Virginia Tolles, Wordsmith

Writing and Editing for You

"On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" *

The Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe's combined Super Chief / El Capitan arrives in Los Angeles in 1966
Surf Line Historical Society, released into the public domain (2003). Wikimedia Commons

There is a certain irony that is Route 66. The highway, especially as it passes through New Mexico, Arizona, and the eastern half of southern California, is set in some of the loneliest, barest, most forlorn terrain imaginable. Indeed, traditionalists spend as little time there as possible, except to take pictures of such oddities as the Tee Pee Curio shop and purchase such treasures as burnished pottery made by the Anasazi Indians. They are glad to speed past it all on I-40 or, better yet, to fly over it. It is different for the anti-establishment, who make their way slowly along on their motorbikes and in their VW beetles and buses, camping out beside the Mother Road and sharing tall tales while drinking beer in the honky tonks that dot the highway.


But that is post-World War II culture. Before the war – indeed, beginning after the Civil War and continuing up to the attack on Pearl Harbor – Route 66 and especially the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, which ran parallel to it, belonged to the upper and upper-middle classes. There, they glided across the desert in the comfort of their deluxe accommodations aboard the Chief, Super Chief, El Capitan, and the Grand Canyon Limited. When the train stopped at the Santa Fe Railway’s service centers, the passengers left the train and entered the gloriously expensive and expansive railroad hotels and dining rooms that were the Harvey Houses.  The chain of architectural wonders, standing in the middle of this vast desert terrain, added a bit of civilization to the Old West. They were designed to do that, for they sought to serve people for whom the desert southwest was a foreign land.

Let's start with the train. Often known simply as the Santa Fe, the railroad was chartered by the Kansas territorial legislature on February 11, 1859, as the Atchison and Topeka Railroad Company. On November 14, 1863, the name was changed to Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad Company to include Santa Fe to reflect aspirations of extending the line from Topeka to Santa Fe. When the company was reorganized on December 12, 1895, the name was changed again, this time to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company.

Ground was broken in 1868, and sections of railway opened between Topeka and Atchison and between Topeka and Newton, all in Kansas. Construction west of Newton began in 1872, and reached Las Animas, Colorado, in 1875. Also, in 1975, the railway acquired the line from Topeka to Kansas City. The westward expansion continued with the railway reaching Pueblo, Colorado, in 1876; Santa Fe and Albuquerque in 1880. Construction west of Albuquerque was begun for the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad in the summer of 1880, reaching Needles, California, in August 1883, and Mojave in summer 1884. By 1885, the California Southern Railway had built the track on into Los Angeles. These smaller railroads would be acquired by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe in the coming years.

Just as the federal highways would do in the 20th century, the railroads followed the old wagon trails. As the pioneers made their way westward, they followed the routes of the Old Santa Fe Trail, between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains; the Old Spanish Trail, from Santa Fe and California; the Gila Trail, between the Colorado River and the Tucson area; and the Middle Route, which headed west through Albuquerque. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe was no different; it followed the Middle Route from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Needles, California.

The connection between Lamy and Santa Fe, in New Mexico, was a difficult one, with the terrain forcing the railroad to terminate in Lamy and pick up again in Santa Fe. Expansion was further hampered by the sparse population of the area, which made the project an economic challenge. To raise funds, the railroad sold land that had been granted to it by Congress. The challenge of crossing the Rocky Mountains came as much from competing railroads as from the terrain. In an effort to bolster its sagging financial picture, the Santa Fe proposed a merger with the Southern Pacific in 1883. The Interstate Commerce Commission denied the petition, citing an excessive number of duplicate routes. The Southern Pacific was sold off, and the Santa Fe continued to operate.


The State of Railroads in the 1880s

Not only were the railroads spreading west in the 1880s, they were adding many new track miles. Between 1880 and 1890, the railroads built more than 73,000 new miles of track, giving these United States a total of 163,500 miles of rail. Most was laid in the southern and western states and territories.

