Modern history


Dueling Streamliners

There is, of course, one more story that must be told. Any account of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe would not be complete without it. By 1909, the transcontinental routes had been built, empires won and lost, but the American West was still a contested battleground. Increasingly, the objective would become transcontinental speed, and the high visibility weapons would be sleek, new streamliners racing between California and Chicago.

Edward Payson Ripley first responded to calls for increased passenger speed and service by inaugurating the Santa Fe’s de-Luxe between Chicago and Los Angeles in December 1911. Powered by a steam locomotive pulling heavy steel cars, the de-Luxe made the trip once a week in just over sixty hours. Its nine o’clock morning arrival in Los Angeles bettered the schedule of the California Limited by five and one-half hours and, according to one advertisement, “saves a business day.”

The only stops the de-Luxe made for passenger boarding were at Kansas City and Williams, Arizona, the latter for Grand Canyon traffic. A limit of sixty passengers per trip could take advantage of service that the railroad boasted was “extra fine, extra fast, extra fare.” At last, the West had a train that could rival the New York Central’s famed 20th Century Limited or the Pennsylvania Railroad’s stalwart Broadway Limited.1

World War I came along all too quickly and was not a very pleasant time for American railroads. In 1918 President Woodrow Wilson assumed federal control of the railroads in order to consolidate routes and make rolling stock available to the war effort. The de-Luxe was one of the casualties. The one bright spot was the growing reliability with which the nation’s rail network moved men and materiel around the country. In many respects, it was a test for a far greater effort less than a generation later.

As America raced into the Roaring Twenties, the Santa Fe reintroduced the de-Luxe under a new name destined for railroad stardom. The road relied on its ties with southwestern Native American culture to name the train the “Chief.” Still powered by steam, the Chief was made up of eight Pullman cars. Naturally, these included a Fred Harvey dining car, because, as the original brochure for the Chief asserted, “California, the Santa Fe Railway and the Fred Harvey cuisine have been inseparable in the minds of travelers for over forty years.”

Perhaps the biggest change was that the Chief operated daily and began its inaugural run with twin consists that left Chicago and Los Angeles simultaneously on November 14, 1926. There were a few additional passenger stops—including Ash Fork, Arizona, for connections to Phoenix—but the Chief shaved minutes off the timetable of the de-Luxe and arrived in Los Angeles in just under sixty hours.2

Yet another boom went bust in 1929, but America’s passenger trains responded with a new level of sophistication and innovation. The Santa Fe’s rival Chicago, Burlington and Quincy debuted a silver rocket of a train that it called the Zephyr. Streamlined to slice through the air and reduce drag, the train was also “streamlined” by the use of lighter stainless steel. The three-car Zephyr consisted of a diesel power car with railway post office; a center car with a baggage-express compartment, buffet area, and twenty coach seats; and a rear observation-lounge car with fifty-two seats.

The Burlington sent the new streamliner on a five-week publicity tour of the Northeast and then let it kick up its heels on a run from Denver to Chicago. On May 26, 1934, the Zephyr left Denver’s Union Station and fairly flew across the plains to arrive in Chicago thirteen hours and five minutes later at an average speed of 77.6 miles per hour. An estimated half million Midwesterners lined the Burlington’s tracks to watch, and for a nation still staggered by the Great Depression, it was a very futuristic and optimistic sight.3

Not to be outdone, the Union Pacific competed with the Burlington’s Zephyr by introducing a streamliner of its own. Marketed under the slogan “Tomorrow’s Train Today,” its canary yellow paint with golden brown trim became distinctive Union Pacific colors. Officially, the bright yellow was chosen for safety reasons because it “can be seen for a greater distance than any other color,” but there was little doubt that the Union Pacific wanted everyone to know which train was coming. By the summer of 1936, the Union Pacific was running City of San Francisco and City of Los Angeles streamliners between Chicago and those cities in a record time of thirty-nine hours and forty-five minutes.4

Then it was the Santa Fe’s turn. On May 12, 1936, in direct response to the challenge of the Union Pacific’s “City” streamliners, the Santa Fe started its first Super Chief west from Dearborn Station in Chicago. The consist was standard Pullmans without a stainless-steel car in the line, but the motive power was twin 1,800-horsepower diesels that had routinely hit 150 miles per hour during their trials. These early diesels were shaped like boxcars with a straight front end, but the Super Chief matched the Union Pacific’s time to Los Angeles to the minute.

