Historic Dining Cars of the Santa Fe Railroad

In the course of thirty years or less since the first tracks were laid, dining cars appeared on the western frontier railroads.. Thirty years is not necessarily a short time span but the changes that occurred in the American West and it’s railroads during this period were absolutely astounding.

santa fe railroad dining car

Santa Fe Railroad's famous Cochiti Dining Car

The period from about 1850 and the end of the nineteenth century saw some of the most dramatic changes in railroad travel, particularly travel in the western United States. One of those changes was the introduction of the dining car. People today are still able to enjoy railroad dining whether on Amtrak cross country trains or scenic tourist railroads with their one day adventures.¬† It’s a way to experience a piece of American history from the days of great national expansion when the railroad meant everything for a town to grow and prosper.

The Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad Dining Cars

Fred Harvey and the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad were legendary for their top quality service. Fred Harvey was so successful in managing the AT & SF rail side eateries and hotels that the railroad asked him to put his magic to work on their planned dining cars. To Fred Harvey, this was not ideal. Harvey initially didn’t feel that the same level of quality could be served up on a moving train car.

santa fe railroad dining car kitchen

Santa Fe Railroad Cochiti Dining Car kitchen

Since the 1880’s, dining cars became standard offerings on cross country trains heading west from Chicago. The AT& SF relied on the string of Harvey Houses along it’s route. In fact, these Harvey Houses were strategically located to accommodate passengers during meal hours.

To put this in some perspective, railroads without the Fred Harvey eateries along their route put their passengers through quite an ordeal. At a stop, railroad passengers might have had up to one hour to find the nearest roadhouse to the train tracks and hope for the best. Unfortunately, the best sometimes wasn’t good. The fact that there was enormous room for improvement¬† is what gave Fred Harvey his early inspiration.

The Fred Harvey customers usually were aware of one trademark of the Harvey dining rooms. Harvey’s meals were served in sumptuous portions that provided a good value for the traveling public. All of a sudden railroad dining reached a new higher level. Top quality food and service and the AT& SF naturally scenic train routes were a winning combination.

santa fe railroad dining car china

AT & SF Railroad dining car china and place settings

Those wanting to get a hold of some of the old Harvey House recipes might look for the book, The Harvey House Cookbook by George H. Foster. The book includes vintage recipes from the various Harvey Houses and the AT & SF railway cars. The book includes over 200 recipes.

Pictured in this article is the 36 seat “Cochiti” dining car of the Achison Topeka& Santa Fe Railroad.

This rail car was a new streamlined stainless steel car that was part of the railroad’s famous “Super Chief” train that offered once a week service between Chicago Illinois and Los Angeles California.

This dining car and seven others were ordered by the railroad in 1936. All of the AT&SF cars were named after Native Indian tribes. The Cochiti was named after the Indian pueblo of Cochiti about thirty miles southwest of Santa Fe New Mexico. This is also a good destination to add to your New Mexico vacation planner.

santa fe railroad mimbres salt and pepper shaker

Mimbres designed salt and pepper shaker from Santa Fe Railroad. Exhibit at frisco Texas Heritage Museum

The Cochiti Dining Car On Display

The Cochiti dining car has been preserved and is on display at the famous California State Railroad Museum located in Old Town Sacramento California. When you explore the interior of this dining car you can view the kitchen area and all the tables have been set with china and silverware. This is one of the most authentic rail car displays you’ll come across. This particular dining car has been set to it’s mid 1940’s condition. If your travels take you to Sacramento California you’ll want to add a stop at Old Town and the California State Railroad Museum to your trip planner.

Railroad dining cars today are quite different than the earlier cars in basic design. The Cochiti dining car was a one level rail car where the kitchen area was on one end of the car with the dining tables occupying the remainder. You might have a kitchen area with bar stools and then the table beyond. On today’s Amtrak bi-level rail cars, you have the dining booths taking up most of the upper level with the kitchen area being on the lower level. Food is sent up via a dumbwaiter.

