Santa Fe remains synonymous with railroads, thanks to the continued existence of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, even though a merger in 1994 with Burlington Northern all but obliterated Santa Fe’s name from the new company. Now known as BNSF, future generations will certainly not recall the colorful history of the AT&SF Railroad, nor the origins of the name of the BNSF.
Long before this merger, in the beginnings of the western expansion of the railroads, the AT&SF was formed in 1859 to connect Kansas with Santa Fe, the legendary capital of the newly formed New Mexico territory. However, unknown to most, there was another railroad that served Santa Fe. Ironically, the AT&SF never even reached the capital, as the elevation grade made routing through Santa Fe impractical. But the grades were nothing for the tough narrow gauge (3 feet wide) railroad known as the Denver and Rio Grande (D&RG), incorporated in 1870 to build tracks from Denver to Santa Fe. Its company emblem was scribed with the words: “Through the Rockies, not around them.”
The history of the conflicts between the AT&SF and D&RG railroads is legendary. Competition for the lucrative routes that would link the silver and gold riches of Utah and Colorado with the rest of the country eventually led to a conflict between the AT&SF and the upstart Denver D&R). The dream of the upstart D&RG owners was to eventually connect Denver with El Paso Texas, an arduous task to say the least. The fierce competition between the two railroads intensified until literally a war broke out over the lucrative Southern Colorado Arkansas River basin, where a narrow gateway named the Royal Gorge gave access to the many mines of western Colorado. The Royal Gorge War was intense, violent and even involved hired gunslingers such as Doc Holliday and Bat Masterson. It looked like the AT&SF would secure the lucrative routes through force of arms until a circuit court ruling in the D&RG’s favor proved decisive. Armed now with the force of the law, the D&RG was free to pursue a direct line connecting Colorado with Santa Fe. Believing a narrow gauge design to be superior in the mountainous terrain between Antonito and Santa Fe, the company began laying a narrow gauge track south from southern Colorado to Santa Fe. The narrow track was layed within the portion of the D&RG from Antonito, Colorado, on through the small New Mexico towns of Tres Piedras, Taos Junction, Embudo, Espanola and eventually on to Santa Fe. This section was nicknamed the “Chili Line” in honor of New Mexico’s premier and distinctive crop, but its official name was the Santa Fe Branch. Though the majority of western commercial traffic would continue to go to the AT&SF, the Chili Line leg of the D&RG began construction in 1880, eventually, providing a valuable link between the small and isolated northern New Mexican and southern Colorado farmers and ranchers and the country’s larger markets.
Due to its remote nature from Antonito, Colorado, down through desolate Northern New Mexico to Santa Fe, the Chili Line would be an informal one. The engineers and fireman “often stopped to shoot jackrabbits and coyotes. Sometimes passengers joined in the sport… In the little town of Tres Piedras, the train would meet ‘a yellow mongrel dog…’ The engineer tossed off a newspaper daily which the dog picked up and carried to the home of its owner.” (The Evening Independent -St. Petersburg, Florida: Associated Press- September 2, 1941). Ironically, the court decision to bring peace between the AT&SF and the D&RG prevented D&RG to go further south than Espanola, so another train company was formed, named the Texas, Santa Fe and Northern Rail Road Company, and in 1886, the Chili Line arrived in the Santa Fe Railyards. The Chili Line continued its operations until 1941 when transportation by truck began the erosion of the small narrow gauge “feeder lines” throughout the country. But it didn’t end there, the final successor inter-city train, known as the Zephyr, continued service until the mid 1980s.
So, at least 3 Railroads have used the Santa Fe Railyards for depots, not just the more famous one, the AT&SF, whom as I said in the beginning, has itself fallen to the fate of time and is now only represented by 2 letters behind the BR of Burlington Northern Santa Fe, whose harsh orange engines laboriously pull double decked railcars from China across the country-side.
A visit to Santa Fe should always include a tour of the Santa Fe Railyards where the original depots of these railroads can be seen. And where else to stay but the Inn on the Alameda, conveniently located near the Plaza and Canyon Road as well. If you don’t feel like walking, our free courtesy car will gladly drop you off and pick you up at your convenience. Oh, yes…remember to order a :”Sidecar” when you are dining or cocktailing in the Agoyo Lounge.