U.S., From Santa Fe to Amtrak History: Texas Chief, Part One; Santa Fe All The Way To The Gulf Of Mexico. Why Was It So Easily Overlooked?

By David R. Peironnet, Guest Commentator; May 3, 2021

Most people think of Santa Fe as a western transcontinental railroad linking the Great Lakes with the Pacific ocean. Trains which quickly come to mind are the Super Chief and the El Capitan and the Chief ….. or maybe even the Grand Canyon Limited

But, Texas?

Santa Fe’s western transcontinental trains were superlative. In their day, they were among the fastest trains on the planet. Santa Fe’s dining car service was of a quality for which other railroads – and even superior restaurants – were judged. 

But, Texas?

There really was a superlative Santa Fe train running down there with service standards equaling the western trains. 

In Texas. Oklahoma and southeast Kansas, too.

The Texas Chief was screaming fast, offered dining car service which was truly superb by anybody’s standards, and got people to where they were going in considerable comfort and most generally on-time.

Above all else, the Texas Chief was Santa Fe’s entry in a market where the mighty AT&SF typically played second fiddle for all too long a time. In fact, the mighty Santa Fe was an also-ran in the Texas market with its nice but unspectacular, also rather slow train, The Ranger.

After World War II, Santa Fe had to do something. The Texas Chief was the ticket.

The Texas Chief originated in the heady days of post-WWII optimism. It was initiated in 1948 and ran from Chicago though Houston and onto to the Gulf resort city of Galveston. Nobody else did that. Not without changing trains or changing cars or changing something which was inconvenient to Gulf coast bound passengers. A solid train all the way to Galveston!

Going to Galveston had an interesting story to it.

Santa Fe was an also-ran in the Gulf market for many decades. The reason was historical – not surprisingly as most railroads’ routes have significant links to the era during which they were built.

Santa Fe in the 1870s and 1880s was focused on building to the Pacific. Lines to the Gulf coast were not part of Santa Fe’s plans. But, when an opportunity arose, why not seize it?

In the 1870s, Houston and Galveston were arch rivals. Both the coastal city and the island were in fierce competition for ocean-going shipping. Houston was known for its tough competitive nature, even if that meant stomping on business ethics. 

Houston wanted to win. Period. 

Every year for several years in the 1860s and 1870s, Houston let rumors fly there were reports of an outbreak of Yellow Fever in Galveston, even if there wasn’t. And all of Galveston’s freight had to go through Houston simply because the railroads of the era were built that way. 

Ocean going ships bringing cargo into Galveston would find their lading delayed – sometimes by days or even weeks because of the quarantine imposed by … Houston. The only way a shipper could avoid these delays was to use docks accessible to Houston rather than Galveston. 

Good trick. Completely unethical but a good trick, none the less.

Galveston business interests saw the only solution being to build their own railroad circumventing Houston, and in so doing completely avoid Galveston’s antagonists.

In 1873, a new railroad was chartered. Known as the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe, the line was intended to Galveston’s beachhead on the mainland. Once arriving solidly on the North American continent, Galveston planned to build to the northwest to the trading city of Santa Fe and perhaps then on to Colorado. Their original plans corresponded somewhat to a route built somewhat later by the Fort Worth & Denver City, a Burlington Route subsidiary.

This was not the most efficacious plan out there.

Even in the 1880s, building a railroad was expensive. Until a line under construction could connect to something in a big town, there just wasn’t sufficient local traffic to pay for day-to-day operations, much less provide an income stream to investors – and especially not to fund more track building.

Not far into the construction phase, the GC&SF began looking for railroads with which they could connect that didn’t require building so much new track.

Galveston business interests took careful note of what the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe was doing. Santa Fe seemed to have the cash to build west, and were doing so with all deliberate speed. Galveston began to see where building nearly a thousand miles of track to Denver – and at that through a sparsely populated region of post-Civil War America would be extraordinarily costly. If Galveston could build a few hundred miles north and meet up with the AT&SF, they could cut costs and still achieve their twin objectives of avoiding Houston and gaining access to a lot of markets.

So, that’s what they did. The GC&SF built more or less straight north, through the already prosperous ranching center of Fort Worth, then onto a point in Oklahoma where they would connect with the AT&SF, specifically Purcell, Oklahoma, if you’ve ever heard of it.

