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Jumping Track in Esparto: Fates and Futures of a Rural Train Town

A red caboose sits in a grass field next to the Esparto Train Station.

A red caboose sits outside the Esparto Train Station, the subject of Maria McVarish's April 10 talk with the Lane Center. 

The Bill Lane Center for the American West
April 23, 2020

Esparto, an unincorporated municipality in California’s Central Valley, could be almost any small town of the rural American West. It developed around a train station established by subsidiaries of the Southern Pacific Railroad Co., under Leland Stanford’s direction, in 1888. For the better part of the ensuing century, Esparto’s prosperity was caught up in the vicissitudes of railroad profitability. After the railway withdrew operations in the late 1950s, local businesses, services and population began to decline.

This presentation, delivered by zoom to the Lane Center community on April 10, 2020, focuses on Esparto’s train station – its practical and symbolic relationship with area residents, past and present. The building and its grounds were once a hub of activity and exchange for the region, connecting farmers and their produce to metropolitan areas, while indirectly contributing to the disenfranchisement of others (farmworkers, Native Americans, etc). For over a decade, I have been working with a wide cross-section of local stakeholders to probe Esparto’s untapped community resources of memory, culture, and relationship. The aim is to intervene in the afterlife of the defunct railroad station, and in so doing to contribute to the town’s revitalization. The presentation provides an overview of the project to date.


Dr. Maria McVarish, an award-winning author and architect, 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 little-known and largely disregarded 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 Magazine, Southface Journal, and CNN’s television series Earth-Wise. Her essays, drawings, and sculpture have been published in Memory Connection, DiacriticsZyzzava, 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. She is a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts.