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Crazy Judah                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: May/03/2017 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: Historical Insights,

America’s first working steam locomotive was pioneered by a wealthy New Yorker named John Stevens. However, because Steven’s locomotive was never named, never carried passengers or cargo, and least of all never went anywhere except in a small circle in Hoboken New Jersey, it and his name have managed to fade from popular history. Nevertheless, Steven’s 1815 model inspired many imitators. In a similar manner, the name of Crazy Judah has faded to the dustiest corners of old libraries despite his critical importance in the development of American railroading.

In the era from 1835 to 1900 the development and expansion of railroads in America prompted rapid expansion of the economy, mining, and new communities. The railroad industry drove the implementation of time zones and the common use of pocket watches. By 1870, the railroad industry was the second largest employer following only agriculture. On a grander scale, Chicago saw significant prosperity as it became a major rail junction for goods coming from the middle of America to be processed and distributed across the rest of the country.

The railroads were also a significant factor in the uniting of the western reaches of the country while also contributing to the dysfunction that became the Civil War. In 1838, a mere 10 years after the establishment of the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) the first plans were proposed for a transcontinental railway. Congress commissioned a route survey in 1853, but the issue of slavery interfered with selecting any one of 5 proposed routes. Southern Senators demanded that half of all new states allow slavery and that new rail lines be allowed to transport this unique American predicament. Ultimately, it was the energy of Theodore Dehone Judah who’s near crazy rants and undying energy ultimately made the transcontinental railroad as we know it possible.

In his era, few people could be considered more devoted to railways. Ted was born in Bridgeport Connecticut in 1826 and rapidly became enamored with railroading, the latest technology of the day. He studied engineering in Troy New York at a school next door to the Troy and Schenectady Railroad yards. One of his first jobs was to build a railroad bridge in Vermont. He then did surveys for the Hartford and New Haven Railroad, joined the Niagara Falls & Lake Ontario Railroad where he built a line down the Niagara River gorge. After this, he was appointed chief engineer of the Buffalo and New York City Railroad before being invited out west. His new job was to survey and build a railway from the Sacramento River to the high gold fields in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. This would be the first rail line west of the Missouri. Paddle steamers brought mining tools and supplies from San Francisco to the Sacramento River valley and this train would complete the supply line. It was during this time that the 24 year old became convinced that this formidable geological barrier to the wealth of the west, the Sierra Nevada Mountains could be overcome. To a degree that came to appear as close to lunacy, he proclaimed that a transcontinental line was essential for securing the future greatness of America to anyone who would listen. Judah advanced his thesis often in the Sacramento Union with the aid of a tolerant editor-friend at the paper.

Crazy Judah, as he became known rapidly developed into a familiar figure within California’s society scene. While considered crazy by some, he was not considered a dilettante, of which San Francisco already had too many. He was taken seriously enough to be elected in 1859 to the Pacific Railroad Convention. While San Francisco was barely 20 years old, it was flush with wealth and longed to be connected to New York via a route more convenient than by ship to Panama, a mosquito-infested train across the isthmus, and then another sea voyage to Manhattan. At the convention it was decided that San Francisco was the natural western terminus for a transcontinental rail line. Judah, with his eloquence, impassioned speeches, and enthusiastic madness was made the official agent for this cause. Judah was sent back east and presented his cause with great conviction to the lawmakers on Capitol Hill and to President Buchanan at the White House. He pressed his message over and over, but with one restriction that would keep it in limbo for the next few years; that California and the states to be crossed by the new railroad line would not permit slavery. With a divided Congress and the Civil War looming, no decision or support from Congress was forthcoming.

With the success of his lobbying stymied for the time being, Theodore Judah returned to the field to survey where a line might actually go. In the summer of 1860, a California businessman named Daniel Strong invited Judah to go with him on horseback to a destination he felt Judah had to see! Starting at Dutch Flat, a mining town high in the Sierra’s, the two spent most of the day riding to nearly 8000 feet where Daniel Strong presented Ted Judah with the view from the crest of the Donner Pass. The distinct view that Judah saw was of the serrated ridges of the High Sierra’s to the north and south, but a low pass with a wide notch cutting to the east and west. The path to the west followed the American River and the path to east ended at a lake that Strong confirmed led on down to the Humboldt Plains and into the Nevada Territory. Ted Judah drew the obvious conclusion that this was the only logical route for a railroad across the Sierra Nevada’s.

Once back in Sacramento Ted Judah did the calculations and drew a gigantic map for Congress of the critical Donner Summit portion of the rail line. The map was 90 feet long and showed every proposed cutting, tunnel, embankment and grade. The route he designed and presented had a grade of no more than 100 feet per mile on the California side and somewhat less on the Nevada side. Baldwin locomotives of the day were already pulling trains up similar grades in the Alleghenies.

Following the plans drafted by Judah, Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act in June of 1862 which was signed by President Lincoln on July 1, 1862. On this same date, Confederate troops were massing on the outskirts of Washington DC and Lincoln was writing his first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. Like any Congressional legislation, the Pacific Railroad Act covered financing, penalties and rewards along with a myriad of details for what was effectively the construction of a railroad and telegraph line from Omaha Nebraska along the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. The firms to perform the work were the privately financed Central Pacific starting in the west and the publically chartered Union Pacific starting in the east.

