Long-gone Madera Co. town begins high-speed rail line

December 20, 2010 

MADERA -- When the California High-Speed Rail Authority announced that it wanted to start building its future 800-mile train system near Borden, a cry arose across the state:

"Where the heck is Borden?"

It's a fair question, said Fermin Huarte.

"I think I'm probably one of the few people around here who even realize where Borden is," said Huarte, 77, who lives about a half-mile from where the town once thrived -- west of Highway 99 and north of Avenue 12.

About 130 years ago, Borden was a bustling village along the Central Pacific Railroad tracks, north of Cottonwood Creek in territory that would become part of Madera County.

Now long forgotten, the town is marked only by an unkempt cemetery with the graves of a handful of Chinese railroad workers. The site is overshadowed by a modern freeway interchange that offers gas stations and fast-food eateries.

But the name, at least, has been given new life as the northern end of the first section of high-speed train tracks. And it's become symbolic of what critics of high-speed rail call "a train to nowhere."

It's a catchy slogan, but it ignores the reality that there are no plans to ever operate 220 mph trains on the tracks to or from Borden.

Ending the system at Borden is, after all, simply a backup plan -- a just-in-case measure if money runs out before high-speed tracks can be built northward from Fresno.

In a worst-case scenario, the $5.5 billion in federal and state money earmarked for the first section of construction includes money to connect the new high-speed tracks near Herndon Avenue to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail line, about two miles northeast of Borden. That would allow Amtrak trains, at least, to use the new line, which would run 54 miles south to Corcoran and perhaps farther, depending on funding.

It's not been decided whether the high-speed trains will run alongside the Union Pacific railroad tracks or the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line north of Fresno. But in any case, high-speed trains won't carry passengers at least until the system reaches from the Valley to either Los Angeles or San Francisco.

Middle of nowhere

Calling Borden "nowhere," however, is actually a pretty apt description, according to the few people who live nearby.

Huarte, who has lived in his home on Road 29 just south of Avenue 12 for more than 50 years, said he cannot recall ever seeing any building or remnant of the original town, save for the Chinese cemetery. "There's never been anything out there that I remember; maybe just a couple of old sheds," he said.

Another neighbor, Mike Meisner, said he wasn't sure he heard it right when Borden was named as the northern end of the first high-speed rail section.

"I just said, 'Well, there's nothing there anymore,' " said Meisner, 61, whose family has farmed Thompson seedless grapes just west of the old town for almost 50 years.

Meisner said he learned bits and pieces about Borden's history from his parents after the family moved there in 1964. "I always wondered about the name 'Borden Street,' " he said of a long-neglected half-mile strip of asphalt, part of which apparently follows the route of one of the original streets.

Sam Pistoresi, who co-owns Madera Pumps Inc. just south of the Borden town site, counts himself among the critics who wonders why anyone would want to start the project "in the middle of nowhere."

"Naturally, I know where Borden is," said Pistoresi, whose family came from Italy and settled in Madera in about 1900. "But I have to question anybody in their right mind wanting to start building high-speed rail out here and work backwards. ... It's just stupid."

Disappearing history

Borden was not always "nowhere," although that is what it was before migrating families from Alabama and Mississippi established the Alabama Colony in 1868-69. By the time the communities of Madera and Fresno were founded, the Alabama Colony already was a thriving farming settlement, according to historical information from the Madera County Library.

When the Central Pacific Railroad -- now the Union Pacific -- arrived from the north in 1872, the town was named for Dr. Joseph Borden, one of its civic leaders and original settlers. The railroad built its depot on the east side of the tracks, while the town was on the west side. The arrival of the railroad also brought about 2,500 Chinese laborers, for whom the cemetery was established southwest of the town in 1872.

By 1874, Borden had two hotels, two stores, two livery stables, two blacksmiths, and a post office, saloon, restaurant, butcher shop, barber and doctor's office. At its peak in the mid-1870s, the town reportedly had about 250 residents in addition to railroad workers.

But in the late 1870s, a lumber company decided to build a flume ending in Madera and built its sawmill there instead of Borden. That spelled the beginning of the end of the town. Businesses and residents eventually moved three miles north to Madera. The 1880 U.S. census listed 153 residents in Borden, and the town was virtually abandoned by 1890.

Borden's post office, which opened in 1873, closed briefly in 1896 and was shut for good in 1907.

The last original building, believed to have been the Borden Hotel, was torn down in 1975. The Casa Grande Motel, where one can rent a room for $39.99 a night, sits where the Borden Hotel was located. Most of the surrounding land is planted with grapevines.

The approximate site of Central Pacific's Borden depot is now occupied by National Hardware Supply's equipment sales yard full of graders, tractors and other heavy equipment.

The Chinese cemetery, which once encompassed a full acre at what is now the corner of Avenue 12 and Road 281/4, is a forlorn patch of bare earth with an overgrown oleander bush near the eight remaining grave markers. A marker offers a brief history of the site.

Rail connection

If you really want to go "nowhere," though, you need to head about two miles to the northeast, to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks.

That's where high-speed-rail planners would connect their dedicated line from Herndon -- if they had to -- to the rails Amtrak now uses. The engineers say it's "a point approximately 0.4 miles north of Avenue 13" along the BNSF tracks.

Maps show that Avenue 13 leads right up to the tracks from the east. Don't believe them. A half-mile of dirt road gives way to a half-mile of no road at all before reaching the rail line -- where a curious reporter last week was greeted by several equally curious cows peering through a barbed-wire fence.

As a freight train blows its horn in the distance, one thing is sure: You're not in Borden anymore.

The reporter can be reached at tsheehan@fresnobee.com or (559)441-6319.

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