Railroad research centers on Greenfield artist Anna Feron Pierce Judah


Staff Writer

Published: 07-11-2022 4:56 PM

GREENFIELD — As part of her research for an upcoming exhibit at the California State Railroad Museum that will highlight the contributions of women to the history of railroading, Christine Pifer-Foote of Sacramento found herself at the Historical Society of Greenfield, flipping through old photos of Anna Feron Pierce Judah, wife of Theodore Dehone Judah.

Anna, who died in 1895, was the daughter of John J. Pierce, of the prominent Pierce family of Greenfield.

“There were so many other facets to her,” said Pifer-Foote, who plans to write what will likely be the first biography about the longtime Greenfield resident. “Historians, I hate to say it, often treat women that way; they’re seen as mere ‘bit players’ in the history of their country, or that they just did a little bit here and there. I think she did a lot.”

Theodore, a civil engineer instrumental to the design and establishment of the first transcontinental railroad in the 1860s, met Anna while headquartered in Greenfield, laying out the Connecticut River Railway. While his contributions to the history of the railroad are well-known, the same isn’t quite true of Anna, according to Pifer-Foote, who said Anna did more than simply support Theodore’s commitment to achieving what others at the time thought to be impossible.

“I found reference to the fact that she painted watercolors, and she did sketches of the Sierra Nevada mountains while she was up in the Sierra with her husband Theodore Judah, father of the transcontinental railroad, as he surveyed for the railroad,” Pifer-Foote said. “When it was time to go to Washington D.C., they got a room at the U.S. Capitol. She hung her sketches and watercolors in that room so senators and representatives could come and look at it and they would be more inclined to vote for the Railroad Act because they needed money to build the railroad.”

The Railroad Act passed in 1862, at which point the paintings and sketches were taken down, but where they ended up, Pifer-Foote said, remains unknown.

“That’s the focus of all my research,” she said.

In her research, Pifer-Foote has met with the architect of the U.S. Capitol building, its curators and the historian, the National Gallery of Art, as well as various libraries and universities.

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“They all want to know,” she said. “They’re intrigued by this research.”

Over the three days Pifer-Foote spent in Greenfield, she visited the Episcopal Church of Saints James and Andrew, where Theodore and Anna were married in 1849, and met with local historian Tim Blagg. On Friday, Pifer-Foote gathered information on her family, including Gladys Pierce, a niece with whom she had a close relationship.

“Anna went to a lot of places to gather flowers for pressing,” she said, remarking on the book of pressed flowers at the Historical Society. “That was new to me.”

Pifer-Foote also planned to visit the Federal Street Cemetery, where both Anna and Theodore were buried in the Pierce family plot.

According to Pifer-Foote, most historians believe that after her husband’s death in 1863, Anna lived a “quiet life.”

“No,” she said, emphatically. “She didn’t; she had a social life. She continued to paint; she cared for her brother who had been injured in the Civil War.”

Pifer-Foote said she was excited to meet with the individuals in Greenfield she had corresponded with over the last few months.

“My hope in coming here is that I can breathe in Anna’s air,” Pifer-Foote said on Friday. “I want to continue the history of a woman who made a difference. … It’s been a labor of love.”

As she continues with her research, Pifer-Foote said she hopes to connect with individuals who may have information on Anna or knowledge of where the missing watercolors and sketches might be. She can be reached at piferfoote10@comcast.net.

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne