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How the Central and Union Pacific Railroads Began

During the 1850s, Congress reviewed surveys for possible routes on a new transcontinental railroad project that would bind the coasts together. It was difficult, at that time, to decide on a Northern or Southern route for the line. One surveyor, who earned himself the nickname “Crazy Judah” for his fervent belief in his own plan, advocated a route along the 41st parallel. It ran through Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and ended at California.

It also needed to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, which would take nothing short of an engineering miracle to traverse safely.

Judah pursued his idea and in 1859 finally received a boon toward achieving it. A storekeeper from Dutch Flat, California, had found a route that crossed the summit of only one mountain, thereby reducing the costs to tunnel through the granite.

That was enough to inspire Judah to seek out investors, permits and everything else needed to break ground on his new line: the Central Pacific Railroad Company.

It took a few more years for Judah to get a surveying party together, but he constructed detailed maps of the area through several surveys he conducted over that period. He finally presented his formal findings to congress in October of 1861. Congress was skeptical, but Judah had one important ally on his side. President Abraham Lincoln believed strongly in the future of the railroad system, and signed the Pacific Railway Act which authorized land grants and bonds to help get track laid. This was the beginning of the Central and Union Pacific Railroads.


Archbishop James Provence retired from church service, and is now a volunteer docent for the California Railroad Museum. James Provence resides in Vacaville.

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