It stood to reason that a uniform gauge of track was needed in order to move passengers and freight efficiently from one area to another. The standard gauge that was adopted was 4 feet, 8-1/2 inches. The change from narrow and lighter gauges of track was not an easy one to effect, for narrow and lighter were less expensive. Still, need won out over economies of scale, and the standard gauge won out nationwide. The narrow gauge lines that remained were mainly on branch lines and industrial lines.


Rail Travel in the 1880s

Passenger train travel was not noted in its amenities in the early years (even decades). Originally, seats were wooden slats. The earliest padded seats had straight backs, much like the seats on school buses today. The creature comforts came with the addition of two features: the dining car and the Pullman car.

According to author Paty Jager, there were three classes of travel: first, second, and third, with third class being the least expensive. There, passengers sat on wooden benches in an open car. Men and women shared a single restroom of an outhouse design and washed up using water dipped from a pail. Because they could not afford to buy food on the train, they brought their own food. This cannot have been very pleasant in the cold of winter or the blistering heat of summer. Still, if only for time savings afforded by rail travel, it probably was better than riding on horseback or on a wagon.

Second-class passengers rode in enclosed coaches with cushioned seats and a shared men-and-women’s restroom. They could either purchase sandwiches onboard or meals at meal stops. The problem was that the train did not remain in the station long enough for the passengers to sit down and enjoy a good meal, and the food usually wasn’t very good.

First-class passengers rode in style with leather seats, enclosed cars, and separate men’s and women’s restrooms, which were located at opposite ends of each coach. They ate sandwiches and other light fare in the buffet car, until dining cars were added to the trains. They also had the option of bringing their own bedding and sleeping on wooden bunks. Of course, George Pullman’s sleeping cars provided even more luxury to first-class passengers.

Author Jager described the earliest Pullman cars:

The plush Pullman coaches had padded velvet seats that folded down into comfortable beds and beds were pulled down from the ceiling as well. The first cars had curtains that closed for privacy. And special “Pullman Porters” were men trained to attend the passengers’ needs. These cars were made of mahogany, black walnut, and oak with etchings on the glass doors on the ends and gas lit chandeliers. One end of the car had a man’s salon, wash room, and lavatory while the other end had these same amenities for the women. They also had hot running water

During the decade of the 1880s, passenger comforts improved. Steam heating derived from the steam engines that drove the trains. Electrical lighting replaced gas lights. Both improvements came about out of need. The old pot-bellied heating stove and gas lights had proven to be catastrophic in derailments, causing the wooden coaches to conflagrate with tremendous suffering and death. Two other safety features would follow in the 1890s: the safety brake and the knuckle coupler.


The Pullman Company

No discussion of passenger rail travel would be complete without an overview of the Pullman Company. Established in 1862 by George Pullman, it was inspired by an overnight trip between Buffalo and Westfield, New York, in which Mr. Pullman sat up all night. He determined to develop “an improved passenger railcar that contained sleeper berths for all its passengers” and named his company the Pullman Palace Car Company.

Facing bench seats slid out to form a lower berth, while an upper berth folded down from the ceiling. Curtains provided privacy. Restrooms at each end of the car served men and women, respectively. The cars were furnished with carpeting and draperies. Lounge cars (or the lounge area in multi-purpose cars) were furnished with upholstered chairs, libraries, and card tables.

In 1897, when George Pullman died, Robert Todd Lincoln, son of former-President Abraham Lincoln, became president of the Pullman Company.

Pullman manufactured heavyweight sleeping cars and leased them to the railroads, complete with conductors and porters. At the company’s height in the mid-1920s, it had 9,800 cars in service with the railroads.

In 1930, the Pullman Company purchased the Standard Steel Car Company to form the Pullman-Standard Car Manufacturing Company. At this time, the heavyweight cars were starting to be replaced by lightweight cars. Steel and wood were out; stainless steel and aluminum were in.

