Santa Fe’s La Fonda Hotel and the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad

There is probably no better example of the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad’s early promotion of Santa Fe as a tourist destination than the La Fonda Hotel. Located directly across from the southeast corner of the plaza, The La Fonda Hotel, a glowing example of Santa Fe’s unique adobe architecture, remains one of Santa Fe’s busiest hotels. One of the hotel’s most famous attributes is that it is located at the end of the Santa Fe Trail. Across the street from the hotel and near the southeast corner of the plaza is a plaque demarcating the end of the Trail.

la fonda hotel santa feThere had been an inn at the current La Fonda location since early in the 1800’s. In fact, when General Kearny took over Santa Fe during the Mexican-American War in 1846, he stayed at the inn which was then named The United States Hotel. At a point years later the hotel was renamed the Exchange Hotel. Later, a group of local Santa Fe investors took over the hotel and named it La Fonda. 

Real changes came to the hotel in 1925 after it was sold to the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. The hotel that the AT&SF bought was reconstructed in 1922 but when the railroad took ownership they expanded the building once again. By the latter part of the 1800’s the main way people traveled to the American southwest was by train and the AT&SF was the first rail line to enter New Mexico. The year was 1878. Railroads had a history of using their natural influence with travelers to promote destinations. The Southern Pacific did this with the Del Monte Hotel in Monterey California. The Northern Pacific did the same thing with it’s rail line crossing the southern end of Glacier National Park. The Canadian Pacific was quite successful promoting the natural scenic beauty of western Canada. The railroads had active advertising departments that could tap into the adventurous spirit of the turn of the century tourist.

atchison topeka and santa fe railroad engineThe AT&SF along with the hotel/restaurant management skill of the Fred Harvey Company. Fred Harvey’s company made Santa Fe their top priority. What’s interesting is that the city of Santa Fe does not lie directly the the AT&SF line but is connected to it by an eighteen mile spur line to it’s station in Lamy New Mexico. Most historians agree that besides being part of the railroad’s name. the town of Santa Fe and it’s surrounding area was the obvious area to promote. The railroad as well as The Fred Harvey Company contributed greatly to the promotion of Santa Fe as an art community. When the rail spur was completed from Lamy, artists in great numbers traveled to Santa Fe and started putting the areas scenic beauty on canvas. Additionally the railroad commissioned several artists to create artwork highlighting the unique features of the region. Adobes, mesas, mountains, beautifully colored rocks..all  the things that make Santa Fe stand out. Many of these paintings ended up adorning AT&SF stations along their line as well as the Fred Harvey restaurants and hotels. AT&SF brochures captured the architectural distinctiveness of Santa Fe as well as articles put out by the advertising department. All of this promotion resulted in more and more people traveling to the area. Many people credit both the AT&SF and Fred Harvey with literally inventing southwest tourism.

hotel la fondaAnother first for Santa Fe was the “Indian detour” escorted trips by specially equipped cars and buses. These motor tours typically started at the La Fonda Hotel lobby and took travelers to surrounding areas of interest including Indian pueblos and other scenic sights. Often there would be informative lectures about the sights to see in and around Santa Fe by well informed Indian detour guides. Many of these lectures would take place at AT&SF’s La Fonda. Indian detour was a very successful endeavor which was owned by the AT&SF and managed by the Harvey people. The highpoint of motoring lasted from the mid 1920’s through the 30’s. The start of World War Two put a halt to sightseeing tours and the improvement of roads such as with Route 66 and the fact that more and more people were driving their own vehicles started the decline of these type of ventures. Fred Harvey as many know also had great success with his Harvey motor tours at the Grand Canyon. That was another AT&SF/Harvey venture.

The AT&SF took advantage of Santa Fe’s multicultural uniqueness, both with it’s people and it’s architecture, and was very successful in urging visitors to a region they had only previously read about in the eastern papers. The railroad was responsible for the building of a burgeoning art community and also for the promotion of Indian artwork and jewelry products to the traveling public. The railroad brought a market right to the doorstep of Santa Fa natives. That doorstep as far as the railroad was concerned was the La Fonda Hotel, recognized by many as Fred Harvey’s most famous Harvey House.

What the railroad did in essence was to highlight the attributes that really were in Santa Fe and the surrounding area all along. When looking back now after over a century, the success that the AT&SF had with helping to make Santa Fe a national tourist destination is an amazing story.