The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 2003, Volume 49, Number 2
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Review

Matthew F. Bokovoy, Book Review Editor

Santa Fe: The Chief Way.

By Robert Strein, John Vaughan, and C. Fenton Richards, Jr. Albuquerque: New Mexico Magazine, 2001. Distributed by University of New Mexico Press. color illustrations and photos. halftones. 132 pp. $39.95 cloth.

Reviewed by Barbara Berglund, Assistant Professor, Department of History, University of South Florida.

Strein, Vaughan, and Richards have created a visually stunning book, filled with beautiful, high quality images drawn primarily from promotional material that illustrate the emergence and development of the Santa Fe Railway in the American Southwest from the late nineteenth century through the early 1970s. The authors have combined these images, their captions, and a little over ten pages of text to convey “the excitement and romance of streamlined train travel on the Santa Fe,” and to examine “how the railroad used the landscapes and Indian culture of the American Southwest to promote travel on its famous trains”(8).

The first chapter presents a chronology of the development of “the Chiefs,” the railway’s line of speedy, luxurious trains: the Chief, Super Chief, El Capitan, Texas Chief, Kansas City Chief, and San Francisco Chief. These trains pioneered such amenities as Pleasure Dome observation cars; cocktail lounges; plush dining rooms serving Fred Harvey cuisine; and Hi-Level, double-deck coach cars. The second chapter describes the central role advertising played to emphasize the Santa Fe’s promotion of leisure and tourism over mere transportation. It shows how promotional material highlighted both the prestigious and comfort-enhancing amenities of various trains as well as “scenic Southwestern locations of interest to tourists” such as “Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Carlsbad Caverns and Rainbow Bridge.” The third chapter treats the Santa Fe’s extensive and elaborate use of Native American imagery and employees to draw passengers into an experience of an exotic Southwest. It describes how the railway used Native American decorative motifs in its advertising as well as aboard its trains. The Chiefs’ exteriors, for example, were painted to resemble “an Indian headdress (or warbonnet)” (64) and entire trains as well as individual passenger cars were named after particular tribes or Indian themes. In the 1950s, the Santa Fe went even further to bring the Southwest to its passengers by employing Zuñi and Navajo guides who “told stories and pointed out scenic highlights along the way while dressed in their native garb” (67). The line also provided passengers with Indian Detours, a service which allowed for excursions “to Santa Fe and various Indian and Hispanic villages” led by ” young women with college degrees well-versed in the history of the territory” (67).

Chapter four turns its attention to the connection between the Santa Fe and Hollywood by pointing out the numerous Hollywood stars and star-makers who relied on the Santa Fe for transportation between New York and California as well as the occasional film made in the Southwest or with a Santa Fe Railway theme. Chapter five reveals that the Santa Fe purchased the paintings of Southwestern landscapes and Native Americans directly from artists to be reproduced and used in company advertising, especially calendars, resulting in one of the largest collections of Southwestern art in existence. The sixth chapter takes a look at some of the train stations along the Santa Fe routes. The seventh chapter and epilogue trace the decline of train travel and the ascendancy of automobiles, airplanes, and Amtrak.

In their introduction, the authors state that, “No other railroad, and perhaps no other company in the history of America, so completely embraced the territory it served and used the mystique of a land and its people to market itself to its customers”(8). The informative descriptive text and fascinating images they present solidly support that assertion. Unfortunately, Santa Fe: The Chief Way fails to analyze the kind of image of the Southwest the railway mobilized in promotional material and to explain what that may have meant to passengers, employees, and Native peoples in the context of both the social politics of the American West and the American nation. Repeatedly, the images depict white passengers, black porters, and Indians as cartoon-like characters or timeless archetypes of primitivism. While this attests to the diversity of the American Southwest, it also speaks to the racialized power relations that allowed whites to become the ones served, blacks as servers, and Indians as the marketing tool. Although this book does not plumb these issues, the images it presents reveal that there is a rich body of promotional railway material ripe for precisely such analysis.