Chartered in Kansas as the Atchison and Topeka Railroad Company in 1859 and renamed the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in 1863, the AT&SF, or just “the Santa Fe”, as it became known, was the inspiration of Cyrus K. Holliday, a Topeka, Kansas lawyer and business promoter. Holliday’s vision was to build a railroad along a wagon trail and trading route called the “Santa Fe Trail”, that ran from Independence, Missouri, to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Eventually, Holliday wanted a line that reached from Kansas to California and from Kansas to the Gulf of Mexico and from Kansas back to Chicago and the East.

The Transcontinental Railroads

The Pacific Railroad Acts of 1862 and 1864 gave away millions of acres of land to the railroads, and were originally intended to encourage the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads to connect the East with the West coast. Other transcontinental roads made use of the land grants as well, however, and in 1866, the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad got a Congressional charter to build along the 35th parallel, from St. Louis to the Colorado river on the California border (near present-day Needles, California). A&P never finished the job, and was bought out by St. Louis & San Francisco.

Meanwhile, AT&SF made great progress in its goal to lay rail from Topeka to Santa Fe, down through Raton Pass. Construction on the railroad began in 1869 and the line from Topeka to the Colorado state line was opened in1873. In June 1879, the AT&SF had conquered Raton Pass and reached Las Vegas, New Mexico. In 1880, the line reached Lamy, east of Santa Fe (AT&SF mainline never actually went to the old Spanish provincial capital: just a spur from Lamy).

Even as the AT&SF steamrolled towards Albuquerque, company officials pursued plans to share in the lucrative Pacific cost traffic. In 1880, Santa Fe entered into a partnership with the financially strapped St. Louis and San Francisco Railway. Under the agreement, the Santa Fe purchased one-half of the A&P stock held by the St. Louis and San Francisco. Using the A&P charter, both the SL&SF and the AT&SF shared equally in the expenses of constructing the tracks westward from Albuquerque. By 1887, the line stretched from Kansas City, Kansas, to Los Angeles. In 1888 the line to the West Coast from Chicago was completed.

The railroad expanded in the 1880s and early 1890s to reach about 9,000 miles, but went bankrupt in the “Panic of 1893”. After reorganization and relocation of the headquarters from Boston and New York to Chicago, the new AT&SF emerged stronger than ever. Under Edward Payson Ripley, its president from 1895 until 1920, the Santa Fe flourished and grew to more than 11,000 miles of track. Its often mountainous lines pressed railroad technology to the very limit, and the Santa Fe pruchased the latest in locomotive power from the dominant manufacturer of the time, Baldwin Locomotive Company.

At its peak in 1941, the Santa Fe had more than 13,000 miles of track, but it went down from there. In 1971, Santa Fe turned over its famed passenger service to Amtrak, and in 1995, Burlington Northern purchased the Santa Fe’s holding company, and the resulting company took the name Burlington Northern Santa Fe corporation (BNSF or “Big New Santa Fe”).

The Santa Fe was not, however, just another railroad. Through its efforts to promote its passenger rail and tourism business, the Santa Fe Railway was intimately involved in the creation of modern-day culture in the Southwestern United States.

The Harvey Houses and Harvey Girls

Restauranteur Fred Harvey was one the people responsible for the AT&SF’s success as a passenger railroad and engine of tourism. Upon arrival in Kansas in 1870, Mr. Harvey met Charlie Morse, President of the fledgling Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway. He persuaded Morse to let him establish restauarants along the Santa Fe line. Like Harvey, Morse liked good food, and was keenly aware that railroad travel was gastronomic hell. Fred Harvey's company would bring good food at reasonable prices in clean, elegant restaurants. By offering good food served promptly--in contrast to competitiors, which often served meals as the train was pulling out of the station-- Harvey enjoyed tremendous success. Harvey Houses brought imported china and silver and Irish linen to places where previously the cuisine had consisted of burnt cow, beans and bacon. The first Harvey House opened in Topeka, Kansas in 1876 and reached 100 Harvey Houses by 1917.

