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FreightWaves Classics: Exploring the history of BNSF

A passing flash identifies BNSF locomotive No. 7360 pulling an intermodal stack car with BNSF domestic containers across the Southwest desert. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Like many of the FreightWaves staff and our readers, I like trucks… and ships, airplanes and trains. I also like to learn the history of different aspects of transportation and logistics and the companies that have helped build that history. 

This is the first installment of a multi-part article on the history of BNSF Railway, one of the seven Class I railroads remaining in North America. Much of the information contained in this and later articles comes from the BNSF website and specifically the BNSF Historical Overview.

Today, BNSF serves the western two-thirds of the United States, parts of Canada and important Mexican gateways. The railroad’s routes cover approximately 32,500 miles. 

BNSF is the only Class I railroad that is not publicly traded. On February 12, 2010, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, LLC (formerly known as Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corporation) and BNSF Railway Company became subsidiaries of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

Now part of the Berkshire Hathaway family of companies for nearly 11 years, the BNSF Railway that Berkshire Hathaway acquired in 2010 was itself the product of the September 22, 1995, merger of Burlington Northern Inc. and Santa Fe Pacific Corp. When those two great railroad companies merged, they included the lineage of nearly 400 different railroads that either merged or were acquired over more than 170 years. Iterations of the BNSF logo and its key historical railroads are seen below.

The logos of some of the key railroads that were merged into what became the BNSF.

The earliest predecessors 


The oldest of the BNSF predecessors were both founded in 1849.

The Aurora Branch Line eventually became the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (railroad reporting mark CB&Q) and the Pacific Railroad of Missouri (some of which became the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway, known as the “Frisco”). 

Today’s article will cover highlights in the history of the Burlington Lines – the “B” in BNSF.

The Aurora Branch

Today, Aurora, Illinois, is an outer suburb of Chicago and the second most populous city in the state. In the late 1840s, however, the two cities were separated by 50 miles of rutted dirt roads with no rail service. Aurora business leaders decided to build a branch railway line between the two cities. This led to the organization of the Aurora Branch on February 12, 1849. The new railroad borrowed equipment from existing railroads and built its track operating on rail laid with second-hand scrap iron spiked to wooden rails. The scrap iron was purchased from the Buffalo & Niagara Falls Railroad following a ban on its use by the New York legislature.

The first Aurora Branch train traveled six miles, from Batavia to Turner Junction (now named West Chicago) on September 2, 1850. It used a locomotive and railcars borrowed from the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad. In Turner Junction the train then switched to the tracks of the Galena line, which had been completed to Chicago in 1849. With this rather humble beginning, the Aurora Branch became the second railroad to serve Chicago.

The Aurora Branch’s local ownership only lasted a couple of years; a group of Boston investors bought the line in 1852. Under the new ownership/leadership, the railroad’s growth was impressive.

An early Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad engine and wood car. (Photo: BNSF)
An early Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad engine and wood car. (Photo: BNSF)

The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Co. (the Burlington)

By 1864, the railroad had built 400 miles of track within Illinois. The railroad’s name was changed to the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Co. (CB&Q), reflecting its route, which  led to the Mississippi River towns of Burlington, Iowa, and Quincy, Illinois. The railroad’s official name remained the same for the next 106 years, changing only when the Burlington Northern merger took place in 1970. However, during those 100+ years, the railroad was known by most simply as “the Burlington.”

The railroad completed its original line from Aurora to Chicago in 1864. When Chicago’s Union Stockyards opened in 1865, the CB&Q operated the first train into the stockyards. For decades afterward the Chicago Stockyards were the destination for millions of cattle.

Burlington’s rapid expansion after the Civil War was based on sound fiscal management, led by John M. Forbes of Boston, who was assisted by Charles E. Perkins. Perkins served as the railroad’s president for 20 years (1881-1901); and nearly tripled the railroad’s size by creating a railway system from a number of  loose affiliates. 

What began as a small rail line to move goods from Aurora to Chicago in 1849 evolved to become Burlington Lines – the largest of Burlington Northern’s predecessor railroads. At its peak, the Burlington Lines owned nearly 10,000 miles of track – extending from the Great Lakes to the Rocky Mountains and from Montana to the Gulf of Mexico.

Good logos should be easily identified and understood, and should mean something specific to their viewers. The oldest logo in the BNSF family of railroads is the rectangular CB&Q trademark. The block logo with the words “Burlington Route,” is familiar to railroad enthusiasts. It was first used in railroad’s 1880 advertising; in 1884 the company’s board of directors mandated its style and wording. “Burlington Route” is in distinctive white lettering on a black block, surrounded by a narrow white line, with a black line outside the white. The distinctive thick red border was added to the logo later.

The Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad Co.

Eventually, the Burlington Lines acquired or merged over 200 railroads. Of these, two were of particular importance – the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad Co. (H&St. J) and the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad Co. (B&MR).

Construction on the Hannibal and St. Joseph’s Railroad began in 1852 and was finished in 1859. The two cities are on the eastern and western edges of the northern part of Missouri. The railroad was championed by key people at each end of the line’s route – including Hannibal’s John M. Clemens (the father of Samuel Clemens, who is better known by his pen name – Mark Twain). 

The Pony Express and U.S. mail

The Hannibal and St. Joseph’s Railroad brought mail westward across Missouri to connect with the Pony Express, which began at St. Joseph’s and ran approximately 1,900 miles to Sacramento, California. Famous in U.S. history, the Pony Express only operated for about 18 months (April 3, 1860-October 26, 1861). The Pony Express shortened the time for messages to travel between its two eastern and western terminals to about 10 days. It became the West’s most direct means of east-west communication and was vital for tying the State of California with the rest of the United States.

