The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (ATSF) was chartered in February 1859 to join Atchison and Topeka, Kansas with Santa Fe, New Mexico. Much of its early revenue came from wheat grown in Kansas and cattle driven north from Texas to Kansas by 1872. The ATSF opened Kansas to settlement, but the sparse population in the area meant that it was economically impossible to build across Kansas to Colorado. ATSF set up real estate offices and promoted settlement across Kansas by offering discount fares to anyone traveling west to inspect land, and if the land was purchased, the passenger’s fare was applied toward the purchase.
ATSF kept expanding west, and once the railroad hit Dodge City, they headed over the Raton Pass due to large coal deposits near Trinidad, Colorado and Raton, New Mexico. The Denver and Rio Grand railroad was also trying to get over the Raton Pass to access the coal mines. In 1878, the ATSF crews rose earlier than the D&RGW crews and were already working by the time the D&RGW crews arrived for breakfast. The two railroads also fought over occupancy of the Royal Gorge west of Canon City, Colorado. The initial physical altercations led to two years of armed conflict which became known as the Royal Gorge Railroad War. Federal intervention led to a settlement where D&RGW was allowed to complete its line and lease it for use by Santa Fe. D&RGW paid $1.4 million to Santa Fe for its work within the Gorge and agreed not to extend its line to Santa Fe, New Mexico, while ATSF agreed to not extend its routes to Denver and Leadville.
ATSF reached Albuquerque in 1880, and in March 1881 Santa Fe connected with Southern Pacific at Deming, New Mexico, forming the second transcontinental rail route. ATSF also connected with the Sonora Railway at Nogales on the Mexican border, allowing ATSF access to the Mexican Port of Guaymas.
Even though the ATSF had made it to California through leased SP rails, it still wanted to connect to the Pacific on its own. California also wanted to have another railroad break up what had become an SP monopoly within the state, so it eagerly courted ATSF advances. In 1887 the railroad traded the Sonora Railway of Mexico to SP for their line from Barstow to Mojave. This led to the Santa Fe having the only continuous line from Chicago to the Pacific Coast until 1909, when the Milwaukee Road extended to Puget Sound.
ATSF kept up a rapid pace of expansion through the late 1800s extending from Barstow to San Diego and Los Angeles. They also expanded from Kansas City to Chicago, from Kiowa, Kansas to Amarillo, Texas, and from Pueblo to Denver. They also took control of the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Railway and purchased Frisco and the Colorado Midland Railway. All of the growth of the rails was put on hold during the Panic of 1893. They were forced to sell Frisco and the Colorado Midland that they had just acquired three years prior.
In the early 1900s, they were back on track, expanding lines to Phoenix, the Grand Canyon, Isleta Pueblo, New Mexico (which allowed them to bypass sections of the Raton Pass), and to Coleman, Texas.
Then in 1907, ATSF and SP jointly formed the Northwestern Pacific Railroad (NWP). NWP took over several short railroads and built new lines, eventually forming a continuous route from San Francisco to Eureka, California. ATSF then sold off its half of NWP to SP in 1928.
What the ATSF was mainly known for in the early 1900s was its passenger train service, headed by locomotives painted in the famed Warbonnet scheme. Santa Fe introduced many innovations in passenger travel including the Pleasure Domes of the Super Chief (the only dome cars between Chicago and Los Angeles), and the Big Dome Lounge cars and double-decker Hi-Level cars of the El Capitan. The Santa Fe was also among the first railroads to add dining cars to its passenger service. Between the dining cars and the many Harvey House restaurants along the system promised that travelers on any of the ATSF passenger trains would have a memorable dining experience.
Passenger service declined during the 1960s and early 1970s, when in 1971, they stopped offering passenger service completely.
In 1983, ATSF and SP proposed a merger, the Southern Pacific Santa Fe Railroad (SPSF). The two companies were so sure that the merger would be approved that they began repainting locomotives and non-revenue rolling stock in a new unified paint scheme. However, the ICC denied the merger on the basis that it would create too many duplicate routes. After the ICC’s denial, rail fans joked that SPSF really stood for “Shouldn’t Paint So Fast”.
Then in 1995, ATSF merged with the Burlington Northern to form BNSF. Challenges resulting from the merger led to the establishment of a common dispatching system, the unionization of Santa Fe’s non-union dispatchers, and incorporating Santa Fe’s train ID codes throughout the system.