The Santa Fe's Transcon in 1953

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Nobody called it the Transcon then. It was just Santa Fe’s freight main line across Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico, on its way to California. But almost 60 years ago, what was this corridor like? Let’s forget Hunter Harrison and 2012 for a bit and go back in time.

I’ve been delving into my piles of dispatcher trainsheets from the Fifties, and a bunch from 1953 and 1955 just got turned into dispatching simulations of the former Plains Division, from Waynoka, Okla., to Clovis, N.M., using Train Dispatcher 3 software (now unfortunately no longer sold). Even then, what a magnificent railroad this was.

By 1953 Santa Fe was in the closing stages of dieselizing its freight trains (steam was gone from all but a few branch line passenger runs). The Plains Division and the adjoining Pecos Division, from Clovis west to Belen, N.M., became steam’s last stand. Virtually all freights  were fronted by 2900-series 4-8-4s, 3800-series 2-10-2s and 5000-series 2-10-4s. The basic train density was seven or eight freights each way. But the potato harvest that year in the San Joaquin Valley of California was prodigious, amounting to 15,000 carloads and spawning four or five BK-symboled trains from Bakersfield every day from May to July. San Bernardino, Calif., originated about as many vegetable trains, too, as SB trains. Going west, Argentine Yard in Kansas City, Kans., collected empty refrigerator cars and sent them back under the AY symbol.

So for example, on Friday, June 19, 1953, no fewer than six SB and BK trains reached Waynoka, in addition to a PVX train from Palo Verde Valley (Blythe, Calif.) and an SRX from Glendale, Ariz., both with more refrigerator cars. Going west, Waynoka dispatched four AY trains of empty reefers, in addition to four trains labeled simply “drag” which probably consisted at least partly of empty reefers.

Coincidently, Trains editor David Morgan vividly described the operation of perishable extras in “Case History of a Spud Train,” published in September 1953. That June 4, he accompanied a BK train all the way to Chicago. So as not to tarnish its image as a progressive railroad, Santa Fe kept F-unit diesels on Morgan’s train the entire way, and he wrote not a word about the steam power all around him on the Pecos and Plains divisions.

This was the pre-intermodal era, of course. The hot schedules then were the boxcar trains: 49 to Northern California, 43 and 53 to Southern California, 81 to Amarillo, Tex., and Clovis, and 91 to Arizona. Eastbound came several sections of train 34 from Southern California, plus more ubiquitous drags.

The Plains Division scheduled just two passenger trains each way in 1953, but ran several others most days. The Grand Canyon Limited operated year-around in separate sleeping car and coach sections until mid 1954, relying largely on modernized heavyweight equipment. The other train pair was the Scout, which by 1953 was in its final year as a local train between Newton, Kan., and Albuquerque and Belen, N.M. Largely unremarked was a daily, unscheduled westbound mail train, called simply “Second 7.” It carried California-bound mail and express cars that otherwise would have weighed down train 7, the Fast Mail Express, which operated via LaJunta, Colo., and Raton, N.M. Finally, there were occasional eastbound “express specials,” probably containing strawberries or other sensitive fruits, and Main trains with military personnel.

By June 1954 this arrangement changed somewhat. The Plains Division saw its first real streamliner, the new San Francisco Chief. The Grand Canyon ran in a single section and nameless trains 3 and 4 replaced the Scout. Trains 3 and 4 really constituted a southern section of the Fast Mail Express except that they carried a heavyweight coach for willing riders (I was one once).

The operating challenge of the Plains Division was Curtis Hill, which confronted westbound freights after they crossed the Cimarron River. It begins as a 0.6 percent climb at Heman, Okla., six miles west of Waynoka. At Belva, five miles later, the grade becomes 1 percent for the next nine miles to Curtis. Though short and not particularly severe, Curtis Hill today still brings many BNSF westbounds to a crawl. Diesels could make it up Curtis Hill unassisted, but steam locomotives, with less low-speed tractive effort, needed a shove. In 1953, every westbound freight got a shove, usually from a 2-10-2. If time allowed, they’d attach to the front or rear of trains in Waynoka and stay with them to Curtis. Otherwise, the helpers would cut off at Curtis, back down the hill at 25 mph and meet the next westbound at Belva or Heman. This all sounds simple, but in the post-midnight hours, with bunches of freights in each direction and two active helper engines crowding in on Curtis (and the two-section Grand Canyon bearing down on Waynoka for a 5:30 a.m. departure), the easternmost 20 miles of the Plains Division were utter bedlam, or so my dispatching simulations lead me to think.

By the fall of 1955, the steam era was over on the Plains Division. But if you use Train Dispatcher 3 software and want to relive that time, contact and I’ll send you the simulations. Then you can enter the time machine.

One other bygone note: In 1953, little Canadian, Tex., a cattle-raising town on the east edge of the Panhandle, remained a crew-change point for freight trains out of Amarillo and Waynoka. Track charts from that era show a six-track yard and roundhouse. Most freights kept their steam locomotives, pausing only for a new crew, a gulp of water for the tenders, and a quick inspection before leaving 15 or 20 minutes after arrival. By 1955 the freights ran through, and Canadian’s days as a railroad town were over. Today all trace of that infrastructure is gone, as is the impressive brick depot and even access to the railroad itself. But you can relive that era looking at photographs in the Moody Building, a former hotel that now houses The Cattle Exchange, a steak and smoked-brisket palace that attracts the ranchers and their families.

I drive the length of the old Plains Division at least once a year, and savor the experience. The Transcon today is a mighty railroad, one of the most significant freight train corridors in North America and even the world. But in 1953, the same could have been said of the Plains Division, my friends, the very same.—Fred W. Frailey

Top: June 24, 1955. In the last days of steam on the Plains Division, 4-8-4 Northern 2900 helps a westbound drag dig into the 1 percent grade at Belva, Okla., on Curtis Hill. (Giles E. Stagner photo)

Second: August 30, 1952. Between Amarillo, Tex., and Clovis, N.M., you can see a train coming many miles away. Witness this westbound freight, fronted by 2-10-4 5001, making 60 per near Friona, Tex. (John Pickett photo)

Third: November 3, 1945. On Curtis Hill at Quinlan, Okla., Second 23,  the westbound coach section of The Grand Canyon, winds its way through the siding on the original grade. The straighter, newer main line is in the background. (Santa Fe Railway photo)

Bottom: Perishables roll east behind locomotive 5024 near Higgins, Okla., on June 11, 1953. My friends, this is the PLAINS of the Plains Division. (Stan Kistler photo)

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