See the Trips Into History articles on the links below…

The Legendary Union Pacific Big Boy Locomotive

Historic Steam Locomotive Exhibits

Also, see our Western Trips article and visit to a restored Pullman Rail Car…

The Pullman Car and What It Did For Travel

at & sf railroad mimbres china

Mimbres design cup and saucer at and sf railroad dining car

View Santa Fe Railroad Dining Car Fine China

If your travels take you to the Dallas/Fort Worth Texas region you’ll find an excellent railroad museum with terrific exhibits in Frisco Texas, a northern suburb of Dallas.

The founding of Frisco Texas, it’s strong connection with the Misouiri, Kansas and Texas Railroad, the MKT, and life in an early frontier environment is all presented in fine detail at the Frisco Heritage Museum. You’ll also see a good collection of railroad dining car china including china from the Santa Fe Railroad. The original railroad china was made available to the public in two sales held in 1971.

Among their collections is china that was used on the Santa Fe Railroad’s “Super Chief ” dining cars. During railroad’s golden years, most railroads had their own distinctive designs used on everything from plates, cups, towels, playing cards and just about anything the passenger would regularly use. The Pullman cars which usually operated as a franchise managed by the Pullman Palace Car Company also had their names and logos on many items.

pullman car dinner plate

Original Pullman Car Dinner Plate

The Santa Fe Railroad adopted the southwest and Indian cultures as a major way the rest of the country would view their railroad. This was also included on the designs for their dining car china.

This type of china was used on AT & SF Railroad dining cars right up until passenger service was discontinued in 1971.The china featured in this article was produced exclusively for the AT & SF Railroad from 1936 to 1970 by the Onandaga Pottery Company. Today, authentic pieces like the ones displayed here are considered quite rare.

Original railroad dining car china is a popular artifact for collectors. Today, reproductions which claim the same high quality are offered by several companies. Collectors would want to verify production methods, etc before purchasing any reproduction china.

(Article and photos copyright Trips Into History)

Southwest Chief

Most history buffs who have researched passenger train service in the United States learned that, for most intents and purposes, private passenger railroads ended in 1971 with the establishment of Amtrak. The famous old passenger railroads such as the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe, the Union Pacific, the Northern Pacific and others all succumbed to changing times. Transporting rail passengers became an unprofitable business.

southwest chief

Westbound Southwest Chief arriving at Lamy New Mexico

When Amtrak began, it’s basic purpose was to save passenger rail service in the U.S. This was not to say that routes would be left in tact. Service was stopped right and left on certain routes and on others service was continued. Everything boiled down to simple economics and passenger demand. The overhead of operating a railroad is high and even higher for operating passenger service. For starters, the labor required to operate a passenger train is many times greater than operating a freight train. many more people were required both on and off the train.

One interesting fact about several Amtrak rail routes lies in their historical significance. In regards to transcontinental routes, there were four main routes to the west coast of the U.S. The Northern Pacific ran it’s Empire Builder from St. Paul Minnesota to Seattle Washington. The Union Pacific ran it’s California Zephyr on a route that largely followed the Oregon Trail and California Trail to the San Francisco Bay Area. The Atchison Topeka and Santa fe operated historic trains as The Super Chief and the El Capitan between Chicago and Los Angeles. The southernmost route across the U.S. was operated by the Southern Pacific Railroad.

amtrak southwest chief at las vegas new mexico

Southwest Chief at Las Vegas New Mexico

Today’s Amtrak’s Southwest Chief transports it’s passengers largely along the old Santa Fe Trail from Kansas to Santa Fe. When the AT & SF Railroad surveyed the route to Santa Fe, the Santa Fe Trail was the logical route to follow. This was route used by traders since the 1820’s. The AT & SF route, just as is the Amtrak route today does, goes along the Mountain trail portion of this historic route. This takes the train to Colorado around the town of La Junta and then turns south toward Trinidad Colorado and then over the Raton Pass into New Mexico. The Santa Fe Trail had a cut off in western Kansas, the Cimmaron Cut Off that diverged to the southwest directly to Fort Union in northern New Mexico. The cut off was a shorter distance but offered very little water and many more Indians. The Mountain segment that the railroad followed offered more water and coal supplies by passing through southern Colorado.

