Keeping It Straight: The Atchison, Topeka ... and Route 66?

The greatest railroad icon along Route 66 is the Santa Fe, or more accurately, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the BNSF, as it is known today. From Chicago to Los Angeles, the Santa Fe connected the upper Midwest to the West Coast, paralleling much of the Mother Road in the process.

Long recognized by its distinctive red and yellow diesels - the Warbonnet paint scheme loved by rail-buffs - the Santa Fe is probably the most recognized railroad in the world. While conducting tours of Route 66, I have stopped at the request of our European guests so they could photograph the trains and wave at the engineers - in the same manner many of us did as children, and some of us still do to this day.

The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe embodied the spirit of the West with the need to move people and goods across miles of barren, but nonetheless beautiful, country.


Kansan Cyrus Holliday chartered the railroad (the original Atchison and Topeka) in 1859, but it was October of 1868 before the first shovel full of earth was moved and construction of the railroad began. At that first groundbreaking ceremony, Holliday announced the railroad would eventually reach Santa Fe and further predicted it would continue on to the Pacific Ocean. Many who were in attendance laughed at the claim.

By 1872, the railroad had reached Colorado, ahead lay the Raton Pass and the route into Santa Fe. A battle for the rights to the pass ensued between the AT&SF and the Denver and Rio Grande, compounded by the shadow playings of the Southern Pacific which attempted, through legislative roadblocks, to prevent other railroads from entering New Mexico. Having rushed through the SP's legislation, the lawmakers had failed to repeal the original law, leaving it intact, allowing the Santa Fe to proceed under the old rules.

AT&SF and D&RG workers arrived at the Raton Pass on the same day in 1873, but the Santa Fe men were a few minutes ahead of the D&RG crews, so they took control of the pass. On Dec. 7, 1878, the first train crossed Raton Pass on a high series of switchbacks, and the AT&SF was headed for a place in the history of the West.


There has always been something mystical about the railroad that paralleled Route 66. From the backseat of the family sedan it was a treat to see the great trains rush past, or watch the huge steam "helper" engines assist the diesels on the pull up the Cajon Pass.

With nightfall there was the amazing sight of a passing passenger train - the Chief, the Super Chief or the fabulous El Capitan. Lights inside the coaches illuminated people comfortably reading in a roomette, sitting down to a delicious Fred Harvey meal in the dining car, or chatting over drinks in the club car, as the train rushed through the darkening sky of a western twilight.

One year a family emergency placed my Mom and me on the Super Chief. I still remember the joy of exploring the fascinating world of the train. The pneumatic whoosh of the doors opening between cars and the noise that accompanied the walk from one car to the next still echo in my ears. The attentive service of the porters and dining car attendants was appreciated by a harried mother traveling with a small boy, and made that small boy feel more than special. At night, berths would be made up while we ate in the dining car, and when we returned to the Pullman car I was amazed at the transformation. This was more than just a train speeding through the night, it was a magic place full of ever changing wonders.

Questions filled my head, questions that only the mind of a boy could conjure - why couldn't I go to the bathroom when we were in a station? Flushing the toilet somewhere in the California desert answered that one as I looked down at the railroad ties zipping by beneath me. If I jumped straight up in the aisle, would I be smashed against the rear of the coach? I wasn't, but still puzzle over the answer to that one. If a train left Flagstaff, eastbound, going 60 miles an hour at the same time one left Albuquerque, westbound, going 70 ... oops, that's a leftover from grade school - sorry.

The train restroom brings on memories of another time, somewhere in Arizona, when I answered nature's call and found myself locked in. I could not for the life of me figure out the lock on the door, and the more I tried the worse it got. The porter attempted to help, but by then I was in a blind panic - I was going to stay locked in that stainless steel cubicle for the rest of my life! Finally a young soldier came to my aid. He talked calmly (much nicer than my Mom yelling at me to, "Come out of there, right now!"). He told me how to work the lock and I did. Exiting the restroom, I saw about 20 people crowded in the narrow aisle. My Mom was embarrassed, I was embarrassed and the porter just shook his head. The soldier took me by the hand and led me to the club car where he treated me to a Coke. He told me it was no big deal, things like that happen all the time, and I immediately felt better. He then took me back and showed me how to work the lock on the restroom door so I wouldn't make the same mistake again.


The great passenger trains of the 1940s and '50s have passed on, with Santa Fe handing over their passenger operations to Amtrak in 1973. Although a fine way to travel by rail, Amtrak is a pale shadow of the greatness that was once rail travel in this country.

