On February 11th, 1859; the Santa Fe Railway was charted to join Atchison and Topeka, Kansas with Santa Fe, Mexico. The charter provided that the railroad be named the Atchison and Topeka Railway Company. With a severe drought in 1860 and the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, no construction would be attempted. For another two years, the railroad would remain in hibernation. By 1863, the grant of parcels of land provided that the railroad could begin construction of a line from Atchison to the Colorado State Line, which would need to be complete by March of 1873. In November of 1863, the railroad changed the name to the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Company. Due to the Civil War, no construction could be completed.
After numerous setbacks, the first shovel of dirt would be turned on October 30th, 1868 in Topeka. The ceremony signaled the beginning of the construction of the railway. In the summer of 1869, tracklayers continued moving rapidly across the tame terrain of Kansas. By the end of the summer, the first train reached Burligame.
Working towards the western border of Kansas, the first train reached Emporia in July of 1870 and by July the next year, the route arrived in Newton. The following summer, the end of the track was reached at Hutchinson. Despite this, crews continued westward reaching Dodge City in September of 1872. One hundred miles of flat Kansas Prairie remained to be conquered. By December of 1872, the railroad extended into Colorado.
Due to the extremely rural conditions of Kansas and Colorado, the railroad attempted to gain interest in settlement by offering discounted land and fares to reach western Kansas. In turn, this largely spurred the population boom of Kansas during this time. By 1880, the railroad reached Albuquerque; and formed a second continental railroad in 1881. In addition, during this time a number of branch lines began to pop up throughout Kansas and the surrounding area. This continued to spur growth and create a strong freight and passenger base for the railroad to be successful.
Major expansions began in the mid-1880s. A series of line along the Pacific Coast in California connected cities which later would become major economic hubs. In addition, the railroad connected numerous lines through Texas and Colorado. Perhaps the largest improvement was the designation of a mainline between Emporia, Kansas and Los Angeles. A eastern segment of the line opened in the late 1880s, connecting to Chicago. This direct route brought numerous settlers to California and the coast. The early Santa Fe changed the landscape of the United States permanently. While the Southern Pacific owned the final piece of mainline between Needles and the West Coast, the Santa Fe traded a railroad for the trackage in 1897.
Throughout the first couple decades of the 20th Century, the Santa Fe continued to upgrade the system. Such upgrades included new double track projects along the Chicago-Los Angeles mainline, particularly between Chicago and Kansas, as well as New Mexico and Los Angeles.
Additional projects included the consolidation of branch lines, and the use of new technology to improve efficiency.
Later projects included relocations of mainlines across Arizona, as well as a new line into Dallas, Texas.
Map above credit of the Richard Parks, of r2parks.net
During the time between WWI and WWII, the ATSF used innovation to streamline service. New passenger trains were created, using flashy new diesel locomotives. The lack of water in the western part of the United States created a pressure to begin using these new engines. In addition, the ATSF desired a bypass of Chicago and a way to directly connect to eastern railroads. As a result, they purchased the Toledo, Peoria & Western Railroad and sold a half interest to the Pennsylvania Railroad to create a faster, more effective way to move freight around Chicago. After 1976, the Pennsylvania Railroad merged into Conrail, who did not favor the TP&W route. As a result, the TP&W was sold entirely back to the ATSF. In 1983, the route merged with the TP&W fully, and then sold it back to independence in 1989.
As the Santa Fe struggled with consolidation and revenue drops in the 1970s, they began to propose a merger to create a so-called "super railroad", similar to the Burlington Northern. The proposed merger would have created the Southern Pacific Santa Fe Railroad. Painting and consolidation began when the Interstate Commerce Commission denied the merger, due to the number of duplicate routes it would create. In response, numerous branch lines would be sold off or abandoned to reduce the total capital of the railroad.
Continuing to struggle, the railroad again proposed a merger with Burlington Northern. The merger was approved on September 22nd, 1995 to create the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. Operations officially consolidated on the first day of 1997. The created railroad was one of the largest railroad mergers ever, and took Burlington Northerns numerous northern lines and combined it with the Santa Fe southern lines. Expanding over a vast amount of the western United States, the railroad operates two transcontinental routes and has since been renamed the BNSF Railway.
A sample of bridges constructed by the ATSF can be seen above. The photo above is a photo of the Mississippi River Bridge at Fort Madison, Iowa.