The Iron Spine


In 1853 Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War, pushed Gadsden into the position of minister to Mexico. Gadsden thence was able to bamboozle his government into buying a strip of parched borderland from the Rio Grande to California as part of the right-of-way for a projected Deep South railway to the Pacific. Congress concurrently approved Davis’ proposal to dispatch five survey teams to investigate possible transcontinental rail routes, North and South. When the field reports came back to Washington late in 1854, Davis leafed through them and found, unsurprisingly, that of the five the Gadsden route would be the shortest, cheapest, and easiest to build.

While such notions were being batted around in the great councils, a number of remarkably able young railroad men were at work in the Middle and Far West. Among them were Theodore Judah, Collis Huntington, Thomas Durant, and Grenville Dodge. In the fifteen years before the union at Promontory, each of them would play a crucial role in the realization of a transcontinental line. Ironically, the one whom fate would scorn was the real inspiration for the project. Ted Judah had just finished work as a location engineer for the Niagara Gorge & Erie rail line when promoters asked him to build a short line from Sacramento to FoIsom, California. The job called for only twentyone miles of local road, but Judah had something much bigger in mind—a railroad across America. “He had always read, talked, and studied the problem,” his wife, Anna, recalled years later. She remembered his saying more than once, “It will be built, and I’m going to have something to do with it.”

By August of 1855 the Sacramento-Folsom line was operative, and Jr.dah quickly moved to a series of new surveying jobs. He got to know a few of the right Californians, probed deeper and deeper into the Sierra Nevada to locate the magic route to the East—and tried to convince those who would listen that California’s destiny was bound up in his dream road.

He was so passionate and persistent that a number of people called him “Crazy Judah,” writing him off as a harmless if tiresome lunatic. They were wrong. He helped to inspire the Pacific Railroad Convention that met at San Francisco in September, 1859. A month afterward he set off for Washington, D.C. (via the trails-Isthmus route) as the convention’s lobbyist for a transcontinental road.

Judah did not get his great railroad charter from a Congress now preoccupied with slavery and possible secession, but he did set some sort of record low in expense-accountmanship. At the end of the six-month venture lie handed in his summary account: “For printing bill and circulars—$40.”

Back in California by the summer of 1860, Judah hurried to the mountains to resume his surveys, which carried him into the fall and early winter. Riding out of the mining camp of Dutch Flat one day, Judah came upon Emigrant and Donner passes, a pair of defiles about two miles apart through which an old wagon route crossed the Sierras from the Truckee River gorge and the Nevada flats beyond. This was it—the way through the mountains for the Pacific railway. The going would be rugged, he must have realized, for tunnel hogs and blasting crews. But with careful engineering a practicable route could be laid out.

Judah charged back to Dutch Flat, went to his headquarters at the drugstore of Dr. Daniel Strong, and, on a piece of paper that was laid atop a counter, drew up “The Articles of Association of the Central Pacific Railroad of California.” He sold a few shares of stock to Strong, and left the doctor to solicit area residents (Strong peddled $46,500 worth of stock). Judah went chumming for bigger fish.

These he found early in 1861. After a number of fruitless talks with various San Francisco financiers, Judah called a meeting for a dozen prospective underwriters above a hardware store on K Street, Sacramento. Most noteworthy among them were Leland Stanford, a wealthy wholesale grocer and gubernatorial aspirant; Charles Crocker, a bull-shouldered adventurer who had made a quick pile in dry goods and now was looking for new, more exciting action; and the partners who owned the hardware store downstairs, Mark Hopkins and Collis Huntington. Hopkins was a quiet, sensible accountant, the inside man who kept the figures straight. Huntington, whom one observer later described as “a hard & cheery man, with no more soul than a shark,” was a manipulator, a money raiser.

Ted Judah was quite shrewd that night. He rightly guessed that these local merchants would not go for any pie-in-the-sky scheme about a railroad to the Missouri. So for once he suppressed his dream and sold them on the fat, short-term profits to be had by monopolizing the traffic to Nevada’s booming silver mines. Impressed, the merchants invested. Next morning a triumphant Judah told his wife at their Sacramento rooming house, “If you want to see the first work done on the Pacific Railroad, look out of your bedroom window; I am going to work there this afternoon, and I am going to have these men pay for it.” Anna’s somewhat sour rejoinder was, “It’s about time somebody else helped.”