Madera, CA (MDR)
Madera is a popular entry point for visitors to Yosemite and Kings Canyon National Parks. It is also the center of an agricultural area known for figs, pistachios and raisins.
18770 Road 26
Madera, CA 93638
Annual Station Ridership (FY 2020): 16,854
- Facility Ownership: Madera County
- Parking Lot Ownership: Madera County
- Platform Ownership: Madera County
- Track Ownership: BNSF Railway
The Madera stop is located about four miles north of downtown in the Madera Country Club Estates neighborhood at the crossing of Road 26 and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF) tracks. In November 2010, the station was moved here from its old location three miles to the southeast at Avenue 15½ and 29th Road. In the early 2000s, city officials began to consider improvements to the Amtrak stop. Although the state’s budget difficulties put the project funding on hold until the end of the decade, the municipality continued to plan for the new facility. The former station was a modest platform with a bench, but the new one consists of a 400-foot concrete platform with an open air shelter structure to protect passengers from inclement weather. The site also includes a well-lighted access road and parking lot, drainage pond, and low-maintenance landscaping that features native plants.
As the first San Joaquins train pulled up to the new platform, the locomotive broke through a paper banner proclaiming “Madera: The Train Stops Here.” The $2 million project involved the city of Madera, Amtrak, BNSF Railway (the successor to the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway), and Caltrans, and funding was obtained from the following sources: $244,000 from Madera County’s “Measure T,” a ½ cent transportation improvement sales tax; $800,000 from the state of California; and the remainder through the California Transportation Commission. The city of Madera has agreed to maintain the platform and shelter.
Madera is located at the center of the San Joaquin Valley, which was explored by the Spanish in the late 18th century. Early travelers encountered bands of the Yokut American Indians who were spread throughout the region. The valley was not settled by European-Americans until the 1820s. After Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, much of the land in southern and central California was broken up into large estates that were often doled out to the friends of those in power. Although isolated from populated coastal areas due to the mountain ranges, the valley was used for grazing. The Gold Rush of 1849 attracted adventures to California from the eastern and Midwestern United States. Many dreams of gold came to naught but settlers remained in the west and built lives. Subsequently, many of the Yokut were driven off their land and onto designated reservations.
Substantial population growth in the San Joaquin Valley did not occur until the arrival of the Southern Pacific (SP) and Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway (ATSF)in the late 19th century. In the early 1870s, the SP—and the Central Pacific Railroad (CP), which it controlled—were working on a line that would run down the valley to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles. Those cities were California’s two most important ports and political and economic centers for the northern and southern regions of the state, respectively.
By 1872, the SP had laid its tracks through the area between Merced and Fresno, but unlike those towns, Madera was not founded by the railroad. Rather, it was platted four years later by the California Lumber Company which constructed a 50 mile long “v” shaped flume that allowed for the transportation of fir, yellow pine, and sugar pine logs from the vast woodlands of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to a point on the rail line. The flume was an engineering marvel, crossing gullies and other landscape features while maintaining the force of gravity to continually move the water in which the logs floated. Men were stationed along the flume to clear any logjams and ensure a steady flow.
Originally, the company planned to terminate the flume at Borden, but officials there demanded high prices for the necessary land and thus the company decided to create its own town. Land owners by the names of Chapman and Friedlander eagerly offered a parcel to the lumber company if it would locate on their property. Appropriately, the new settlement was named “Madera,” a Spanish word meaning “wood” or “lumber.” As the country celebrated its centennial, the first lots were auctioned off, and the town grew quickly as people gravitated to the area for jobs cutting down trees, moving the logs down the flume, or working in the planing mill where the lumber was finished into boards primarily for construction.
To support this early population of hardy lumberjacks and other woodsmen, saloons, supply stores, and a post office sprung up around the railroad tracks at E Street. A Chinese community also formed in Madera, as immigrants from China were hired by the SP to work on its lines in California. Once settled, many of them remained in the San Joaquin Valley and entered into farming. The Madera Chinatown remained a distinct neighborhood until it was razed in the 1920s
At first, the SP was not pleased with the California Lumber Company’s decision to found its own settlement, for the action challenged the railroad’s domination over the valley. The animosity was great enough that Madera’s first leaders had to erect a depot without the assistance of the railroad. However, the lumber company quickly proved its value as a major shipper along the rail line; when the depot burned down ten years later, the SP financed a replacement.
Similar to other stations constructed by the SP in the valley, the second depot featured a long trackside porch that provided a shady respite from the strong summer sun. In 1971, the SP ended passenger service and closed the station. It remained vacant until 2001 when the Madera Redevelopment Agency rehabilitated the structure; rededicated in 2002, it is active again as the offices of the local Chamber of Commerce.
The influence of the railroad on the urban form of Madera is quite obvious after a glance at an historic 1891 map, for the principle streets clearly parallel the tracks to maximize valuable business frontage on the transportation corridor. The tracks acted as a dividing line between the commercial area to the east and the residential zone to the west. The map also reveals the lumber company’s large yard south of Yosemite Avenue, with the flume running onto the property from the northeast. Between E 2nd and 7th Streets, the tracks expanded from one to three to accommodate busy conditions around the planing mill, the lumber yard, the SP depot, and a warehouse.
