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Virtual Event: Nineteenth Century Railroad Development and the New Agrarian West with Dr. Maria McVarish

Recurring Dreams: Nineteenth Century Railroad Development and the New Agrarian West
Wednesday, July 22, 2020 - 2:30pm

The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed an extraordinary expansion of railroad development in the American West, with the so-called Big Four — Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins — contributing significantly to settlement priorities. In 1868, as their incipient Central Pacific Railroad company helped establish the first Transcontinental rail line, Leland Stanford and his Associates purchased a small holding company called the Southern Pacific Railroad. Within the ensuing decades, the SP (as it was known) would grow to extinguish or absorb virtually all regional competitors in the Western and Southwestern states, from Oregon to Louisiana — up to and including its parent company, the Central Pacific. Most people understand that the Southern Pacific played an important part in U.S. Western land development, and the company’s corrupt, monopolistic and exploitive practices are also generally recognized. Less familiar (and less studied), perhaps, were the visionary social ideas that often guided the railroad's land sales in the American West.

In this lecture, Dr. McVarish considers the efficacy of some of the Southern Pacific’s innovative development strategies over the longue durée, focusing on a rural branch line established in 1888 in Capay Valley, California, as a case study. Ostensibly intended, like other tributaries of the track network, to increase the customer base within the SP empire, in actuality Capay Valley served as one of the Southern Pacific's behind-the-scenes laboratories for experimental land policy. Temperance, cooperative colonization and agrarian idealism were just a few of the dreams that company executives promoted there. How were these ideas implemented? And what is their legacy in Capay Valley today, if any? The answers to these questions are unexpected and may offer insights into the larger question of how, logistically, infrastructure can inform social and environmental values over time.


Dr. Maria Dolores McVarish, an award-winning architect and author, was the Lane Center’s 2018-19 Thomas D. Dee II Graduate Fellow. Her forthcoming book focuses on the spatial history of race and landscape narrativity, coming to terms with marginalized figures in the history of the American West. She holds a PhD in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford University. McVarish’s architectural and design projects have been featured in California Home and DesignSan Francisco MagazineSouthface Journal, and CNN’s television series Earth-Wise. Her essays, drawings, and sculpture have been published in Memory ConnectionDiacriticsZyzzava, HOW(ever)Architecture California: The Journal of the American Institute of ArchitectsThe Art of Description: Writings on the Cantor Collections, and in various book collections and exhibition catalogs.