Amtrak’s Southwest Chief offers it’s passengers some very historic and unique sites along it’s route. For one thing, several of the Amtrak stations along the way were once AT & SF depots. Today, some also serve as museums and local Chamber of Commerce offices as well as Amtrak stations. The train passes through Dodge City Kansas, one of the biggest of the frontier cow towns, Las Vegas New Mexico with the old La Castaneda Harvey House sitting adjacent to the railroad depot, Glorieta Pass just west of Las Vegas where the key Civil War battle in New Mexico occurred. To the west of Glorieta Pass is the Lamy New Mexico depot where a spur line was built in the 1880’s to Santa Fe just about 15 miles to the northwest.

la posada harvey house in winslow arizona

La Posada, Winslow Arizona

The Southwest Chief makes a major stop in Albuquerque New Mexico before heading west across the beautiful New Mexico landscape. Interesting stops along this segment include Gallup New Mexico which is the home to the famous El Rancho Hotel, a busy Hollywood movie making headquarters during the 1940’s and 1950’s. Many of the more popular western shot during that era were set in the mountains and deserts all around Gallup. When the Southwest Chief passes through Winslow Arizona, passengers will get a great look at the La Posada Hotel which was a very popular Harvey House and still operates today. Like most Harvey Houses, la Posada is adjacent to the Winslow Arizona train depot.

Stops of historic note west of Winslow include Flagstaff Arizona and Williams which is the gateway to the Grand Canyon to the north and the home of the historic Grand Canyon Railroad. The Grand Canyon Railroad carrys passengers from Williams Arizona up to the canyon’s south rim. In the early 1900’s, tourists took the train up to the El Tovar at the canyon which was operated by Fred Harvey.

la posada interior

Flagstaff Arizona Train Station

When the Southwest Chief enters California at Needles, the route travels across the Mojave Desert to the old railroad and mining town of Barstow California. Barstow is an interesting place where the AT & SF along with Fred Harvey opened the Casa del Desierto. This Harvey House opened in 1885 but that structured burned down and the one there now was constructed in 1908. The design of the new structure was done by Mary Colter who was the chief designer for the Harvey Houses. The railroad closed the hotel in 1973, and like many of the old Harvey Houses, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. Fortunately for historians the structure still stands today and was made into a museum and is also used by the Barstow Chamber of Commerce. One side of the building houses the Western America Railroad Museum and another side is the Barstow Route 66 Mother Road Museum.

Interior of the old Harvey House La Posada

When the Southwest Chief leaves Barstow westbound for Los Angeles it passes through Cajon Pass to the southwest of Barstow. Cajon Pass goes between the San Bernardino Mountains and the San Gabriel Mountains. The pass was constructed in the 1880’s as a railroad route between San Diego and Barstow California. Today, the Cajon Pass has some of the heaviest train traffic as anywhere in the U.S. The BNSF and the Union Pacific runs freight trains through the pass and the Southwest Chief utilizes it as well. As of this writing, major construction is going on at the pass with a third main track being added. The freight train traffic coming to and from the port of San Pedro is such that more capacity is needed.

You will enjoy the following related articles we’ve published. Railroad Depots / Lamy New Mexico, the La Castaneda Harvey House in Las Vegas New Mexico and the AT & SF Railroad and Fred Harvey’s La Fonda Hotel. Also, a trip on Amtrak’s popular Coast Starlight train.

There are more Amtrak transcontinental routes that go along old historic trails and past plenty of historic sites such as the Chicago to Emeryville California (San Francisco Bay Area) train named “The California Zephyr“. This train generally follows a good part of the old Oregon Trail and passes such sites as Salt Lake City Utah, Donner Pass California and the old gold mining towns of Auburn and Sacramento California. Long distance Amtrak train travel can be a lot of fun and at the same time you can get a relaxing close up view of many sites that have a big place in our nation’s history.