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  • Tanner Wadsworth, Rising 2L at Columbia Law School

This Day in History: September 22, 1995: BNSF railroad formed; only real competitor to Union Pacific

Updated: Jun 8, 2023

Fort Worth has a unique history with railroads. Today, the city is a major national rail hub, enjoying significant rail traffic and the industry and investment that this brings. It’s ironic to think that, had railroads come to Texas earlier, the Fort Worth we know might never have existed.

For most of its early days, Fort Worth was just a lonely Army post—and it might have stayed that way forever, if Jesse Chisholm hadn’t routed a herd of cattle through it on the way to Dodge City. That simple event changed everything.

Texas ranchers at the time had a problem: the nearest profitable market for beef was thousands of miles away on the East Coast, and there were no railroads accessible nearer than Kansas. The only solution was to drive cattle North to the railheads in Wichita and Dodge City along a few well-tested trails. One of these trails, scouted by Jesse Chisholm and named in his honor, led directly through Fort Worth.

As the popularity of the Chisholm Trail grew, Fort Worth grew along with it, swelling into a riotous boom town. Along with millions of cows and thousands of cowboys, the cattle drives brought gamblers, saloon keepers, lawyers, outlaws, and prostitutes. At the height of the drives, Fort Worth was one of the busiest, fastest-growing cities in the West.

When the railroads finally arrived in Texas, Fort Worth’s position as a cattle depot was well-established. Several railroads, including the famous Atchinson Topeka & Santa Fe line, built tracks through the city in order to carry beef back to the East coast more directly. Although their arrival signalled the end of the cattle drives, these train stations cemented Fort Worth as a regional hub, ensuring that it would never again be a lonely post on the frontier.

As the railroads grew, Fort Worth grew along with them. The Atchinson, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad began running a dedicated train named “The Angelo” between Fort Worth and San Angelo on a daily basis. Fort Worth’s Texas & Pacific station became one of the largest buildings in town, rising dozens of stories into the air and sprawling wide enough to handle tremendous herds of both cattle and passengers.

Meanwhile, the railroad continued to expand West, generating fabulous wealth for their shareholders, and engaging in famously hostile competition with each other for territory and freight. The race between the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific rail companies to complete the first Transcontinental railroad is one of the great business narratives in American history, comparable at its time to the rivalry between Apple and Microsoft or Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

However, just as the golden age of the cattle drives eventually faded, the golden age of railroads couldn’t last forever either. As cars became popular in the 20th century, railroads began to fill a more niche role in American society. Giants like Union Pacific began to merge and consolidate with other lines in order to stay competitive.

One of the marquee consolidations of this era was the merger of the Atchinson, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad with the Burlington Northern Railroad. On this day in 1995, the merger became official, and the newly created Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railroad was born.

Headquartered in Fort Worth, BNSF is one of the largest railroads in the world, and shares a dual monopoly over most of the United States with Union Pacific. It is one of the marquee holdings of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway company.

BNSF keeps Fort Worth’s railroad heritage alive, while providing hundreds of jobs and important infrastructure support to the city. It is just one of many Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Fort Worth. Others include American Airlines, Radioshack, and Pier 1 Imports. Fort Worth’s economy may not be driven by cattle anymore, but it remains a critical hub connecting Texas with the Midwest and East Coast. And of course, in addition to its business prowess, the city continues to be home to many Texas transactional attorneys.

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