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Super Chief being serviced at Albuquerque, New Mexico, in March 1943. A headlight "blackout shield" was a wartime Civil Defense requirement on trains running to the Pacific Coast.
Super Chief being serviced at Albuquerque, New Mexico, in March 1943. A headlight "blackout shield" was a wartime Civil Defense requirement on trains running to the Pacific Coast.
Santa Fe
Super Chief
Fort Madison
Kansas City
Garden City
Dodge City
La Junta
Las Vegas
Williams Junction
c. 1960
San Bernardino
Los Angeles

The Super Chief was one of the named passenger trains and the flagship of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. The streamliner claimed to be "The Train of the Stars" because of the various celebrities it carried between Chicago, Illinois, and Los Angeles, California.

The Super Chief (Nos. 17 and 18) was the first diesel-electric powered cross-country passenger train in America.[1] The train eclipsed the Chief as Santa Fe's standard bearer. The extra-fare ($10) Super Chief left Dearborn Station in Chicago for its first trip on May 12, 1936. Before starting scheduled service in May 1937, the lightweight version of the Super Chief ran 2,227 miles (3,584 km) from Los Angeles over recently upgraded tracks in 36 hours and 49 minutes, averaging 60 mph (97 km/h) overall and reaching 100 mph (160 km/h).

With one set of equipment, the train initially operated once a week from both Chicago and Los Angeles. After more cars had been delivered the Super Chief ran twice weekly beginning in 1938 and daily after 1948. Adding to the train's mystique were its gourmet meals and Hollywood clientele.

Competitors to the Super Chief were the City of Los Angeles on the Chicago and North Western Railway and the Union Pacific Railroad, and (to a lesser extent) the Golden State on the Rock Island and Southern Pacific. The Santa Fe Super Chief was one of the last passenger trains in the United States to carry an all-Pullman consist; only the Pennsylvania Railroad's Broadway Limited and the Illinois Central's Panama Limited survived longer. The train maintained its high level of service until the end of Santa Fe passenger operations on May 1, 1971.

When Amtrak took over operation of the nation's passenger service on May 1, 1971, it retained the Super Chief. In 1974 the Santa Fe withdrew permission to use the "Chief" name due to a perceived decline in service, so Amtrak renamed it the Southwest Limited. Following the delivery of new Superliner equipment, the Santa Fe allowed Amtrak to call it the Southwest Chief in 1984.[1]


Santa Fe's marketing advantage for the Super Chief lay in the geography of the route as well as its ownership. The Santa Fe began as a rail line along the old Santa Fe and Spanish Trails, from the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers (at Atchison and Topeka, Kansas) to the Pecos River and Rio Grande in New Mexico. This initial route was eventually extended to Los Angeles.[2]: 173 

The convenience of traveling "Santa Fe All The Way" was superior to anything that the competing jointly operated railroads could provide on their routes to the west coast. A single traffic and operating department ruled all the divisions and districts of the Santa Fe route from Chicago to Los Angeles. Dining cars, the commissary supply chains, the on-board service crews and their management; all worked together from Chicago to Los Angeles.

The Super Chief ran through Kansas City, Missouri; Newton, Kansas; Dodge City, Kansas; La Junta, Colorado; Raton, New Mexico; Las Vegas, New Mexico; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Gallup, New Mexico; Winslow, Arizona; Seligman, Arizona; Needles, California; Barstow, California; San Bernardino, California; and Pasadena, California.[3] During the pre-war years the Super Chief did not allow passengers to board or disembark at any point between Kansas City and Barstow; intermediate stops were operating stops only, to change crews or to service the train.[4] During the war the rules were relaxed to carry passengers to and from Albuquerque and La Junta, but only when unsold space was available at train time.[5] Not until the postwar era could passengers travel to intermediate stations on the Super Chief.

A map depicting the "Grand Canyon Route" of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway c. 1901.
A map depicting the "Grand Canyon Route" of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway c. 1901.


The EMC Nos. 1 and 1A depicted on August 31, 1935.
The EMC Nos. 1 and 1A depicted on August 31, 1935.