Harvey Houses also brought “Harvey Girls” to places awash with single men working in the railroad, mining and ranching enterprises. Most of the girls were recruited from “good homes” in the East and had no little part in taming the West. The Harvey Girls brought culture, refinement and romance. The same pioneering spirit that sent restless young men into the West drew the Harvey Girls. Young, intelligent, and well-turned out in their crisp white aprons and bows over well-fitted black shirtwaists, the girls were were housed in dormitories presided over by sensible, mature housemothers. They were looked after as carefully as boarding school students in the East. Of Fred Harvey, Will Rogers once said: “He kept the West in food and wives.” Hollywood eventually recognized the romantic potential of this scenario in the 1946 musical, “The Harvey Girls” (MGM)starring Judy Garland and features Angela Lansbury ("Murder She Wrote"), Ray Bolger (The Wizard of Oz), Cyd Charisse, Chill Wills, Marjorie Main (Ma and Pa Kettle) and Preston Foster. Songs fromThe Harvey Girls include “The Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe.”

Southwestern Art, Architecture and Design

Along with bringing good food and girls to the men of the American West, the Santa Fe Railway and the Fred Harvey Company created a distinctive Southwestern-style art and architecture.

W.F. White, the first advertising agent for the AT&SF, knew of the work of artist Thomas Moran, who had painted Yellowstone and had accompanied Major John Wesley Powell, one of the first surveyors of the Colorado River. In 1892, White commissioned Moran to paint the Grand Canyon. In return, the railroad would receive all reproduction rights to one painting for use in an advertising campaign. Thousands of lithographs of “The Grand Canon”{sic}, by Moran were sent to offices, hotels, schools and homes in the East. Nowhere was the railroad mentioned; instead the prints helped create the mystique of the desert Southwest as a travel destination.

After the turn of the century another Santa Fe advertising agent, William Haskell Simpson began to send other artists on three-to-four week excursions in the Southwest. This work went into in posters, calendars, magazine advertising and postcards. In 1907, Simpson acquired 108 paintings outright, in order to avoid copyright problems, and began one of the most important corporate art collections in the country.

In 1901, Fred Harvey Company hired Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter to decorate the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque. Colter blended details from Native American buildings and crafts with the sensibilities of the Arts and Crafts movement. Colter later designed three more Harvey hotels: El Navajo (Gallup, New Mexico), La Posada (Winslow, Arizona), and the Painted Desert Inn (Painted Desert, Arizona), as well as several buildings at the Harvey concession on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon: the Hopi House (1913), Hermit's Rest (1914), and Indian Watchtower at Desert View (1932).

The SuperChief

Eventually, the Santa Fe Railway’s trains themselves became something of a work of art and a travel destination. By 1930, Santa Fe had pioneered air-conditioned passenger cars. After WWII, the trains were pulled by new, streamlined diesel-electric locomotives, the F7 and F9 units from General MotorsElectro-Motive Division or EMD. The new, locomotives got a paint job that was known as the “Warbonnet”: red with yellow trim, in a sweeping S-curve, followed by a stainless steel hood that matched the stainless steel siding of the baggage, dining and passenger cars. The interiors were decorated by Mary Colter in a Southwestern motif, right down to the napkins and china used in the Fred Harvey Company dining cars. The train was called the SuperChief, and it was the epitome of rail travel in US history.

You can still ride from Chicago to LA on Amtrak, but it’s just not the same. Interstate Highways and jet air travel killed long distance passenger rail.


Russel Crump’s Santa Fe Archives:

Land grants: Maps: US:

By state:

Historical sketch; use of Baldwin (steam) locomotives during the hey-day of the Santa Fe, 1890-1910:

Historical sketch, Texas subsidiaries:

Historical Sketch, early records maintained by Harvard Business School:

The AT&SF crosses New Mexico:

Fred Harvey and Mary Colter:

Mary Colter china designs chosen for the Superchief:

SuperChief Advertising:*Access/index.html

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