The Santa Fe Rail-Trail follows the still-active rail line between Lamy and Santa Fe. It was originally constructed by the legendary Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (AT&SF) in the late 19th century. Ironically, while Santa Fe was part of the company’s name, the town was reached only via a branch and not located along the main line. The history of the AT&SF began before the Civil War, and the line grew into one of the most influential, best-remembered railroads of all time, reaching Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver, and the Gulf Coast. The Santa Fe has since disappeared but many of its lines remain important arteries under successor BNSF Railway, moving millions of tons of freight and goods annually. Its branch to Santa Fe is also still active, owned by short line Santa Fe Southern Railway.
The Santa Fe’s colorful history dates to September 1860, when the Atchison & Topeka Railroad was organized by noted tycoon Cyrus K. Holliday. The intent was to connect Atchison and Topeka, Kansas, with Santa Fe, New Mexico; however, funding issues precluded any real construction from taking place for several years. Prospects brightened following President Abraham Lincoln’s signing of a land grant bill on March 3, 1863, which aided in the railroad’s ability to more easily acquire its needed right-of-way. That same year on November 24, the company’s name was changed to the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. Following more delays, construction finally began on October 30, 1868, in Topeka. On April 26, 1869, the AT&SF operated its first train on 7 miles of finished track, pulled by the 4-4-0 “Cyrus K. Holliday.” Work proceeded quickly westward, with service opened through southeastern Colorado and on to Albuquerque, New Mexico, by 1880.
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Alas, much to the display of Santa Fe’s citizens, AT&SF’s main line completely bypassed what later became the New Mexico state capital to the south because the difficult topography. As the company continued its march toward the Pacific Coast, Santa Fe worried it would be left without rail service entirely. However, in 1879, the railroad began drawing up plans to build an 18-mile branch from the main line at Lamy to Santa Fe. It was completed on February 9, 1880, and officially opened for service on February 16. Today’s Santa Fe Rail-Trail follows this still-active line. Even during the best years, the line never had a considerable volume of freight and passengers. In 1888, the Denver & Rio Grande (later part of the better known Denver & Rio Grande Western) reached Santa Fe via a narrow-gauge route dubbed the “Chili Line.” The two railroads, once bitter rivals, interchanged freight here until the Rio Grande abandoned its branch in 1941.
A few years following the completed Santa Fe Branch, the AT&SF opened to Needles, California, in 1883. The railroad spent the rest of the 19th century expanding deeper into the Golden State, reaching Los Angeles, San Diego, and the San Francisco Bay Area by 1900. It also pushed extensions to Denver in 1882, Chicago in 1888, and points throughout Texas, including the Gulf Coast. All of this growth happened via a combination of new construction and by acquiring a multitude of smaller systems. According to Mike Schafer’s book “Classic American Railroads,” the Santa Fe reached its peak size in 1931 at 13,568 route miles, earning the status as the longest railroad in the United States at that time. On May 12, 1936, the company launched the “Super Chief,” bringing to life one of the best remembered passenger trains of all time. Extra-fare, top-tier service was nothing new for the Santa Fe, as it had been fielding luxurious trains for many years, including the original Chief launched in 1926.
What sat the Super Chief apart was its fast schedule between Chicago and Los Angeles (just under 40 hours), easily besting anything the competition had to offer. The train was also diesel-powered, a new technology that at the time was uncommon. In May 1937, the Santa Fe re-launched the train as a complete streamliner, gleaming in stainless-steel and wearing the now-classic Warbonnet livery. The incredible success of the Super Chief saw the Santa Fe field an entire fleet of similar trains, such as the Super Chief’s counterpart, the all-coach “El Capitan,” the “San Francisco Chief” (San Francisco–Chicago), “Texas Chief” (Chicago–Houston), and “Grand Canyon”(Chicago–Los Angeles), among others. As patronage declined precipitously after World War II, the Santa Fe downsized its passenger fleet in response. However, unlike many railroads, its services remained top-notch until the end when Amtrak took over most of the nation’s intercity passenger trains on May 1, 1971.
Top-notch service held true for the company in general. Throughout most of its corporate existence, the Santa Fe was a well-managed, efficiently run, and profitable railroad. As for the branch to Santa Fe, it remained part of its network for many years. During the early 1990s, the railroad spent a great deal of effort reducing segments of its network it deemed either unprofitable or superfluous. This included the line to Santa Fe; up for abandonment it was purchased in 1992 by local investors who started the Santa Fe Southern Railway as a freight carrier and provider of excursion train rides. Over the years this business has fluctuated greatly, and while the line is still active, service is currently intermittent. In addition, since 2008 the northern segment has been used as part of New Mexico Rail Runner commuter service operating between Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Belen.
Railroad attractions in New Mexico include the Clovis Depot Model Train Museum in Clovis, Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad excursion in Chama, and the Toy Train Depot Foundation in Alamogordo.