It was the artery that flowed into and out of Dodge City's beating economic heart.
Cyrus K. Holliday, a Topeka lawyer, founded the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway which grew to one of the largest railroads in the United States.
Holliday's goal was to transport vast amounts of goods to Santa Fe, the trading center of the southwest.
He devoted all of his energy to establishing Topeka as the starting point.
Single-handedly, Holliday prepared a charter for the Atchison & Topeka Railroad in 1859. He introduced the charter to the territorial legislature on Feb. 1, 1859 which quickly approved charter on February 11.
Investors from the east coast and Europe provided most of the funding for the new company.
On March 3, 1863, a territorial law set aside nearly three million acres for the A.T. & S.F. The company built their first station in Pauline, Kansas, approximately six miles south of Topeka.
On April 26, 1869, A.T. & S.F.’s first train, the Wakarusa Picnic Special, left Topeka.
By this time, the railway had twenty-eight miles of track. Their competition, the Kansas Pacific Railroad had a virtual monopoly on the cattle trade to Chicago in the early 1870's.
However on Sept. 5, 1872, A.T. & S.F.’s construction gangs reached Dodge City shortening the distance between the cattle in southern Texas to the nearest railhead.
But it wasn't cattle the A.T. & S.F. shipped out of Dodge City those first few years; it was buffalo hides.
In its first year, Rath and Wright alone shipped out over 200,000 hides. And Rath and other merchants brought goods in for the buffalo hunters via the A.T. & S.F.
After the buffalo were hunted to near extinction, the A.T. & S.F. shifted their vital service to shipping out thousands of Texas longhorns every season.
By the end of 1872, the railhead reached the Colorado border, a full year ahead of the deadline stipulated by Congress in land negotiations.
Life was not easy for those building the railroad. The men endured miserable working conditions, with long, hot, summer days and winters full of sleet and snow.
They lived in shacks built of scrap lumber, eating meals of beans, salt pork, bread, sorghum and buffalo meat.
For the railroad to be successful, the A.T. & S.F. needed the Kansas territory to be settled. The company appointed land agents, however grasshopper plagues and droughts in the 1870's made promoting settlement of the Plains problematic. These difficulties also pushed the company near disaster.
In response, A.T. & S.F. cut its rates and its land prices, and hauled building materials for free. They even brought in Europeans via ocean liners.
To keep settlers on the Plains during years of drought, the railroad hauled thousands of bushels of seed grain for free.
Their efforts were successful. The A.T. & S.F. recovered financially and continued to expand west. They reached Santa Fe on Feb. 16, 1880, and gave the U.S. its second transcontinental railroad on March 8, 1881 when railroad reached the Pacific Ocean.
In 1897, A.T. & S.F. built Dodge City's current depot. This building also housed the A.T. & S.F.’s Western Division Offices, the 41 room El Vaquero Hotel, and the Fred Harvey lunch and dining room.
It also completed a two-story freight depot with a one-story warehouse in 1913.
For nearly 100 years, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway set the national standard for comfort, luxury and speed in passenger service in addition to hauling cattle and freight.