The Santa Fe intended the Super Chief to be the latest in a long line of luxury Chicago–Los Angeles trains wedded to the latest in railroad technology. In the 1930s these included air conditioning, lightweight all-metal construction, and diesel locomotion.[6] In August 1935 the General Motors Electro-Motive Corporation (EMC) delivered two blunt-nosed diesel-electric units Nos. 1 and 1A, intended to pull the Super Chief. Aside from an ALCO HH600 switcher at Dearborn Station in Chicago, they were the Santa Fe's first diesel-electrics and the first such trains intended for passenger service.[7]: 114–115  The locomotives made their first test run with a set of Pullman cars and a dynamometer car in September 1935.[1] The first Super Chief operated on May 12, 1936, with the diesels pulling air-conditioned heavyweight Pullman cars.[8] They were put into regular service on May 18, 1937.[1]

In 1937, Santa Fe purchased several of Electro-Motive’s new “Streamliner Series” diesel-electric locomotives and placed them in service on the Super Chief line. These locomotives were the first to wear Santa Fe’s red, yellow, and silver “War bonnet” color scheme. EMC’s sleek and efficient streamlined locomotives became the standard on North American railroads.[1] Hollywood celebrities frequently rode the fashionable Super Chief, making it known as “The Train of The Stars.”[1][9]

Transcontinental carriages

By January 1954 the Super Chief had inherited from the Santa Fe's Chief the service of running continuous Los Angeles-New York sleepers continuing from Chicago on the New York Central Railroad's 20th Century Limited and on the Pennsylvania Railroad's Broadway Limited.[9] The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad offered a similar service with Los Angeles-Washington, D.C., sleepers on that company's Shenandoah westbound and Capitol Limited eastbound.[10][11] However, in October 1957 the PRR dropped its Broadway Limited sleeper connection. Upon the April 1958 timetables, the cooperating railroads terminated their transcontinental sleeper carriages. Declining ridership and delay from switching sleeping cars between Chicago terminals were factors in the through-car termination.[11][12]


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On May 1, 1971, Amtrak took over operation of intercity passenger rail service in the United States. Amtrak retained the Super Chief/El Capitan names with Santa Fe's permission.[15]: 123  From June 11 to September 10, 1972, Amtrak operated the Chief, a second Chicago–Los Angeles train along the same route. This was the only occasion on which Amtrak ran a second train to duplicate a long-distance service along its entire route outside the New York–Florida corridor.[15]: 123–124  Amtrak dropped the El Capitan designation on April 19, 1973.[15]: 125  On March 7, 1974, the Santa Fe directed Amtrak to stop using the Super Chief and Texas Chief names due to a perceived reduction in the quality of service. The trains were renamed Southwest Limited and Lone Star on May 19.[15]: 126  On November 30, 1980, Amtrak replaced the ex-Super Chief "Pleasure Dome" and "Hi-Level" cars on the Southwest Limited with new Superliners.[15]: 128 

Equipment used

Sleeper-lounge-observation Navajo at the Colorado Railroad Museum in 2012. Note the Super Chief drumhead on the rear of the car.
Sleeper-lounge-observation Navajo at the Colorado Railroad Museum in 2012. Note the Super Chief drumhead on the rear of the car.

The first motive power set on Super Chief-1 consisted of a pair of blunt-nosed, Diesel-electric units (EMC 1800 hp B-B) designated as Nos. 1 and 1A. Santa Fe employees hung the nicknames "One-Spot Twins" and "Amos 'n' Andy" (from the popular radio show of the day) on the units, which were always paired and ran back-to-back. In a little over a year the EMC E1, a new 3,600 hp (2.7 MW) streamlined Diesel-electric set (one 1800 hp hood unit and the other a cabless booster unit, also 1800 hp) would be pulling the Super Chief.

A variety of locomotives (including ALCO PAs, EMD E6s, FTs, F3s, F7s, and FP45s, along with Santa Fe's only ALCO DL-107/108s and FM Erie-built units) would make their appearances over the years. All wore the Warbonnet paint scheme devised by Leland Knickerbocker of the GM "Art and Color Section" that debuted on the Super Chief-2.

Original Consist

The Super Chief-1's mostly-heavyweight original consist included:

NOTE: Lightweight sleeper Forward was built in the summer of 1936 as the first Pullman sleeping car using the "alloy-steel truss frame" method. This car was an addition to the first (heavyweight) Super Chief consist in November 1936 (after early Diesel units 1-A, 1-B and leased 1-C [the "One Spot Twins"] had proved their ability to maintain the schedule). It was built unpainted with fluted sides but was painted dark grey with black and gold striping for use on the Santa Fe. Forward was built in the same period as the articulated set Advance and Progress (constructed in August 1936), which were later used on the early C&NW/UP/SP Chicago-San Francisco "Forty-Niner" which used semi-streamlined heavyweight dining, lounge and sleeping cars with the articulated set on the rear renamed Bear Flag and California Republic.[16]

1st Light-weight Consist

In May 1937 the heavyweight equipment on the Super Chief was replaced with all lightweight stainless steel cars built by the Budd Company; the heavyweight cars were placed back in service with the Chief. For the new lightweight train, the Super Chief-2, the equipment used was:

The sleeping cars were operated by Pullman but were owned by the Santa Fe. The car names were chosen to commemorate the Native American tribes, pueblos, and cities along the railroad's route.

