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California History After the Gold Rush: THEODORE & ANNA JUDAH
I’m a California native and I minored in American history at Berkeley, but I’d never known how close California came to domination by the slave powers during the pre- and Civil War years until I started researching the building of San Francisco for After the Gold Rush. I’ve been blown away by the stories of how passionate California abolitionists like
Theodore and Anna Judah, Jessie Benton Frémont, the Reverend Thomas Starr King, Mary Ellen Pleasant, Philip Alexander Bell, Peter Anderson
- and so many others rallied against powerful Southern forces determined to take over California.
Even the route of the transcontinental railroad was a war of abolitionists against the expansionist goals of the slave powers.
The chief obstacle to the railroad was the intensifying hostility between North and South over the issue of the expansion of slavery. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis used his power to propose a railroad plan that would pass through only slave states. Such a route would ensure the economic and political domination of the slave economy.
Brilliant young railroad engineer Theodore Judah was determined to prove the viability of a central route that would keep the railroad out of the hands of the slave powers.
His partner in the mission was his wife, Anna: a talented artist who traversed the Sierras with Ted on horseback and on foot as he surveyed the seemingly impassable mountains. Anna’s paintings and drawings illustrating Ted’s proposals—and her canny powers of persuasion—helped bring congressmen around to supporting Ted’s route, that became the Central Pacific Railroad.
Read After the Gold Rush from the beginning:
After the Gold Rush, Chapter 15
Pacific Railroad Convention: September 1859, San Francisco, California
Anna sat on the edge of her seat at the front in the audience of Assembly Hall at Post and Kearny. Behind the dais a banner proclaimed the Pacific Railroad Convention. All around her, the audience in the packed hall was buzzing, and she felt a secret thrill at the size of the crowd.
Ted had been busy.
All through the spring, he’d alternated between exploring the mountains and bombarding the legislature in Sacramento with his findings. Anna had been equally industrious, assembling all of Ted’s notes, clippings and statistics into easily understandable charts, and illustrating them with her own paintings and sketches of the Sierras.
Ted’s unflagging enthusiasm had cemented his nickname, “Crazy Judah”—but his engineering accomplishments were undeniable, and his badgering and Anna’s artwork finally paid off. Together, the Judahs had mustered sufficient interest for a Railroad Convention. Over a hundred delegates were assembled today, representing every county in California and some from Washington and Oregon. The rest of the hall was crowded with interested onlookers, standing room only.
As Ted stood from the seat on the dais and approached the podium, Anna could see he was shaking. But as he grasped the sides of the lectern and began to speak, a light came into his eyes, and as ever he warmed to his topic.
“Ladies and gentlemen. The project for construction of a great Railroad through the United States of America, connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific Ocean, has been in agitation for over fifteen years.
“It is the most magnificent project ever conceived. It is an enterprise more important in its bearings and results to the people of the United States, than any other project involving an expenditure of an equal amount of capital. It connects these two great oceans. It is an indissoluble bond of union between the populous States of the East, and the undeveloped regions of the fruitful West. It is a highway which leads to peace and future prosperity. An iron bond for the perpetuation of the Union and independence which we now enjoy.
“Many projects for the prosecution of this enterprise have been presented. Various schemes for the fulfillment of these projects have been devised. Our wisest statesmen, most experienced politicians, scientific engineers, and shrewdest speculators, have each and all discussed the subject in nearly every point of view, and given the results of their wisdom and experience to the world.”
As Ted continued to speak, his cadence became almost poetic, like a prayer:
“Its popularity is universal.
Its importance admitted.
Its practicability believed in
Its profitableness unquestioned.
This project has not been consummated.
The road has not been finished.
Its practicability has not been established.
A survey has not been made.
It has simply been made the subject of reconnaissance.”
He looked out on the crowd earnestly. “This highway, the greatest and most important of them all, remains unbuilt, it may be said unsurveyed, simply reconnoitered.
Why is this?”
And now, with the full attention of the audience, he began to tell of his explorations and his conviction that a railroad could be built following the California-Mormon Trail.
Anna knew the crowd of San Francisco delegates had come prepared to argue for their own favored routes. But she could literally feel the audience beginning to turn to Ted’s side as he argued that the feasibility of this Central route had been proven by the success of stagecoach companies who employed it.
Then he appealed to state pride. “California must lead the way. We are the unquestioned terminus of any transcontinental route. And we are a free state. California has the power and responsibility to break the deadlock between North and South.”
Anna was thrilled to hear cheers erupt from the people around her. At the podium, Ted beamed out at the crowd, shyly gratified.
“The route has been proven until the Sierras!” he declared. “It only requires a survey, in our own mountains, to prove the viability of the California-Mormon route—”
Ted broke off his sentence as he visibly started to tremble. But his time it was not his nerves. The lectern under Ted’s hands, the dais under his feet—all were starting to move. Anna felt the floor beneath her rumbling.
The audience in the packed hall froze into that state of curious waiting that San Franciscans had acquired: an instinctive measuring of the shakeup about to commence.
Ted’s startled eyes met Anna’s in her seat below.
And then the building around them jumped.
The audience collectively leapt to its feet, and the entire convention stampeded for the doors.
Anna stumbled to the front of the stage, and Ted jumped off the shaking platform to join her. He clasped her arms—
“Fine. I’m fine,” she gasped, and together they ran unsteadily toward a side exit.
Conventioneers poured out of the hall, down the steps, and clustered in the middle of the street, away from buildings that might collapse or dislodge fatal debris.
They stood assembled, suspended...
When there were no further tremors, the crowd looked around at each other and broke into delighted, survivors’ laughter.
Ted seized the moment. He strode halfway up the front steps of the Assembly Hall and continued his speech right there on the street.
“Gentlemen! Delegates! Californians! The railroad will not be stopped by geology nor geography. We are the West. We are a new breed. Let us use our voice! For the price of a survey we can begin this great endeavor.”
Perhaps it was the exhilaration of the earthquake’s aftermath. But the convention unanimously voted to send Ted to Washington to advocate for the California-Mormon Route for a transcontinental railroad.
Anna packed again, and within a week the Judahs were aboard the S.S. Sonora, sailing for New York.
As always, she had to quell the nervousness she felt at the commencement of the long sea voyage.
Thank you, God, that we’re young and strong and healthy, she thought, as the ship steamed out of the Golden Gate into open sea.
And she took a deep breath of the marvelous ocean breeze.