In 1940, the Department of Justice filed an anti-trust complaint against Pullman in an effort to force it to separate its sleeping car operations from its manufacturing efforts. The court concurred, and Pullman split its sleeping car operations among 57 railroads. After the breakup of the Pullman Company, ownership of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway’s previously leased sleeping cars passed to them, while Pullman leased the right to operate them.

Pullman manufactured its last lightweight sleeping car in 1965 for Kansas City Southern. Thereafter, it built cars for commuter rail, subways, and Amtrak Superliners. It ceased production in 1982 and was absorbed by Bombardier in 1987.

What Happened to the Old Heavyweight Cars?

After World War II, many older heavyweight Pullman cars were being used by railroad maintenance workers. By 1950, heavyweight Pullmans were being used mostly on secondary trains and on troop trains to and from California during the Korean War. By 1955, only one heavyweight was being used on Santa Fe trains; it rain between Dallas and Oklahoma City. By May 1961, heavyweights were used only on service into Mexico.In the early 1960s, many were sent to scrapyards. Those not scrapped were sought for historic preservation. Today, few can be found for restoration/preservation.

The Streamliners

In the early 1930s, the discomforts of passenger rail travel began to fade away with the coming of streamliner trains. It was a necessary change, for automobiles were now capable of traveling long distances and offered comforts that the trains had not: comfortable seating, the option to sit down and enjoy a leisurely meal, and the option to stop at a motor court for a good night’s sleep.

The railroads might have been down, but they weren’t out. Drawing on the sleek details of Art Deco design and diesel-electric technology, they moved from the square-and-boxy era and into the streamliner era. Futuristic locomotives and stainless-steel coaches became the order of the day. Within, the latest technology joined in. The first streamliner train was Union Pacific’s M-10000, which was soon followed by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s Zephyr 9900. Both offered something else existing trains could not: speed. The Zephyr made the journey from Denver to Chicago in just over 13 hours.

Kinks had to be worked out, of course. The M-10000 and the Zephyr were articulated train sets, meaning they came already conjoined. Additional cars could not be added, and if a system failed in one car, it failed in all cars. And, so, the railroads returned to the earlier concept of separate and system-independent cars, yet with sleek styling that eliminated the heavy wood interiors of the heavyweight cars.

The trendsetter made its debut in 1935 on the Baltimore & Ohio’s Royal Blue, which operated between Washington, DC, and Jersey City, New Jersey. It was pulled by the first self-contained diesel locomotive, known as the Electromotive Division Boxcab No. 50. Its cars were constructed of aluminum and offered wider seats, both a dining car and a buffet-lounge car, and a rounded trailing observation car. The concept caught on and would hold on for the next fifty years.

The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe bought into streamliners using Electromotive Division EA-series locomotives and Budd Corporation stainless-steel cars. The railroad ran several routes between Chicago and the West Coast.



When the Chief began life in 1926, it was not a streamliner. Rather, it pulled by a steam locomotive and  pulled heavyweight cars. The Chief was an all-Pullman train.


On January 31, 1938, the Chief was given streamlined, lightweight cars from the Budd Corporation and Pullman-Standard. It continued to be pulled by a steam locomotive, the streamlined 4-6-4 Hudson. It would not receive a diesel one until 1947. Then, it received the Alco PA locomotive.


The Chief featured sleepers, a buffet / lounge car with a barbershop, a club car, a diner, and an observation car. It made the Chicago-to-Los Angeles run in 45 hours. It served the Santa Fe until May 1968.


Super Chief

The Super Chief was the Santa Fe’s premiere train and its train of choice among privileged travelers. It was inaugurated in May 1937 to compete with Union Pacific’s City of Los Angeles. Electromotive Division EA-series locomotives pulled Budd Corporation stainless-steel coaches.

To add still more flair to the streamliner appeal, the Santa Fe gave the Super Chief its red-and-yellow color scheme, “warbonnet” theme, and a name that was in keeping with the native American territories through which it would travel. Even the interior décor picked up on the theme, using the Navajo colors of turquoise and copper, native American patterns, and authentic murals. It did not stop there. It took on dome lounge / observation cars and dining rooms that were called “The Turquoise Room.”