2nd Consist

On February 26, 1938, the consist was modified:

The railroad added another trainset using sleeping cars borrowed from the Chief to handle the demand for passage aboard the train. Its original consist was:

3rd Consist

On July 2 of that year, the permanent Super Chief-3 consist was established:

4th Consist

Beginning in 1947, a typical Super Chief consist:

One of the dining cars in 1947
One of the dining cars in 1947
The observation car's lounge
The observation car's lounge

5th Consist

A typical Super Chief consist from 1948 to 1951:

*NOTE: The nineteen "10-2-3" sleepers in the Blue series had a floor plan unique to the Santa Fe.

In the 1940s and into the 1950s, the Super Chief occasionally interchanged sleepers with other railroads to provide "coast-to-coast" sleeping car service. In those instances, sleepers from eastern connections would take the place of Regal– or Pine–series cars:

6th Consist

A typical Super Chief consist from 1951 to 1956:

The Pleasure Dome observation car in 1952
The Pleasure Dome observation car in 1952

7th Consist

A typical Super Chief consist from the early 1960s (all-Pullman section):

8th Consist

A typical Super Chief consist from the late 1960s (combined with El Capitan):

The combined Super Chief / El Capitan, led by locomotive #44C (an EMD F7 sporting Santa Fe's classic Warbonnet paint scheme) pulls into Track 10 at Los Angeles' Union Passenger Terminal (LAUPT) on September 24, 1966.
The combined Super Chief / El Capitan, led by locomotive #44C (an EMD F7 sporting Santa Fe's classic Warbonnet paint scheme) pulls into Track 10 at Los Angeles' Union Passenger Terminal (LAUPT) on September 24, 1966.

Station stops


"Hollywood mystique"

Ad describing the Super Chief features
Ad describing the Super Chief features

The Super Chief was a near-instant success among travelers who appreciated its modern, air-conditioned cars, private bedrooms, high amenity levels, and smooth ride.[19] The train was staffed with top-of-the-line crews ingrained with the best traditions of the railroad, and drew passengers not only from other railroads but from other Santa Fe trains such as the Chief.

The Super Chief quickly became "the" train to ride between Chicago and Los Angeles, much as New York Central's 20th Century Limited was the favored travel option of the time for the East Coast-bound. To acquaint passengers with the various points of interest located along the route, Santa Fe built seven signs marking such notable features as the Continental Divide and Raton Pass.[citation needed]

In the mid-1940s, company president Fred G. Gurley went to great lengths to solicit business from California's motion picture industry. A passenger agent was located in Hollywood specifically for the purpose of maintaining close contact with the movie studios. The train stopped at Pasadena to allow celebrities to board away from the "hustle and bustle" of Los Angeles' Union Passenger Terminal (LAUPT). When the Santa Fe was notified that a particular celebrity was going to be traveling on the Super Chief, a press release was issued to allow the media to interview and photograph the star.[citation needed]

Legendary Jazz Pianist Fats Waller died of pneumonia at the age of 39 on board the Santa Fe Super Chief on December 15, 1943.

In time the passenger list would include many Hollywood stars, such as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, James Cagney, Judy Garland, and Bing Crosby. The train's appeal was not limited to those in the entertainment industry, as it also played host to former presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, and their wives.[citation needed]

Several radio and TV episodes of The Jack Benny Show had plotlines involving the cast travelling on the Super Chief. in one, a tout at Los Angeles Union Station tried to convince Jack to take the El Capitan instead.

Three for Bedroom "C"

In June 1952, Warner Bros. Pictures released Three for Bedroom "C", a romantic comedy starring Gloria Swanson, James Warren, Fred Clark, Hans Conried, and Steve Brodie. In the film, an aging movie star (Swanson) hides out in a compartment during a cross-country journey from New York to Los Angeles aboard the Super Chief.