Work on the Central Pacific line, though shorter started first for its obvious challenges. The first issue was equipment which had to come by sea. Judah ordered 8 locomotives, 8 passenger carriages, 4 baggage cars, 60 flat freight wagon and 5000 tons of iron rails. All this had to be loaded on ships in New York and sailed around the perilous Cape Horn to eventually arrive in San Francisco many months later. This equipment was then transported up county to Sacramento on paddle steamers where the work was to begin. On a rainy day in January 1863 ceremonial sod was cut just east of Sacramento initiating the engineering effort. The first few miles following the river moved rapidly, but as the project approached the Sierra foothills the challenges mounted. Geology, terrain and weather presented a never ending series of nightmares to Ted Judah and his team. The cliffs were considered insurmountable by most and the rocks blunted drills at an alarming rate. It took 2000 men 18 months to complete the half-mile Summit Tunnel. Fifteen foot snow accumulations buried campsites and thwarted forward progress. The builders even constructed iron sheds on top of the lines hoping this would divert the all too frequent avalanches from sweeping away men, materials and tools.

The available workforce proved to be very limited. Despite the good pay, even the toughest workers from the San Francisco docks were reluctant to do such dangerous work for so long in such appalling conditions. It was easier to forage for gold in the foothills or build homes for the steady stream of newcomers to San Francisco and Sacramento. It is unclear who, but eventually someone reminded one of Judah’s foremen that despite being supposedly small in stature, the Chinese had once managed to build the Great Wall. Before long, twenty thousand immigrants from southern China were arriving in the Bay Area tempted by the promise of payment in gold coin for their labor. The Chinese approached their labors with a stoic attitude and undaunted rigor. At the Summit Tunnel where drills were failing they first employed nitroglycerine to carve through the rock. Most memorable was their efforts at the nearby Cape Horn Cliffs, volunteers from among them agreed to be suspended by ropes in small baskets over the precipitous face. They hand chiseled a passageway into the thousand-foot sheer face and then clambered into the passage and enlarged it until it was wide and deep enough to carry a train. The Chinese unfamiliarity with black powder and nitroglycerine explosives is still marked to this date with a smattering of small grave sites along the High Sierra train route.

Once out of the Sierra Nevada’s, work for the Central Pacific moved quickly, sometimes reaching 10 miles of new track in a day.

In contrast, the Union Pacific began their section in December 1863; nearly a year after the Central Pacific began work. Similar to the western leg, getting supplies to the railhead was a challenge because there were no bridges across the Mississippi or Missouri Rivers. Once started, progress was much swifter for the Union Pacific except where federal troops were needed to protect the railroad crews from Indians who were angered by the white man’s continual treaty breaking and violence. Crossing the plains afforded a different style of organization and construction. The Union Pacific used special trains that included accommodations, commissary cars and hunters to supply fresh meat to the cooks. The construction trains were followed by a portable tent city called “Hell on Wheels” that included casinos, brothels and dance halls; everything the Irish workers needed to separate themselves from their hard earned coin.

The two teams met in Promontory Utah on 10 May, 1869 for a carefully staged ceremony. Dignitaries arrived from both directions to participate in the completion ceremony. The ceremonial tie was polished to a high finish by a San Francisco billiard table maker and pre-drilled so the spike would enter easily with a mere tap from a politician. California governor, senator and founder of a university who bears his name, Leland Stanford was to tap in the final spike. Stanford used a special silver-plated maul with fine wires attached. The wires were intended to send a telegraph signal indicating the exact moment when the trans-continental railroad was complete. A local telegraph operator was also standing by to send out a signal in case the signal initiated by Stanford was too weak. With much ceremony Thomas Durant of the Union Pacific drove an iron spike securing one rail and Leland Stanford tapped in the golden spike. Across the country bands erupted, cannons fired, church bells and fire alarms went off to announce the great event. American was truly united “from sea to shining sea.”

This connecting of a nation meant that a 4-6 month overland journey could be now done in less than 10 days. In truth, the Congressional mandate had been met, but this was not truly a “Trans-Continental” rail line. Until March of 1873, travelers had to depart the train in Council Bluffs Iowa and take the ferry across the river to Omaha. In a similar manner, the final California stretch from Sacramento to San Francisco took an additional 6 months.

History has a knack for forgetting those who are not at the finish line despite their fervent contributions along the way. Most text of this great American unifier make note of Thomas Durant, Leyland Stanford, Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant. The descriptions will then speak of the Irish and Chinese laborers whose effort brought the vision of a coast to coast train line to life. Theodore Dehone Judah was not present at the Promontory ceremony and received only the briefest of mention. Ted Judah did not live to see the realization of his dream. He was bitten by a mosquito in 1863 on one of his train transits through the Panama isthmus and died November 2, 1863, six years before his vision was realized. The train route that Theodore Dehone (Crazy) Judah designed, promoted and engineered through the Sierra Nevada Mountains is still to this date one of the most heavily used rail lines in the western states.

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