The Super Chief retained its on-time arrivals and impeccable care and service through its end in 1971, when Amtrak assumed passenger rail service. Sadly, Amtrak did not keep these distinctly southwestern-themed cars on its Southwest Chief trains. Elsewhere, they were misunderstood and seen as dated.


El Capitan

El Capitan made its maiden run in February 1938 as an augmentation of the Super Chief. It was an all-coach train designed for passengers who did not want or could not afford all the ruffles and flourishes of the other two trains.

It was pulled by the new Electromotive Division EA-series locomotives and featured stainless-steel Budd Corpor-ation coaches that offered reclining seats, a diner, and a high-level observation car in its five-car consist. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, it received improvements, including the still-known dome cars and, later, the industry’s first high-level cars for observation along the very scenic Chicago-to-Los Angeles route.

El Capitan made the trip from Chicago to Los Angeles in less than 40 hours, and in spite of making more than 20 stops along the way, averaged more than 56 miles per hour. It remained a popular run with good services for passengers until it was handed over to Amtrak in 1971.


Grand Canyon Limited

The history of the Grand Canyon Limited begins with the Santa Fe and Grand Canyon Railroad, a 56-mile run from Williams, Arizona, north to Anita, where it supplied personnel and supplies to the copper mines. The track ended 15 miles south of the Grand Canyon.

Establishment of the Santa Fe and Grand Canyon Railroad


July 31, 1897 – Railroad was incorporated

June 1, 1899 – Grading of the track bed began

October 1899 – Rails were laid

June 1900 – Railroad became operational


The railroad was short lived. Only three months after it became operational, it entered receivership. Eight months later, it was sold to the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. The Santa Fe built the remaining fifteen miles of track to the Grand Canyon and renamed the railway the “Grand Canyon Railway.”

On September 17, 1901, the new railway carried its first passengers, tourists to the Grand Canyon from Southern California, Chicago, and Texas. In 1905, the Fred Harvey Company built El Tovar Hotel on the south rim of the Grand Canyon to receive these passengers; that hotel remains operational today.

To meet the demand, the Santa Fe established the Grand Canyon Limited to carry passengers from Chicago and Los Angeles, to Williams, where they transferred to the Grand Canyon Railway for the remainder of their journey. The route became operational on June 29, 1929.

In 1968, the Santa Fe ceased operations of the Grand Canyon Railway, although the Grand Canyon Limited continued to operate between Chicago and Los Angeles until it was ceded to Amtrak in 1971.

Today, the Grand Canyon Railroad operates as an excursion train without ties to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. It uses vintage rolling stock from the days of its predecessor trains, as well as from Amtrak’s Viewliner trains. Read about it on



Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company. Along Your Way: Facts about stations and scenes on the Santa Fe. 1949.

Chief, The: The Train That Started It All for the Santa Fe.

El Capitan, The: Santa Fe’s Famous All-coach Chicago – L.A. Train.

Gildersleeve, Thomas H. (photographer) and Le Massena, Robert A. (writer). Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. Vanishing Vistas Postcard by Lyman E. Cox, 1974.

Grand Canyon Limited.

Jager, Paty. Train Travel in the 1800s in Cactus Rose of the Wild Rose Press. May 19, 2009. Retrieved June 4, 2012.

Legendary Super Chief, The: Flagship of the Santa Fe.

Pullman Company.

Railroading in the 1880s. Retrieved June 4, 2012.

Santa Fe and Grand Canyon Railroad.

“Santa Fe Heavyweight Cars.” Santa Fe On-Line Resources (Fr. Herman Page, Ed.). Santa Fe Railway Historical and Modeling Society.

Santa Fe Passenger Trains. Retrieved June 2, 2012.

Streamliners: The Legendary American Passenger Train.

* "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" was a song written by Harry Warren (music) and Johnny Mercer (lyrics) for the movie, The Harvey Girls (Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1946). It was sung by Judy Garland in an ensemble chorus.