An illustrated map of the route of the Pony Express in 1860 by William Henry Jackson
(Image: Library of Congress)
An illustrated map of the route of the Pony Express in 1860 by William Henry Jackson
(Image: Library of Congress)

Interestingly, the owners of the Pony Express never won an official contract with the U.S. Postal Service, and so the service was a private one. When it began, the Pony Express charged $5.00 for the delivery of a one-ounce letter/package (the equivalent of about $140 today). Although the Pony Express never turned a profit, it did not fail for financial reasons. Instead, it was supplanted by improved technology. The transcontinental telegraph was established on October 24, 1861; the Pony Express went out of business just two days later (October 26).

In addition to its Pony Express connection, the Hannibal and St. Joseph’s also sped the delivery of U.S. mail. In 1862 the railroad introduced the first railcar in which employees could sort U.S. mail while the train was en route. At that time, money (not money orders or checks) was often sent by mail. Of course, the trains also carried money and gold for payrolls and other functions. During the Civil War, Kansas and Missouri were on the edge of the “official” fighting, but Confederate raiders often attacked the railroad trains. After the war, the railroad’s trains were a periodic target of the James Gang and other train robbers.

The Hannibal & St. Joseph's Railroad first used specifically designed mail cars in 1862. (Photo: BNSF)
The Hannibal & St. Joseph’s Railroad first used specifically designed mail cars in 1862. (Photo: BNSF)

Bridging the Missouri and opening the Southwest

Another distinction of the Hannibal & St. Joseph’s Railroad – it was responsible for Kansas City becoming a rail hub. Directed by engineer Octave Chanute, the company completed the first bridge over the Missouri River in 1869. This bridge helped establish Kansas City as the gateway to the American Southwest and to its growth over the decades to come. 

Rail service in Iowa

Sitting here in 2021, when reading about Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, etc. that these states were once “the frontier.” From Western movies, we think of the frontier primarily as the U.S. Desert Southwest. But each of our states at one time had “frontier territory.”

Railroads helped attract settlers to the land being offered in the territories and states. (Image: BNSF)
Railroads helped attract settlers to the land being offered in the territories and states. (Image: BNSF)

With that, in 1852 the B&MR was incorporated to build a railroad across Iowa. On New Year’s Day 1856 work began on the first several miles of the railroad’s track, moving westward from Burlington. By 1857, construction had progressed roughly 80 miles and reached the town of Ottumwa. It took 12 more years to build the railroad westward to the Missouri River, the border between Iowa and Nebraska. The B&MR received financial assistance from John Forbes of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Co. and its Boston and New York investors. Why? Because construction of the B&MR helped the westward extension of the CB&Q (which was a feeder railroad for another railroad that Forbes controlled, the Michigan Central).

In 1868, the CB&Q completed railroad bridges crossing over the Mississippi River at Burlington and Quincy. These bridges gave the CB&Q through connections with the B&MR and H&St. J.

The ties between the CB&Q and the H&St. J were cut in 1871 when financier Jay Gould gained control of the H&St. J. It took 12 years, but the Burlington system reacquired the H&St.J. 

Into Nebraska

Although the B&MR was still laying track in Iowa, plans for an extension into Nebraska were put into place. In 1869, the Burlington & Missouri River Rail Road in Nebraska was founded. By mid-1870 construction on the railroad had reached Lincoln, the state capital, which had been founded in 1867. In 1872, the railroad established a junction with the Union Pacific Railroad at Kearney, Nebraska.

A railroad bridge over the Missouri River was finished and opened in 1880 at Plattsmouth and the B&MR in Nebraska had extended its rail line into western Nebraska. That same year the CB&Q bought the Nebraska railroad. 

A train crew stands next to a locomotive on a turntable. Turntables enabled railroads to turn locomotives and railcars 
up to 180 degrees. (Photo: BNSF)
Members of a train crew stands next to a locomotive on a turntable. Turntables enabled railroads to turn locomotives and railcars up to 180 degrees. (Photo: BNSF)

Continued expansion

The first direct rail route between Chicago and Denver was completed in 1882 when the railroad pushed into Colorado. At the same time the CB&Q were being laid ever-westward, other segments were built in the Midwest to complete links and build out the system. Links to connect with St. Louis and Rock Island, Illinois (both key ports on the Mississippi River) were built, and plans to build a rail line north to Minneapolis-St. Paul were also made. Extending the railroad northwestward would give Burlington opportunities to haul grain and lumber south, and haul coal and manufactured products northward.

Therefore, in 1885, the company’s rail lines were extended from Oregon, Illinois (the Chicago & Iowa Railroad) and north from Fulton, Illinois, (on the route from St. Louis) to Savanna, Illinois, then north following the Mississippi River. The rail line was built to St. Paul in 1886.

The Burlington continued building rail lines. A main line led from St. Louis and Kansas City through St. Joseph, Missouri, and from Lincoln to Billings, Montana. During the same time period, the BM&Q either built or acquired numerous branch lines across the agricultural regions of northern Illinois, southern Iowa, northern Missouri and southeastern Nebraska. These rail lines connected the key population centers and the smaller towns of the Midwest.

A BNSF train heads to its next destination. (Photo: Flickr/Patrick Dirden)
A BNSF train heads to its next destination. (Photo: Flickr/Patrick Dirden)

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.