Santa Fe had to pick up the tab for construction from southeast Kansas and through the Oklahoma Territory. As the route was flat, construction costs weren’t too high. Plus, there was a lot of ranching along the GC&SF so providing cows with a one-way ticket to Kansas City slaughterhouses was a pleasant source of income for the AT&SF. So, that’s what they did.

Once the GC&SF was complete, the Santa Fe took over the line, operations, construction liability and all.

Unfortunately, the route as built didn’t lend itself well to passengers traveling from Chicago to the Gulf in the 1870s and throughout the 1880s (please note, also that Santa Fe did not open its Kansas City to Chicago line until 1888). 

Once Santa Fe reached Chicago, they operated some good trains on its Gulf Coast lines but nothing really exceptional. The Ranger and an interestingly named train, the Fast 15 delivered Pullmans to Texas cities.

However, Santa Fe’s competitors got most of the long distance passengers. From Chicago, you could get to St. Louis on any of three fine – and fast rail lines. At St. Louis, there were multiple options for getting to Texas, all of which were good.

(Warning to readers who aren’t interested in details: you can skip the next paragraph) From the 1880s through World War II, the Texas market was dominated by other rail lines: the Missouri Pacific controlled the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern, and the Texas & Pacific so they could provide single-coupon through trains (meaning no change of trains and no change of cars). Both the Frisco (SL&SF) and the Katy (MK&T) operated their own through trains in addition to a joint Frisco/Katy service which was very time-competitive. The Cotton Belt (SSW) was another option for trains that were good, just maybe not exceptional.

The Santa Fe had a couple of aces in its pocket. Though their route was longer than anybody else’s, it served a lot of mid-sized cities which collectively generated a lot of ticket revenue.

Santa Fe could sell a lot of tickets to people in the capital cities of both Kansas and Oklahoma, plus Wichita and Fort Worth and Temple, Texas. Those cities could be linked to places like Galesburg, Illinois and of course to Kansas City.

Santa Fe’s trains carried medium distance passengers – and a whole lot of them.

The Texas Chief was thus developed with medium-haul passengers in mind. And this is the key to keeping trains filled with revenue riders. Schedules and connections were oriented towards those riders.

By 1948, Santa Fe had taken delivery of enough new cars that they could assemble a mostly streamlined train pulled with new diesel locomotives. 

The initial train was pretty generic. It had little to identify it as the Texas Chief. However, a silver and red and yellow diesel locomotive pulling a bunch of shiny cars was quite a sight, and that sold tickets.

The only cars unique to the Texas Chief were the dining cars. Santa Fe pulled some otherwise unremarkable stainless steel diners off of The Chief and had the Topeka passenger car shops make them over for Texas Chief service. Santa Fe commissioned particularly attractive hand-hammered metal murals for each of the dining cars. Those bas relief murals were located above the window line and ran the entire length of the car. Murals depicted icons from the Lone Star State including Texas stars and cattle related icons reminiscent of the line’s ranching heritage.

Over the years, significant improvements took place. The original GC&SF totally missed Dallas. In 1956, Santa Fe opened a completely new piece of railroad between Dallas and the main line at Gainesville. This enabled Santa Fe to offer through Pullman and chair car service into Dallas Union Station. Santa Fe additionally operated a lunch-counter diner from the connection point, Gainesville, which served meals otherwise missed on the through dining car.

The Texas Chief also benefited from a couple of policy decisions Santa Fe’s management applied to its Pacific coast service.

Pleasure dome lounge cars on the Super Chief were deemed plain, and for good reason: because they were. The antiseptic design style applied when the pleasure domes were built in the late 1940s had not aged well. That style certainly did not reflect the mega-ultra service which Super Chief passengers expected. Those cars underwent remodeling in Santa Fe’s Topeka shops.

Chairs in the Super Chief dining car were also replaced. Santa Fe commissioned new chairs with a walnut frame and pigskin upholstery in some gaudy southwest inspired colors: turquoise with a red-oxide insert, a color used on the Super Chief’s inimitable Membreno china.

