California and Nevada more securely to the Union and to ensure the continued flow of gold and silver from the West into the Northern states. Judah was named secretary of the Senate committee and clerk of the House committee dealing with the legislation. He helped write the Pacific Railroad Act which made provision for assistance to the Central Pacific Railroad. It passed Congress in the summer of 1862 and President Lincoln signed it on July 1.
Judah returned to California and commenced surveying the new line immediately. By the fall of that year the Crocker Construction Company began grading the first thirty-two mile segment of the line. The formal start of construction was celebrated on January 8, 1863 in Sacramento. Soon thereafter relations between Judah and his associates began to deteriorate. Judah wanted to build rapidly but well. His associates were interested in speed of construction, but were not as concerned about the quality of the work. They were more concerned with matters related to the financing of the project and in obtaining profit from it. Word of the disagreement leaked out and fanned speculation that the company did not ever intend to actually build the railroad intending instead to develop a wagon road across the mountains and thus dominate the Nevada mine trade.
Matters came to a head in the fall of 1863. The final argument revolved around redefining the geology of the Sierra Mountains to justify additional federal assistance for the project. Judah's staunch opposition so angered his associates that they demanded his ouster from the project. Judah's associates paid him $100,000 for his shares in the company along with options to buy out the others for the same amount of money. Judah left San Francisco early in October and sailed for New York intending to raise the money necessary to buy out the Sacramento group. (It appears that he may have been in contact with the Vanderbilt Group). In crossing the Isthmus of Panama he contracted yellow fever. He died in New York on November 2, 1863. He was thirty-seven years old.