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.