by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It is hard to overstate the importance of the May 1869 completion of the transcontinental railroad connecting California with the rest of the nation as the Union Pacific, finishing the eastern portion, and the Central Pacific, which built the western section, met at Promontory, Utah, near Salt Lake City, and where the ceremonial “golden spike” was driven to mark the momentous occasion.
The idea of such a remarkable project went back decades, but it wasn’t just the daunting length of not much below 2,000 miles that was the major issue, nor even the varying terrain, including the Rocky and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges, the great deserts and other natural features. Rather, there were major political questions the vexed the project from the beginning, including the fact that the initial surveys and explorations, conducted in 1853 and 1854, were under the auspices of the War Department (now the Department of Defense) and, specifically, the Army Topographical Corps, with all of the expertise at its disposal, but the secretary of the department was Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederate States of America.
Therein was much of the dispute, as Davis was tasked by Congress with finding “the most practicable route” to the Pacific from an eastern terminus that also was subject to much clashing. Southerners, of course, wanted the railroad to go through a southern route that could terminate at San Diego or San Pedro (near Los Angeles), while Northerners argued that the line should be much further north and end at San Francisco Bay or even through Oregon or Washington Territory. While it seemed clear the most economical and easiest road to build would be through the south, though timber and water were clearly lacking, sectional interests that only worsened through the 1850s, hampered the decision-making process as civil war seemed more and more likely.
In California, the first railroad constructed was the Sacramento Valley, which was completed from the state capital to Folsom, though there were grandiose ideas for branch lines as far as to San Francisco. A key figure in that project was Theodore D. Judah (1826-1863), a brilliant engineer born in Connecticut, who worked on several railroad projects on the East Coast before he was brought to the Golden State in 1854 to take part in the Sacramento Valley project. Not long after that line was completed, Judah began conceptualizing a way to build a transcontinental route across the daunting Sierras and then across the formidable Great Basin of Nevada and into Utah—his relentless efforts led to his being termed “Crazy Judah.”
In September 1859, a Pacific Railroad Convention was held in San Francisco and, by then, Judah, had roughly calculated that a 2,000-mile line from the Missouri River to the Pacific would cost some $150 million and advocated that the project be financed through stock subscriptions rather than through borrowing or issuing bonds, attended three sessions of Congress to support a Pacific Railroad line, and published a pamphlet on the first day of 1857 to sell the idea to the national legislature with the goal of constructing the line within ten years on private financing, without government aid other than selling federal land for the right-of-way.
What was first needed, in order to convince capitalists to invest in the project, was a solid survey, which he estimated would cost about $200,000 and which would lend a vital initial legitimacy. The convention issued a resolution that there should be two lines to the Missouri, one from San Francisco and another from either the Columbia River or Puget Sound, with the former to go through Stockton and then eastward over a route determined by the California Legislature. It then adjourned with plans to meet in February 1860 while Judah headed east to deliver the memorial to Congress, though there was neither another gathering or any formal action by Congress.
Despite this unsatisfactory result, Judah plowed ahead with the idea that it was better to start with concrete action in California before turning to Washington, D.C. and he met Dr. Daniel W. Strong, a pharmacist at Dutch Flat east of Sacramento near the Donner Pass emigrant route, which, however, was supplanted by the route that went through Placerville. Strong wanted to establish a wagon route through Donner Pass, especially as silver mine discoveries in Nevada brought increased traffic through the Sierras, but Judah saw the possibility for a rail line through the area, whether he was made aware of this by Strong or conceived of the idea on his own.
Strong and Judah, who worked closely on the Donner Pass idea for what was called the Dutch Pass Route, decided it was time to establish a “Central Pacific Railroad Company” with the former seeking stock subscriptions in that area while Judah issued another pamphlet and went to San Francisco, confident he could drum up the support and capital needed there. He was mistaken, however, and he returned to Sacramento late in 1860 and held meetings that finally brought sufficient funds from capital city capitalists and others nearby.
The result was the incorporation of the firm (abbreviated as the CPRR) on the last day of April 1861, just a little more than two weeks after the erupting of the Civil War, with $8.5 million in stock. The incorporators included James Bailey, Lucius Booth, Charles Marsh, Strong, Judah and a quartet of hardware merchants who came to California for the famed Gold Rush. These were Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Collis P. Huntington and Leland Stanford, with the latter becoming president, Huntington assuming the vice-presidency and Hopkins taking the role of treasurer. Enough funds were subscribed by these men so that Judah could undertake the survey of his favored route, though two other possible locations were also scouted, but determined not as feasible.
This led to the issuance of a report by Judah, dated 1 October 1861, to his fellow Central Pacific officers and directors, which was incorporated into a memorial submitted to Congress by Judah on his colleagues’ behalf and which, on 9 December, was referred to a House of Representatives Select Committee on the Pacific Railroad, which ordered it printed. The highlighted object from the Homestead’s collection for this post is this published memorial. The memorial began with the statement that:
The undersigned memorialists hereby beg leave to represent to your honorable body the fact that they have recently acquired new, interesting, and important information with regard to the location of the western end of the Pacific railroad across the Sierra Nevada mountains; having discovered a new railroad route across the same, whereby there is effected a saving in distance of 184 miles, and in cost about ten millions of dollars, over the route upon which all the estimates of distance and cost have heretofore been made for the central route . . .