By April 1937, the Super Chief was all streamlined with a silvery nine-car consist of mail car, mail-baggage car, four sleepers, lounge, diner, and sleeper-observation car that carried 104 passengers in style. The following year, the Santa Fe took delivery of its first E-type diesels with their hawkish nose and distinctive Indian warbonnet colors and paint scheme.

By 1939, the Santa Fe was running a fleet of streamliners between Chicago and Los Angeles. The all-Pullman Super Chief set the standard and operated twice weekly. The original Chief continued to operate daily as an all-Pullman train but without quite the speed or fanfare of its younger sibling. And to cater to the cost-conscious traveler who still wanted speed, the all-chair coaches of El Capitan carried 188 passengers on a twice-weekly schedule that matched the speed of the Super Chief.

Why did the Santa Fe’s Super Chief eclipse the Union Pacific’s City of Los Angeles in fact and lore even though the competing trains had identical time schedules? In three words: marketing, service, and mystique. The Santa Fe promoted the splendor of traversing the American Southwest in unparalleled style. The Fred Harvey Company catered to every need with five-star meals and gracious hospitality. And thanks to those two things, the train became the train to be seen on for a generation.

One Santa Fe advertisement from the period said it all. It showed a glamorous movie star walking toward a gaggle of reporters next to the rounded end of a stainless-steel observation car complete with Super Chief drumhead. “She came in on the Super Chief,” read the caption. Indeed, for anyone traveling between the West Coast and America’s heartland, the phrase “just got in on the Super” quickly became the boast that set one above the crowd.5

With this Depression-era emphasis on speed, there was to be one more battle for California. This time, the Santa Fe and the Southern Pacific would go head to head for the San Francisco–Los Angeles corridor. The Southern Pacific had long monopolized this market because its Pacific Coast line was the shortest rail distance between the two cities. It was here that the dashing Coast Daylight whisked passengers in comfort approaching that of the Super Chief. And while Santa Fe partisans were quick to take exception, many rail travelers stared at the Daylight’s red, orange, and black paint scheme and pronounced it simply the most beautiful train in the world.

For the Santa Fe to compete in this market, it had to shorten its roundabout route over Cajon Pass to Barstow, back over Tehachapi Pass to Bakersfield, and then down the San Joaquin Valley to Oakland. Even then, a ferry was required to reach downtown San Francisco. The Santa Fe studied the problem and found an unwitting ally. The California Highway Department was improving the road system between Los Angeles and Bakersfield via Tejon Pass, which later became the route of Interstate 5. The Santa Fe took advantage of this and inaugurated a combination rail-bus service.

A traveler left Los Angeles by bus, arrived in Bakersfield, boarded the streamlined Golden Gate, and then settled in for a 313-mile sprint to Oakland. From there, another fleet of air-conditioned buses completed the journey to downtown San Francisco via the recently completed Bay Bridge. Not only was this service cheaper than the rail-only or bus-only options—$6 compared to $9.47 on the Southern Pacific and $6.75 on the buses of Pacific Greyhound—but it beat the Southern Pacific’s all-rail time by ten minutes. Suddenly the Santa Fe was the fastest way between California’s twin hubs.6

The prewar glory days of streamliners were destined to be short lived. After December 7, 1941, the demands of a two-ocean global war tested America’s railroads to the limit. The Santa Fe continued to operate the Chiefs and El Capitan, but the schedule for the Chicago–Los Angeles speedway was increased by two hours because of the tremendous volume of troop trains on the line.

All along the Santa Fe main line, Fred Harvey establishments worked overtime to feed the large numbers of men and women moving about the country for the war effort. For many young draftees away from home for the first time, Fred Harvey meals provided a brief respite and memories of a mother’s kitchen. (Sixty years later, the author’s father was still talking about the pheasant sandwich he had been served “somewhere in Montana” while en route from Cleveland to Fort Lewis, Washington, in 1944.)

