Theodore and Anna Judah
"From the eastern boundary of this vast golden flowerbed rose the mighty Sierra, miles in height and so gloriously colored and so radiant, it seemed not clothed with light, but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city . . . It seemed to me that the Sierra should be called, not the Nevada or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light." - John Muir
From this summit in the Sierras, Ted Judah stood looking out over a field blazing gold with California poppies, up and up into the barely comprehensible vastness of the double mountain range.
He breathed in the wildflowers and the pines, felt the exhilaration of the climb and the sights singing through his body. The air was like crystal. The view was celestial.
Here was the spot, he could feel it in his bones.
“Crazy Judah,” they called him in the shops and the streets of Sacramento. And clucked that it was madness, this idea of a transcontinental railroad. A railroad that must not only cross the whole vast country, but also somehow ascend and pass through that soaring barrier before him? Impossible!
But in his heart, Ted knew better.
He looked down the grassy slope to a cluster of boulders, where the light of his heart, his most beautiful wife, sat serenely behind an easel, painting the scene.
Anna believed. She knew what he had done, what he could do.
He’d fallen in love with railroading when he was barely into his teens. As soon as he could persuade someone to hire him, he’d worked construction on the pioneer Troy and Schenectady Railroad; then as a surveyor on the New Haven, Hartford and Springfield line in Connecticut.
He’d gone on to be named Chief Engineer of the Niagara Gorge Railroad, and there he had run a rail line down a sheer cliff face. The feat had been hailed as one of the most spectacular building accomplishments in railroad history.
And now he had been appointed chief engineer for the proposed Sacramento Valley Railroad.
But this was what all his work had been leading to.
He had the construction and engineering skills. He had the vision. He had been to Washington, traveling with his own money, and had spent months listening to debates, attending committee meetings, and taking notes on how the lobbyists worked, how bills were passed.
The country was creating railroads left and right. The United States owned so much land that all it took to finance a road was to create a corporation. The U.S. government would give that company land for every mile of rail it laid, and pay on top of that.
No, the money would not be an issue. The only obstacle to connecting California to the rest of the nation was this: The Sierra Nevada range.
There were fewer than two hundred miles between Sacramento and the Nevada desert. But this mountain range had five hundred distinct peaks. And here at this double mountain pass, the Army’s engineers estimated the peaks topped eleven to twelve thousand feet.
It was a terrible irony that these heavenly-seeming mountains had claimed such a toll in human lives.
While the sun was now a gentle, radiant warmth, hundreds of pioneers had mis-timed their mountain crossings and perished in the implacable winter. Wagons, oxen, horses and people tumbled off the dizzying inclines. The most terrible story of all had transpired not far away at Truckee Lake, where the fateful Donner expedition had been trapped by an early snow and had resorted to cannibalizing members of their party to survive.
The mountains’ fierce history scared many a railroader away. They said it couldn’t be done. Yet the railroad must be accomplished. There was a moral necessity in the work.
Hundreds of Americans, perhaps thousands, were dying every year on the perilous routes to the West. Only the wealthy could afford the slightly safer passage on one of the sea routes. Or the provisions, oxen, horses, wagons, that would increase the odds of survival on the land route.
A railroad would mean safe, affordable travel for the masses, and a greater equality of opportunity for all.
There would be a railroad. And he, Theodore Judah, was going to build it. He would find the route. And the country would be united, coast to coast.
Behind her easel, Anna Judah watched from the slope as Ted waved down at her exuberantly.
She waved back, smiled a wry smile. Living with Ted required not just a sense of adventure, but a sense of humor. At times her young husband’s energy was—it must be said—exhausting. But it was also strangely infectious, and despite her parents’ reservations, bordering on alarm, Anna had signed on for the adventure. She had never regretted it. In a world too full of cruelty, there was no man kinder, nor more principled, nor more generous.
The Judahs were in California for Ted to build a much-needed rail route: twenty-two miles between Sacramento and the gold mines of Marysville, for the Sacramento Valley Railroad. But while surveying, Ted and Anna had fallen in love with the magnificent Sierras. And Ted had become convinced of the viability of a rail route through these very mountains.
The Sacramento Valley directors did not share his vision.
But Ted had devoted every spare moment to exploring further up the mountains, searching for the route. Anna rode with him, camped with him, picnicked and hiked on the slopes, carrying transit, barometer and gauges wrapped in chamois bundles. Ted took endless measurements of the terrain while Anna set up her easel and sketched the mountains, endeavoring to bring their otherworldly beauty to life on the page.
For both of them, there was a moral necessity in the work. Not only to bring affordable travel to the masses. There was another, more urgent moral issue at stake.
The nation was, as martyred abolitionist John Brown had accused, “guilty of a great wrong against God and humanity.”
The chief obstacle to a transcontinental railroad was the intensifying hostility between North and South over the issue of the expansion of slavery. Every railroad bill so far had died in committee due to violent disagreement over a Northern versus a Southern route.
Recently Secretary of War Jefferson Davis had used his power to propose a railroad plan that passed through only slave states. Such a route would ensure the economic and political domination of the slave economy. By the grace of God, abolitionists in Congress had fought down the proposal. But more would be forthcoming.
The railroad must be kept out of the hands of the slave powers.
Ted’s work that summer convinced him that a route was possible through these very mountains, a Central Route, via free states in the East, connecting to what was known to pioneers as the California-Mormon Trail.
Others scoffed. But with her own eyes, Anna had seen Ted design and build the Niagara Gorge Railroad. He had accomplished the impossible, through unshakable faith.
Her husband had a genius and a mission.
And if following that dream meant exploring the most breathtaking mountains she had ever seen?
She could live with that.