It was asserted that this new information “is not of a vague or indefinite character, but is the result of a scientific exploration and reconnaissance upon three routes . . . and of an actual instrumental survey upon this route by railroad engineers . . . at a considerable amount of cost and labor.” Sent with Judah were the requisite maps, profiles, details and other material “for the inspection of those interested in the matter, for the purpose of corroborating these statements.”
As for Judah’s 1 October report, he began by informing the CPRR that “agreeably to your instructions, I have completed the preliminary survey of a railroad across the Sierra Nevada mountains, from the city of Sacramento to a point on the Truckee river, at the eastern base of [the] mountains; the results of which confirm the facts established by the barometrical reconnoissance ]sic] made last fall.”
The engineer continued that “these observations demonstrated the existence of a route from Sacramento across the Sierra Nevadas, by which the summit could be attained with grades of 105 feet per mile,” so parties were sent up in the spring to survey 128 miles east of Sacramento,
and a thorough railroad survey made . . . developing a line with lighter grades, less distance, and encountering fewer obstacles than found upon any other route or line hitherto examined across the Sierra Nevada mountains and proving, by actual survey, that the difficulties and formidable features of this range can be successfully overcome for railroad purposes.
Judah’s report is necessarily technical and dry, but it is noteworthy that he observed that the surveyed line “crosses the State at nearly its narrowest width;” was most direct; created a local road for three California counties (Nevada, Placer and Sacramento;) “commands and will perform the entire business of Nevada Territory, Washoe, and the silver mineral region and other mining areas; avoided the second, eastern, Sierra summit; had a maximum grade that was less than the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad through the Appalachians; had ready access to timber; crossed now major canyons or gorges; had a tunnel no longer than 1,350′ long; provided ready access to a route to Salt Lake; saved 184 miles and $13.5 million as well as expected to take 8 1/2 hours of transit time; offered excellent opportunities for an extension to Oregon; and, lastly, “completes [the] first western link of [the] Pacific railroad, overcoming its greatest difficulties.”
A major concern was snow with it being the factor which “frequently urged against the central route for [the] Pacific railroad,” but Judah insisted the line could be run year-round with no closure. He added that “observations lead to the conclusion that the greatest depth of undisturbed snow is 13 feet at the summit and was “the accumulation of a number of successive storms occurring during the winter.” From this “it is only necessary, then, to start a engine with snow-ploughs from the summit each way at the commencement of a storm, clearing the snow as it falls” and doing this each storm, “will keep the track open during the entire winter.” There were to be 18 tunnels along the surveyed route, ranging from 400 to 1,370 feet in length and costing, in total, some $870,000, with the longest taking just over a year to complete.
With respect to cost, Judah stated that it was greater than those in the East Coast “but is nevertheless a cheaper line than has been heretofore been estimated for the crossing of the Sierra Nevada mountains.” Some of the extra expense was due to topography and required excavations, as well as the shipping of materiel to California and “the high cost of labor” in the Golden State, but the $88,000 per mile compared to ranges of $78,000 to $81,000 for four eastern railroads. In all, the estimate for construction to the state line (meaning the line with Nevada Territory, which became a state in 1864) was $12,380,000 and Judah calculated that the 1,858 miles to Council Bluffs, Iowa would be just a shade under $100 million.
In his general remarks, the engineer pointed out the importance, when selecting routes east of where he’d then surveyed, of looking at connecting lines to Oregon and Washington; of the growing population around the silver mining areas of the Washoe Mountains, which meant that “but a few years will elapse before a new State will be formed out of that portion of Nevada Territory; and that another new mining area, as well as some agricultural lands, on the Humboldt River to the east meant that “it will not be many years before the new State of Humboldt will apply for admission into the Union,” though this became part of Nevada.
On 9 October, the CPRR directors resolved that Judah head to Washington as the firm’s agent to secure land appropriations and federal bonds and, while it took ten months, he was successful in getting the Pacific Railroad Act passed in spring 1862 by Congress, now comprised as northern representatives with the war on, and the CPRR designated to receive aid for its work on the western part of the transcontinental railroad. Judah returned to California in the summer and completed a report that included his statement that the CPRR should quickly conduct a survey to Salt Lake in anticipation of meeting the Union Pacific in that vicinity, though he also exaggerated the likely business to be generated along the line when completed.
Work began in early 1863 and by mid-year Judah had another status report finished, but there were fissures widening within the CPRR, especially with money becoming hard to raise during the war, and, as progress was less than impressive, there were rumors that Crocker, Hopkins, Huntington and Stanford, who’d assumed control of the firm and became known later as “The Big Four,” were more interested in a Dutch Flat wagon road than building a viable railroad beyond that community because they could then control silver and other shipments over the Sierras with less investment but still plenty of profit.
Impatient with the slowness of work as well as a dispute over his compensation through a percentage of stock sales, not to mention the methods of his colleagues, Judah grew distant from “The Big Four,” who bought him out for $100,000 and stock options. In September 1863, he left for the east to look at our funding sources under the presumption that the others were ready to abandon the project. When crossing the Panama isthmus, however, Judah became seriously ill with “Panama fever,” arrived in New York on 28 October and died less than a week later.
Despite the early stumbling of the CPRR and its western part of the transcontinental (the Union Pacific had many mounting problems for its part to the east), the road was completed, as noted above, in about six years. Its freight and passenger business was, of course, less than advertised, but the symbolic effect of the opening of the line was enormous. F.P.F. Temple was an early passenger as he traveled from his home state of Massachusetts on the route in 1870 after enrolling his sons William and Francis at Harvard Law School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, respectively. This memorial is an important early document in the project and we are happy that the Museum collection contains it as context for the period.