The giant steam engines of the past show up occasionally for a special excursion trip, or sit quietly in city parks around the country. The Santa Fe's 4-8-4 #3759 resides alongside Route 66 in a small park in Kingman, Ariz., and #3751, the first 4-8-4 built, is in San Bernardino, Calif.

The steam engines have been replaced by an exciting group of monster diesel engines that present as wonderful a panorama of power as the steam engines of old. Along Route 66 it is possible to see these behemoths earning their keep on the long grades and straight stretches of desert from New Mexico to California.

One of my favorite locations for train watching along Route 66 is the challenging Cajon (ka-hohn) Pass just north of San Bernardino. The pass offers many excellent viewing and photographic locations as three railroads - the Santa Fe, Union Pacific and Southern Pacific - battle one of the greatest mountain crossings in railroading. Trains pulling through this area will often have four or five lead engines and two or three pushers.

Keep your eyes open for some of the new, giant, SD70MAC engines from General Motors Electro Motive Division as they pull the hill. These giants generate 4,000 horsepower and five of them can replace nine of the older models.

Some of the better locations in Cajon, working south to north, that do not require driving on railroad maintainers roads and can be reached by passenger car, are:

1. Devore - at the base of the Pass. Take the Devore exit off I-215 and go three-tenths of a mile southwest to the crossing. A great location for catching the trains as they begin the pull up the Pass, or as they drift down, dynamic brakes working overtime to hold the train back.

2. Blue Cut - Take I-15 to the Kenwood exit, west to Cajon Blvd. (old Route 66), then right for 3.5 miles. Watch for the rock retaining wall on the left.

3. Swarthout Canyon Road - 1.1 miles above blue cut, Swarthout Canyon Road is to the left, follow it four-tenths of mile to the first railroad crossing. Park here and a short walk north will give you some excellent shots of approaching trains as they pull the curve.

4. Cajon - This is the heart of the Pass. 1.8 miles from Swarthout Road, there is a turn to the left onto the old road (straight ahead will take you to the freeway). Follow road to the end and explore for good photo locations. NOTE: This is a very quiet area - engineers are not required to blow horns as they approach, so be aware of rail traffic.

5. Pine Lodge/Mormon Rocks - Exit I-5 on Highway 138 and go seven-tenths of a mile northwest, turn right onto old paved road. Great photo locations, watch for sandy washes.

6. Continuing east on Route 66, past Ludlow, can be found the site of Siberia. A lone, crumbling block building is all that remains, but near the tracks can be found the signpost for Siberia and what a wonderful photo the burning desert, the Siberia sign and a working train all make.

7. The Colorado River crossing at Topock. Take the Park Moabi exit and at the bottom of the hill turn right and follow the road to the end. It will be necessary to climb the hill to get a good view of the tracks over the river.

The Williams, Ariz., area offers some great photo opportunities at Williams Junction just east and south of town. This is where the main-line, coming up through the Crookton Line Change, joins with the "pea-vine" from Phoenix. Traffic here is truly amazing, with a recorded 56 trains moving through in a 24-hour period, and the area lends itself to some wonderful photographs. To reach Williams Junction, go east out of town toward I-40, make a right at the highway maintenance yard turn-off, followed by an immediate left, take the first road to the right and follow this road (staying on the pavement) to Williams Junction.

NOTE: There is a grade crossing to the east, so you will generally hear train horns from that direction, but trains from the west do not sound their horns before Williams Junction, so listen carefully before making any track crossings.

East of Flagstaff on the open desert is an excellent location for long telephoto shots of trains working in desolate country. Also, out in the open country is the classic Canyon Diablo bridge. The bridge can be reached by taking the Two Guns exit off I-40 and proceeding north by northwest out to the site of Canyon Diablo. Be advised, this is a slow going road and is better suited to high clearance vehicles.

These are just a few of my favorite locations for train watching along Old Route 66. Many others are difficult to reach and call for four-wheel drive or high clearance vehicles and often involve driving on the maintainers roads, not a task for the faint of heart. But rest assured, the locations mentioned above can provide some excellent photographs and views of modern rail equipment.

There is one additional thing to remember when photographing trains - patience. It is best to set up a tripod, have the camera mounted and ready, then enjoy the outdoors while waiting for a train to appear.

The days of first-class passenger trains and steam engines may have passed, but for the dedicated rail fan, train watching along Route 66 can still be an enjoyable and rewarding hobby.