One reason that the Santa Fe became such a famous railroad was because of its flagship passenger train, the Super Chief (and, the railroad also claimed the most streamliners in operation at one time). The train quickly eclipsed its rivals (including its own cousin, the Chief) as the premier train to the Southwest and became so popular that it was the transportation choice of many Hollywood celebrities from the late 1930s through the 1960s. It was also the SC that inspired Santa Fe's classic “Warbonnet” livery that is arguably the most beautiful paint scheme ever to be applied to a passenger train. Today, the SC carries on under the Amtrak banner although its one-of-a-kind paint scheme and interior designs are relegated to history.
Interestingly, the Super Chief came about because of necessity. With the Union Pacific having launched its new streamlined City of Los Angeles in 1936 the Santa Fe needed to launch its own competing premier train between Los Angeles and Chicago. Having a direct route to the two cities (unlike the UP which had to hand off the train to the Southern Pacific to reach Los Angeles and Chicago & North Western Railway to reach Chicago) gave the Santa Fe a distinct advantage although its first version of the SC, while well planned, was not really up to par with the City of Los Angeles in that it was not streamlined and used standard heavyweight equipment.
Knowing it needed something better the Santa Fe with the help of the Budd Company, introduced the all new streamlined Super Chief in May of 1937. What resulted was a passenger train unrivaled in style, design, and luxury. Part of the train’s phenomenal success was its appeal and character. In designing the new Super Chief the Santa Fe wanted not only a contemporary passenger train but also one that reflected the railroad’s long-held relationship with Native American’s of the Southwest. To style the new train it had an entire staff of designers, which quickly set to work bringing the soon-to-be legend to life.
Industrial designer Sterling McDonald created the train’s classic interior Indian designs and themes. Whenever possible McDonald used authentic Native American (many of which depicted the Navajo) colors (such as turquoise and copper), patterns, and even authentic murals and paintings in the train. He used a combination of rare and exotic woods like ebony, teak, satinwood, bubinga, maccassar, and ribbon primavera for trim through the train giving the Super Chief an added touch of one-of-a-kind elegance.
Everything inside the train exuded the Native American culture and way of life. However, the SC’s livery also conveyed this, if not to an even greater degree. The train’s now-classic “Warbonnet” paint scheme was actually designed by General Motors’ artist Leland Knickerbocker. Knickbocker's livery featured gleaming stainless steel with the front half of the locomotive painted in red crimson, wrapping around the cab and trailing off along the bottom of the carbody with a Native American-inspired design (a design that would go on to distinguish the Santa Fe) used on the front of the nose with “Santa Fe” flanking the center. For trim golden yellow and black was used. As Knickerbocker put it the design was meant to convey an Indian head with trailing feathers of a warbonnet (thus where the livery derived its now-famous name).
The locomotive that powered this new train was the then Electro-Motive Corporation's EA model, a streamlined and completely self-contained diesel locomotive that handsomely matched the new Budd-built cars (themselves clad entirely in stainless steel giving the train a gleaming, “new” look). For the most part the train remained quite popular through the 1950s. In 1951 it was reequipped for the final time featuring the Pleasure Dome lounge that included dome viewing, a cocktail lounge, and the famed Turquoise Room used for dinner parties. However, none of the upgraded equipment matched the exquisite beauty of the original Super Chief cars.
As the 1960s dawned, and as with the passenger rail industry itself, the Santa Fe found its fleet likewise in decline as passengers took to their private automobiles or the skies for faster and more convenient modes of transportation. However, unlike most other railroads which let their service slip and trains run down, the Super Chief remained an on-time, clean and regal operation right up until the end when Amtrak took over most intercity passenger rail operations in the spring of 1971.
While the Santa Fe, perhaps reluctantly, handed over its illustrious flagship to Amtrak at least the railroad could take comfort in knowing that the Super Chief, while nothing near as plush as when it was privately operated, was one of the routes retained by the national carrier and continues to be operated to this day as one of Amtrak’s most esteemed trains (although it is now known as the Southwest Chief). Today, the SC remains not only an endearing image (and perhaps the image) of classic American passenger trains but also of our nation's transportation history itself. It continues to show up in the mainstream on everything from postage stamps to memorabilia, toys and models. For more information regarding its original schedule and consist please click here.