But it was freight that proved the worth of the Santa Fe’s California-to-Chicago main line. With much of the route double-tracked, freight ton-miles (a ton of freight moved one mile) almost doubled between 1941 and 1942. The critical 82-mile Cajon Pass leg shared with the Union Pacific between San Bernardino and Barstow routinely handled twenty to thirty freight trains a day. Tehachapi Pass saw similar traffic, but perhaps nowhere was the Santa Fe busier than on its “surf line” between Los Angeles and San Diego. Both cities, past rivalries momentarily put aside, boomed as major military centers and embarkation ports. On one day alone in 1942, the Santa Fe moved almost five thousand people between the two places.

The biggest operational change for the Santa Fe during this time was that World War II proved the worth of the diesel locomotive and hastened the end of steam. The first diesel freight locomotive was delivered to the Santa Fe for road tests in February 1938. Comprising four units generating 5,400 horsepower, the locomotive pulled sixty-six loaded freight cars from Kansas City to Los Angeles. “Bypassing water stops, crossing passes without helpers, and moving at a high rate of speed,” its performance encouraged the Santa Fe to place the first order for freight diesels by any railroad in the United States.

There was soon little doubt that steam locomotives—majestic and thunderous though they were—had seen their glory years. Only the enormous demands of World War II gave them a temporary reprieve. Steam locomotives belched black smoke and worked alongside their diesel upstarts, but by the end of the war, it was clear that diesels had prevailed over steam by every measure of efficiency, moving 100-car trains 500 miles without a stop and often running 10,000 miles per month. During this intense period of national mobilization, revenue train-miles on the Santa Fe jumped from 40.9 million in 1938 to 70.7 million in 1945. Steam couldn’t have done it alone.7

After World War II had been fought and won, “the greatest generation” raced homeward to embrace a new level of prosperity and mobility. Everyone wanted a new automobile, but America’s railroads also responded with family travel advertisements and a renewed commitment to streamliners.

The Super Chief once again became a mainstay of the traveling elite. It even had a role in numerous movies and books, including Frederic Wakeman’s early postwar novel The Hucksters. Racy for its time, The Hucksters entwined the glitz and glamour of high-powered advertising agencies with a torrid bicoastal love affair. Few things were certain, but in one paragraph Wakeman captured what the Santa Fe’s prize train had come to mean to a war-weary world.

“One thing about the Chief,” Wakeman wrote, “east or westbound, it never changes. That’s what a man likes about this extra-fare, extra exclusive, super-deluxe commuter special that makes Toots Shor’s handy to Romanoff’s, that connects Sunset Boulevard with Wall Street. The Chief never changes. A man can depend on the Chief. It’s one of the few enduring values left in this unstable old world.”8

Robert R. Young took the hucksterism of Wakeman’s novel to the extreme in 1946 when he launched a public crusade for coast-to-coast Pullman car service. Young was the freewheeling president of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, and some joked that his initials really stood for “RailRoad” Young.

Young firmly believed that the railroad industry was not doing enough to plan for the postwar years, particularly new competition from airlines. Young waged a contest to control the Pullman Company, which effectively ruled the nation’s passenger service because it dictated where and when its cars were assigned. This frequently meant that passengers changing railroads for transcontinental travel through the mid-continent hubs of Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans were forced to change Pullman cars even if it was the middle of the night. Young decreed there was a better way.

The most famous salvo of his campaign was an advertisement placed in national newspapers that proclaimed, “A Hog Can Cross the Country Without Changing Trains—But YOU Can’t!” It showed a totally satisfied pig standing at the door of a boxcar smoking a cigar while a distraught family labeled “John Q. Traveler” looked on in disbelief.9

Young’s “hog ad” got repeated national attention, and while he ultimately failed to control Pullman, the company made it easier to ticket coast-to-coast service. Accordingly, the Santa Fe teamed up with both the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central to hook through cars from the Broadway Limited and the 20th Century Limited onto the Chief for delivery to Los Angeles and back.

Coast-to-coast cars made publicity, but at the core of the postwar rail travel boom in the West was an innovation sparked by a ride taken during the last days of the war. Cyrus R. Osborn, the head of the General Motors Electromotive Division, happened to be in the cab of a Denver and Rio Grande diesel as it was passing through the depths of Colorado’s spectacular Glenwood Canyon.

