Railroad Building Along The Santa Fe Trail


By John Moody in 1919


Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, Chicago, Illinois, 1943

Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, Chicago, Illinois, 1943

The Santa Fe Route, or the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, which has in modern times developed into one of the largest and most profitable railroad systems in this country, was projected long before the idea of a transcontinental line to the Pacific coast had taken full possession of men’s minds. As early as 1858 a plan was worked out for the construction of a line of about 40 miles within the State of Kansas to connect what were then the obscure and unimportant townships of Atchison and Topeka. At that time not a mile of the railroad had been built in Kansas or in any Territory west of that state, except on the Pacific coast, to which there had been an enormous immigration occasioned by the wonderful discovery of gold.

The outbreak of the Civil War delayed the undertaking of the Atchison-Topeka line, and nothing more was done until 1868. In that year new interests took control of the enterprise and acquired rights for its extension through southwestern Kansas in the direction of Santa Fe, the capital of the Territory of New Mexico.

The company, which had originally been the Atchison-Topeka, now changed its name to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe and obtained from the Government a very valuable land grant of 6400 acres for every mile constructed, the only condition being that within ten years the line should be completed from Atchison to the western border of Kansas. The plan involved the building of only 470 miles of road, which when finished would assure the company nearly three million acres of land within the State of Kansas.

A decade would seem to be ample time for the construction of this comparatively short railroad, particularly with the inducement of so extraordinary a land grant. Not only the Union Pacific but the Central Pacific and Kansas-Pacific–all built within this decade–had to accomplish far more construction in order to secure their respective grants, and yet they had their complete lines in operation years before the Santa Fe had fifty miles of track in actual commission. The reason for this delay was, of course, a financial one. The other roads had all received government aid in cash or securities in addition to land grants. But the Atchison line was, from the start, thrown on its own resources in raising capital, and it was not until late in 1869–nearly a year after the opening of the Union Pacific to the coast–that any construction work whatever was done. In that year the section from Topeka to Burlingame, consisting of about twenty-eight miles, was opened for traffic, and a year later the extension to Emporia was finished, thus making a total of sixty-one miles under operation.

Railroad tracks across Kansas.

Railroad tracks across Kansas.

The terms of the land grant provided that the entire line across Kansas should be completed by June 1873. When by 1872 only sixty-one miles of track had been built, the company still had over four hundred miles to go within ten months if it expected to obtain the land grant. But so energetically did the owners of the property work from that time on that within seven months they had reached the eastern boundary of Colorado and had thus saved the grant.

But like most of the Western railroads built in those early days the Santa Fe property was, in a sense, ahead of its time. The rapidity with which it shot across the State of Kansas in 1872 was equaled only by the promptness with which it fell into financial straits. No sooner had its complete line been opened for traffic than the panic of 1873 occurred; the company became embarrassed by a large floating debt, and a compromise had to be made with the bondholders whereby a postponement of a year’s interest was arranged.

No attempts were made to extend the Santa Fe during the long period of depression following the panic of 1873. The road ended in 1872 at the Colorado state line, and during the next few years, the only building of importance was a western spur to connect with the Denver and Rio Grande at Pueblo, thereby giving an outlet to the growing city of Denver and the rapidly developing mining regions of Colorado. About 1880, construction was resumed in a leisurely way, down the valley of the Rio Grande into New Mexico and in the direction of Albuquerque. In this extension, as in later building, the line of the old Arizona trail was usually followed. One writer has declared that “the original builders of the Atchison followed the line of the Arizona trail so religiously that if the trail skirted a ten-foot stream for a quarter of a mile to strike a shallow spot for fording, the railroad builders did likewise, instead of bridging the stream where they struck it, and where the trail ran up a tree or hid in a hollow rock to avoid the wolves or savages, the railroad did the same!”


Santa Fe Railroad through the Cajon Pass, California, 1943

Santa Fe Railroad through the Cajon Pass, California, 1943

The traveler of a generation ago over this particular section of the Santa Fe lines might have felt that there was some truth in this criticism; but the Atchison has long since cut out these idiosyncrasies of early construction, and the main line in this section of New Mexico is now noted for alignment and absence of curves and grades.

The builders of the Santa Fe lines in the early days no doubt planned ultimately to penetrate to the Pacific coast, knowing that the real opportunity for the road lay in that direction. The Southwest was yet but sparsely settled, and no railroad which had as its objective the plains or alkali deserts of Arizona or New Mexico could thrive–at least it could not for decades to come.

And yet in the early eighties, the real objective of the Atchison system had not been determined. Having passed its original objective point, Santa Fe, the road had reached Albuquerque, but it could not afford to stop there. Through traffic, it must have or die. New Mexico, with its thin population and its total lack of development, could not supply traffic in sufficient amount even to “feed the engines.”

To extend somewhere, then, was an imperative necessity. But whither? Several routes were under consideration. The Southern Pacific lines had worked eastward to El Paso on the Mexican border, several hundred miles due south from Albuquerque, and it looked feasible to extend the Atchison to that point and arrange a traffic agreement with the Southern Pacific, or to build an extension through New Mexico to Deming and then westward along the river valleys and down into Mexico to Guaymas on the Gulf of California. It was possible, in the third place, to build directly west from Albuquerque through Arizona and Southern California to the coast. Ultimately all of these plans were carried out.

The first extension of the Santa Fe was to Deming, New Mexico, where in March 1881, its tracks met those of the Southern Pacific, and by agreement the company secured the use of the Southern Pacific to Benson, Arizona. From the first, this new through route to the Pacific began to pay handsomely. Later on the line into Guaymas, Mexico was added by the purchase of the Sonora Railway. Soon afterward the Santa Fe secured from the St. Louis and San Francisco Railway a half interest in the charter of the Atlantic and Pacific, a company which planned to build through to the coast. Meanwhile, the St. Louis and San Francisco had been acquired by the Gould and Huntington interests, which, as the owners of the Texas and Pacific and the Southern Pacific systems, naturally opposed the plans of the Santa Fe. The matter was compromised by the agreement of the Santa Fe to build no farther west than the Colorado River, where the Santa Fe was to be met by an extension of the Southern Pacific line from Mojave, California.

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