Due to natural and man-made difficulties such as droughts and economic depressions, the California Lumber Company fell into debt and was reorganized twice. The name and organization of the company may have changed, but its valuable land holdings in the mountains and rights-of-way remained. In 1899, the business emerged as the Madera Sugar Pine Company, which would operate soundly until the Great Depression. In those three decades, the enterprise would harvest more than 1.5 billion board feet of lumber from the mountain forests. To haul the lumber, the flume was supplemented by a narrow gauge railroad. While most of this rail network is now dismantled, one four mile section has been rebuilt near the south gate of Yosemite National Park and operates as an excursion railroad with restored Shay steam locomotives.
Apart from the lumber industry, agriculture was also important to Madera. Many of the towns in the San Joaquin Valley relied on extensive systems of canals and irrigation ditches to bring water to formerly barren plains. A dam was built across the Fresno River in 1886 to store a large quantity of water. Common crops included cotton, wheat and grapes while cattle and sheep were also grazed on the grasslands. Similar to Fresno to the southeast, Madera was also surrounded by a number of agricultural colonies. Typically, colonization efforts were initiated by land developers who aimed to secure water rights, prepare the land for agriculture, and then sell the plots; sometimes, the developer even planted basic crops to get new farmers started.
Madera developed as an important tourist center towards the end of the 19th century when the idea of leisure time was introduced to the growing middle class. New business concepts such as paid vacation allowed working professionals to take a break from their office jobs. The railroads, many of which were in fierce competition with one another, made long distance travel affordable. As industrialization increased, reformers called for Americans to reacquaint themselves with nature. Not surprisingly, the nation’s first national parks were soon established; spots of exceptional natural beauty and biological diversity were seen to have a value beyond that of the land itself.
All of these factors attracted visitors to central western California’s Yosemite Valley which was designated a national park in 1890. Tourists could take the train to Madera, stay the night, and then head out on the stagecoach lines running down Yosemite Avenue towards the mountains. Once in the park, visitors marveled at the waterfalls, streams, soaring granite formations, and the stands of giant sequoia trees. An early, famous tourist was former President Ulysses S. Grant. In October 1879, he arrived in Madera by private rail car before making his way to Yosemite.
The movement of lumber, agricultural goods, and people was facilitated by the railroads, and for almost two decades, the SP had a monopoly on rapid transportation within the valley. Farmers and travelers consistently complained about high freight and passenger rates. The primary rival to the SP in California was the ATSF, which had entered the far southern area of the state in the 1880s. In the mid-1890s, the new San Francisco and San Joaquin Valley Railroad (SF&SJV) proposed an alternate route through the San Joaquin Valley; by purchasing the SF&SJV in 1899 and securing trackage rights over the SP’s Tehachapi line, the ATSF gained a route between Los Angeles and the San Francisco bay area.
The SF&SJV tracks were laid on the eastern edge of Madera in 1896. The line was enthusiastically greeted by local farmers, but it was not easily accessible for passengers. Unlike the SP, which had a station downtown, the ATSF only operated a flagstop at Madera, meaning that passengers had to stand by the tracks and wave a flag to an approaching train to signal it to stop. Although adjacent to Madera, the flagstop was known as “Storey” after William Benson Storey who served as the chief engineer of the SF&SJV and later became president of the ATSF. The flagstop was at the same location as the former Amtrak station.
The lumber industry never revived after the Great Depression, and much of the former woodlands in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains were later incorporated into national and state parks. Madera remains an important agricultural area and is especially known for its figs, pistachios, and raisins. Grapes for winemaking were first cultivated at the end of the nineteenth century by settlers from Armenia, France, Spain, and Italy, and Madera wine was shipped across the world. After initial success, grape cultivation fell out of favor as other crops were pursued. Revived a century later by a group of independent vintners, Madera wines are noted for unique qualities that result from the influence of the Sierra Nevada and the Fresno River on the local climate. A popular tourist excursion is the Madera Wine Trail that allows visitors to taste wines at a number of local establishments.
Madera remains a popular entry point for visitors approaching Yosemite and King’s Canyon National Parks and Sierra National Forest. Those interested in local history may stop at the Madera County Historical Society Museum located in the former county courthouse erected in 1900. Exhibits tell the stories of the people who have called the region home, such as miners, woodsmen, and immigrants. Popular displays include a replica of a section of the famous flume and hundreds of historic photographs and ephemera. Courthouse Park to the east of the museum is popular as a spot for various community events, including the “Fiesta in the Park,” a day-long celebration of Latin American culture through music, food, crafts, and children’s activities.
The San Joaquins service is primarily financed through funds made available by the State of California, Department of Transportation, and is managed by the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority.
Platform with Shelter
- Quik-Trak kiosks
- No ticket sales office
- Accessible Restrooms
- Amtrak Express shipping not available
- No checked baggage service
- No checked baggage storage
- Bike boxes not available
- No baggage carts
- Ski bags not available
- Bag storage not available
- Shipping boxes not available
- No baggage assistance
- Same-day parking is available; fees may apply
- Overnight parking is available; fees may apply
- Accessible platform
- Accessible Restrooms
- No accessible ticket office
- No accessible waiting room
- No accessible water fountain
- Accessible same-day parking is available; fees may apply
- Accessible overnight parking is available; fees may apply
- No high platform
- No wheelchair
- Wheelchair lift available