Swanson's first color film was one of very few to be shot entirely aboard actual railroad equipment. Santa Fe transported cars from the Super Chief to the production company's studio lot for filming. The film met with lukewarm reviews and was not a financial success, but did showcase the features of the Super Chief.[citation needed]


The pantry aboard former Santa Fe dining car #1474, the Cochiti.  Over a million meals were served in the car, which remained in service through the late 1960s.
The pantry aboard former Santa Fe dining car #1474, the Cochiti. Over a million meals were served in the car, which remained in service through the late 1960s.

Most railroads began offering some form of meal service on their trains as an alternate to the poor fare typically found at trackside establishments even before the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad. By the mid-1880s, dedicated dining cars were a normal part of all long-distance train consists departing from Chicago for points west[citation needed], save for those of the Santa Fe, who relied on America's first interstate network of restaurants to feed its passengers en route. The "Harvey Houses", located strategically along the line, served top-quality meals to railroad patrons during water stops and other planned layovers and were favored over in-transit facilities for all trains operating west of Kansas City.[citation needed]

The Super Chief included dining cars, staffed by Fred Harvey Company personnel, as part of its standard consist from the outset. In general, the Super Chief operated 36-seat dining cars, although most of them were convertible to 48-seat dining cars with a flip-top (or change of) table and addition of chairs. Dining cars almost always operated with a lounge car coupled to them for bar-lounge service and a waiting area when the dining car was full. Unlike the Union Pacific "City" trains, the Super Chief and other Santa Fe trains did not use the "twin-unit" dining cars. Santa Fe, in general, ran somewhat shorter trains that could be serviced with a single dining car (although the heavyweight trains frequently operated in several sections, the streamlined trains generally did not). The height of Super Chief lounge and dining facilities came in 1951 with the new 600-series Dining Cars bracketed by the 500 series Pleasure Domes in front and a bar-lounge-dormitory unit in back (moved from the front of the trains). The train still operated with the Vista-series 4 Drawing Room, 1 double bedroom observation cars on the rear, albeit without any bar or buffet service.

The bar-lounge cars next to the diner always included dormitory space for the train crew (a staff of 3–4 cooks and 6–7 waiters) required for the two-night-and-one-day trip. The eight Pullmans on the train had a capacity of 150–200 passengers when full but often ran with single-occupancy rooms, making the passenger load less.

The Turquoise Room in 1955
The Turquoise Room in 1955

When Santa Fe rolled out its new "Pleasure Dome"-Lounge cars in 1951, the railroad introduced the Turquoise Room, promoted as "The only private dining room in the world on rails". The room accommodated 12 guests, and could be reserved anytime for private dinner or cocktail parties.[20] The room was often used by celebrities and dignitaries. As was the case on other railroads, dining car service was a losing proposition financially. Santa Fe, more than any of its competitors, took the concept of using on-board meal service as a loss leader to the highest level to attract and retain customers. The name Super Chief became synonymous with the finest fare available on wheels.


The Continental cuisine offered aboard the Super Chief went beyond the American fare on other trains, and often rivaled that served in many five-star restaurants. A "Wake-Up Cup" of coffee was brought to one's private bedroom each morning, on request, a service exclusive to the Super Chief. Breakfast and lunch were served à la carte, while dinner could be ordered either à la carte or table d'hôte.[citation needed]

The elaborate dinner offerings generally included caviar and other delicacies, cold salads, grilled and sauteéd fish, sirloin steaks and filet mignon, lamb chops, and the like. For discerning palates, elegant champagne dinners were an option. One of the Super Chief's most popular signature dishes was the AT&SF version of pain perdu, simply and appropriately named "Santa Fe French Toast".[21]

Mimbreño china

The decor, linens, and other dining car accoutrements reflected the same Southwestern flair prevalent throughout the train. Mary Colter, architect, Indian art expert, and 35-year veteran of the Fred Harvey Company, designed the china and silverware used on the Super Chief. Colter, who also designed the interiors of Fred Harvey's opulent La Fonda, La Posada, and El Tovar hotels, based her dinnerware motif on the Native American pictographs of animals and geometric patterns left behind on clay pots by the ancient inhabitants of the Rio Mimbres Valley in southwestern New Mexico around 1100 AD. Colter drew specific inspiration from the 700 pen-and-ink drawings of Mimbres pottery recorded by archeologist Harriet Cosgrove from 1924 to 1927 while excavating the Swarts Ruin in New Mexico with her husband Cornelius Cosgrove. Publication of the Swarts Ruin record created a sensation in 1932.[citation needed]

