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Recurring Dreams: Nineteenth Century Railroad Development and the New Agrarian West

Image of 19th century agriculture
July 22, 2020

Maria McVarish gives a presentation about research on the history of railroad development in California's Capay Valley. The talk is followed by a question and answer segment moderated by Felicity Barringer Taubman, the Lane Center's writer-in-residence.

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.