“A lot of people would pay $500 for this fireman’s seat from Chicago to San Francisco if they knew what they could see from it,” Osborn remarked to the engineer. “Why wouldn’t it be possible,” he mused, “to build some sort of glass covered room in the roof of a car so passengers could get this kind of a view?” Later that week, Osborn sketched out a rough design for a series of vista dome observation cars.10

Streamliners pulling sleek, stainless-steel vista domes set the stage for one last round of railroad rivalry in the American Southwest. Once again, the competition between California and Chicago focused on the Denver and Rio Grande, the Union Pacific, and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe.

Despite competition to the north and south, the Denver and Rio Grande teamed up with the Burlington east of Denver and the Western Pacific west of Ogden. The three roads ordered six identical train sets and launched the California Zephyr between Chicago and Oakland in March 1949. Billed “the most talked-about train in America,” its service was impeccable and Rocky Mountain trout the specialty of the dining car.11

The Union Pacific made a strong postwar run at both the California Zephyr and the Santa Fe’s competition after it put the City of Los Angeles and the City of San Francisco into daily service in 1947. The City streamliners soon became “Domeliners,” with the introduction of the only domed dining cars ever put into operation.12

Throughout these years, the Super Chief was still the train to be seen on and the train to beat. It reverted to its prewar schedule of thirty-nine hours and forty-five minutes on June 2, 1946, and never looked back. By 1948, the Santa Fe was operating both the Super Chief and El Capitan on a daily schedule on that timetable. Onboard the Super Chief, there was almost unparalleled postwar luxury, from the sweeping vistas viewed from the Pleasure Dome lounge to the private dining of the Turquoise Room. Advertisements hailed the dome as “the top of the Super, next to the stars.”

Romance, both with one’s companion and with the landscape the train traversed, remained a huge selling point. Southwest-style advertisements continued to be a Santa Fe staple, including one of the most famous, a full-color, full-page painting by Hernando Villa of the Meeting of the Chiefs—one a Native American on horseback and the other a warbonnet-painted locomotive racing across the Southwest.13

Just as it had before the war, Santa Fe management encouraged close ties to Hollywood’s booming motion picture industry. The Super Chief made a special stop in Pasadena to allow Hollywood names to board or disembark without the crush of the Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal. This didn’t keep the press from covering the event—usually with the star’s concurrence, as he or she now was the acknowledged celebrity of the smaller Pasadena station.

Over the years, the Super Chief’s high-profile passengers included Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, and Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The train also carried Ronald Reagan in his Hollywood days and, later, former presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower.

But people remained only a small portion of the Santa Fe’s overall load. When Santa Fe management now thought of speed, it was not only the Super Chief, but also its core Los Angeles-to-Chicago freight service. With continued upgrades to roadbed and equipment, freight times decreased to the point that the road introduced the Super C, a hotshot freight that bettered the Super Chief schedule and moved long trains of piggyback truck trailers and containers between Los Angeles and Chicago on a schedule of thirty-four and one-half hours.

As the Sunbelt of Southern California, Arizona, and Texas boomed during the 1950s, the Santa Fe grew right along with it. In the summer of 1955, the longest stretch of new track to be laid in the United States in twenty years—some 49 miles—was built from the Santa Fe’s Chicago-to-Galveston line at Fort Worth directly east to Dallas, eliminating the original roundabout route. That same year, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe system grew to 13,073 miles and was ranked as the country’s longest railroad.14

The polished sophistication of the Super Chief firmly embedded the Santa Fe in the psyche of the American traveling public. But it was the heavy freight traffic between California and the Midwest during World War II and afterward that confirmed the Santa Fe’s continuing dominance at the top of the heap of America’s transcontinental railroads. Not only had the railroad become a key transcontinental connection, but mushrooming trade with Japan, China, and the Pacific Rim made it a vital land bridge in the growing global economy as well.

From a dream on the Kansas prairie, through the fights for strategic gateways, two world wars, and the booms and busts of economic cycles, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe had proven its staying power and inexorably entwined itself with the American Southwest. Wherever one was bound, it was indeed possible to ride Santa Fe all the way.

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