The "Mimbreño" pattern was produced between 1936 and 1970 by the Onondaga Pottery Co. of Syracuse, New York, under its better-known trade name, Syracuse China. The bottoms carried the inscription "Made expressly for Santa Fe Dining Car Service." These distinctive pieces made their debut on the dining car Cochiti in 1937. Used on the Super Chief and other named trains until the end of Santa Fe passenger service in 1971, some original Mimbreño dinnerware can still be found today in service on BNSF Railway business cars.[22]

Mimbreño has been dubbed "the oldest of all railroad china" as its design concept dates back nearly ten centuries. Demand for surviving original pieces has created a collector's market, and led to the issuance of authorized reproductions in recent years.[22]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f Landis, Mark (January 11, 2021). "From LA to Chicago, Santa Fe Railroad was first to have diesel engines pull passenger cars". The San Bernardino Sun: Local News. Media NewsGroup. Archived from the original on February 18, 2021. Retrieved May 1, 2021.
  2. ^ Solomon, Brian (2010). "The Santa Fe Route". In Cooper, Bruce Clement (ed.). The Classic Western American Railroad Routes. New York: Chartwell Books. ISBN 978-0-7858-2573-9.
  3. ^ "The Super Chief". Streamliner Schedules. September 1938. Retrieved August 4, 2013.
  4. ^ "Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Ry. Timetables". The Official Guide of the Railways. New York: National Railway Publication Co. 74 (7): 918–955. December 1941.
  5. ^ "Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Ry. Timetables". The Official Guide of the Railways. New York: National Railway Publication Co. 78 (3): 868–901. August 1945.
  6. ^ Brasher 2005, p. 24
  7. ^ Schramm, Jeffrey W. (2010). Out of Steam: Dieselization and American Railroad, 1920-1960. Lehigh University Press.
  8. ^ Brasher 2005, p. 25
  9. ^ a b Grace, Michael (August 15, 2010). "The Super Chief – "The Train Of The Stars"". Social History. New York Social Diary. Archived from the original on December 6, 2020. Retrieved April 23, 2021. Until the late mid-1950s, going by train to Los Angeles from New York was the norm. .... You would be booked on through a Pullman car from New York to Los Angeles. You could occupy a drawing room, compartment or roomette. .... You would overnight to Chicago on the 20th Century Ltd. or the Broadway Ltd. to Chicago. You could stay aboard your through car as it was shuttled from Chicago station. .... Then you’d board that evening for the Super Chief’s race “to the Coast” reaching speeds of 112 mph.
  10. ^ "Santa Fe Lines, Table A". Official Guide of the Railways. National Railway Publication Company. 87 (7). December 1954.
  11. ^ a b Santa Fe Transcontinental Passenger Service
  12. ^ (1) New York Central timetable, February 16, 1958, 'Pullman, Coach and Dining Car Service,' through sleeper present
    (2) New York Central timetable, April 27, 1958, 'Pullman, Coach and Dining Car Service,' through sleeper absent
    (3) "Pennsylvania Railroad, 'Sleeping, Parlor, Dining Cars and Coaches' [reporting the June 1958 timetable]". Official Guide of the Railways. National Railway Publication Company. 91 (3). August 1958.
    (5) "Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, 'Pullman, Coach and Dining Car Service' [reporting the April 1958 timetable]". Official Guide of the Railways. National Railway Publication Company. 91 (3). August 1958.
  13. ^ Brasher 2005, p. 26
  14. ^ "Super Chief and El Capitan every other day to California". Pittsburgh Press. September 12, 1946. Retrieved August 3, 2013.
  15. ^ a b c d e Sanders, Craig (2006). Amtrak in the Heartland. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-0-253-34705-3.
  16. ^ Welsh, Joe; Bill Howes (2004). Travel by Pullman: a century of service. Saint Paul, MN: MBI. ISBN 0760318573. OCLC 56634363.
  17. ^ "The Super Chief, 1938". Retrieved August 3, 2013.
  18. ^ "The Super Chief, 1956". Retrieved August 3, 2013.
  19. ^ Carlos Arnaldo Schwantes, Going Places: Transportation Redefines the American West. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2003; pg. 41.
  20. ^ Turquoise Room Invitation ad. Life Magazine. March 19, 1951. p. 79. Retrieved March 3, 2012.
  21. ^ "Santa Fe French Toast". Retrieved September 23, 2013.
  22. ^ a b "Mimbreño China". Pipestone China Company. Retrieved March 4, 2012.