Crazy Judah and California’s first railroad

Theodore Judah

Theodore D. Judah grew up in Troy, New York and attended the Rensselaer Academy, now the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He soon went to work on a new railroad running from Troy to Schenectady. More railroad projects followed across the Northeast. Railroad construction was big business in the middle of the 1800s. In 1854, while working on the construction of a part of the Erie Canal, he was offered the job of Chief Engineer of the Sacramento Valley Railroad in California. Judah and his wife sailed to Nicaragua, crossed to the Pacific and caught a Pacific Mail Steamship to San Francisco. He got to Sacramento in the middle of May and started planning the railroad.

Construction of the first 22 mile section of track began the next February, starting from Front and ‘L’ Street in today’s Old Sacramento and arrived a year later at the gold town of Negro Bar, soon to become a part of Folsom, California. It took building three trestles and a 600-foot cut along the American River at Negro Bar to complete the job, but the SVRR was now the first railroad west of the Mississippi. The line was originally intended to continue to Placerville, north to Marysville and across the bay to San Francisco but only the Placerville line was ever completed and that not for many years.

Sacramento Valley Railroad 1854

Because Judah’s dream from the outset was a railroad across the Sierra Nevada and on to connect with America’s east coast many called him Crazy Judah.  But in 1859 he was sent to Washington by the Pacific Railroad Convention to gain support for the project. Congress, distracted by the trouble of pre-Civil War America, failed to act. Back in California he combed the Sierra until he located a suitable route across the mountains then found the financial backing he needed. He returned to Washington and helped write the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862. This time Congress acted.

Central Pacific locomotive #4, TD Judah

Construction of the Central Pacific Railroad officially began on January 8, 1863, but disagreements quickly arose between Judah and his backers, now known as the Big Four. Judah wanted quality construction. The investors wanted speed. In October he left for the east, hoping to find more investors to buy out the Big Four, but while crossing Panama Judah came down with yellow fever. He died soon after arriving in New York at age 37.



  1. Stuart Smith says

    My mom has an old lithograph of Judah’s railroad survey across the American River to Negro Bar. It says it was presented to the Board of Directors of SVRR in 1855. It is about 12″ wide by 18″ high and done by BF Butler Lithograph in San Francisco.

    I did have a relation who was in the gold rush. I don’t know much more about it, but figured you may be able to provide some direction on how to learn more about it.


    • Stuart, your Mom’s lithograph sounds like a fascinating piece of history. Negro Bar, a modernization of the original name, was once part of Folsom, California but is now buried under a lake. It was the original terminus of the SVRR and one of the first mining sites on the American River. Theodore Judah went on to plan the transcontinental RR. It was he who picked the route over Donner Pass that is still used by the railroads today as well as by Interstate 80. He died from a disease contracted in Panama before the completion of his life long dream.

      I have a pretty complete history of the gold rush on line. Unfortunately computers operate backwards for those of us who like things in chronological order so the last article always appears first, but you can click on my articles from the month of June to get started. The true history begins with the saw mill at Coloma where gold was first found.

      It’s a powerful story. The largest spontaneous mass migration in human history. Thanks for writing.

  2. Fascinating. There are always the big dreamers aren’t there? For us in Colorado it was William Jackson Palmer and his narrow gauge. If it weren’t for him, the mountains might not have been conquered here by the rails are quickly as they were. Of course with over 54 fourteeners most of the mineral was way up there.

    • Yes, Doris, there are always those who dream big and we should be thankful for them. Ironically Judah, the man who dreamed of a transcontinental railroad across America, died because he traveled on the first transcontinental railroad, this one across Panama. It’s interesting how the mines in Colorado were up so high. In California most of the gold was in a narrow belt of a few thousand feet starting about 3000 feet, but it went a long way up and down the state. Glad to hear from you again.

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