As these chairs were being made, Santa Fe also ordered new chairs for the Texas Chief’s dining car. They were identical to the Super Chief in structure although the pigskin upholstery was much more muted on the Texas Chief. The iron oxide colors were reminiscent of the Red River Valley though which the Texas Chief ran. However, the turquoise was replaced with a more sedate ivory color.

Through the late 1950s and most of the 1960s, the Texas Chief retained its fine service unchanged.

By the late 1960s, even the Santa Fe was pulling back on service. Ironically, the Texas Chief actually benefited. Santa Fe’s much beloved Chief made its last runs in April, 1968, after which The Chief’s full length dome lounges were quickly reassigned to the Texas Chief

During peak period months, the Texas Chief inherited the Chief‘s spacious single level chair cars; cars which were exceedingly comfortable then, and compared to the miniscule seats found on flying machines today, positively palatial. In the off-season, the Texas Chief was also seen carrying Hi-Level chair cars.

The only notable cutbacks from the late 1940s to the late 1960s was elimination of service between Houston and Galveston, and discontinuance of the connecting train to Dallas.

In the late 1960s, the only evident difference between the Texas Chief and Santa Fe transcontinental trains was the fact that the Texas Chief continued using older F-7 locomotives rather than the brand new uber powerful FP-45s assigned to the Super Chief, El Capitan, and San Francisco Chief. New locomotives were needed for the demands of mountain climbing on the transcontinental routes. The Texas Chief had comparatively few hills to climb so the old F-units remained on the Texas Chief. Not insignificantly, the F-units were maintained at Santa Fe’s shop in Cleburne, Texas, which was along the Texas Chief’s route. 

That’s how the Santa Fe turned the Texas Chief to Amtrak in May, 1971.

On the last day of April, the Texas Chief had checked baggage service to all but one or two small towns along the route. There were three Hi-Levels accommodating coach passengers followed by one of the enormous “big dome” cars. Following that was the full dining car with the hammered metal murals, and then three Pullmans, a through car from Chicago to Houston, a “set-out” Pullman running between Chicago and Fort Worth, and another “set-out” Pullman between Chicago and Topeka.

Who could ask for anything more? A fast, punctual train with inordinately comfortable chair cars, Pullman cars, a full length dome lounge, and a full dining car ….. oh, and checked baggage.

This was not a slouch train. And, it had lots and lots of passengers on every trip.

On the very last day of Santa Fe operation, April 30, 1971, the Texas Chief was a train anyone could be proud of. 

It didn’t stay that way under Amtrak. I’ll get into that in Part II.

Just a digression into my personal opinions …

I was never a fan of those Texas Chief dining cars. I just wasn’t.

There was a single line of bright fluorescent lights running the length of the dining room. While there were adequate lumens to see what you were eating, placement of the fluorescent lights could cast shadows and otherwise illuminate what was served on plates in a less than flattering manner. When you’re presented with a big ole Texas sized steak, it needs to look like a Texas steak! Fluorescent lights just didn’t deliver the color-rendering that would make steaks look like a meal fit for a true carnivore, myself being an example. 

Fortunately, most meals on the Texas Chief were served in daylight hours. Only in the darkest months of winter were you forced to have dinner when there was total darkness outside the windows.

Yeah, yeah, I know. The Super Chief had fluorescent lights as did the El Capitan. What those trains had that the Texas Chief didn’t was additional lighting above the window line. This dispensed with the shadows and added much needed light over the tables. Also, Santa Fe commissioned special phosphors for fluorescent lights on the Hi-Levels which provided better color rendering than plain old bulbs sold at Wal-Mart. Only the Santa Fe had the kind of money to commission an entire production run of lights just so that colors would be more restful.

Additionally, Santa Fe had a curious devotion to steam-ejector air conditioning utilizing some concept of physics that I am incapable of understanding. You use hot steam to cool the car. I don’t comprehend this. I hope that I would be considered sufficiently intelligent for a physics professor to explain how shooting extremely hot compressed steam into some tubes would cool a dining car. For now I am content to explain this by saying that what’s really going on is magic. To me, magic is a more rational explanation than physics.

Steam-ejector air conditioning works well in hot, dry climates such as what the Santa Fe experienced in Arizona, New Mexico, western Texas, and much of California. There was just too much humidity along the Texas Chief’s route. I never felt that the dining car was as comfortable as I would have preferred during certain times of the year.

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