The Fort Worth and Denver Railway Company was chartered on May 26, 1873, as the Fort Worth and Denver City Railway Company; the name was changed on August 7, 1951. The line's promoters, particularly Warren H. H. Lawrence, had begun advocating a line from the Gulf of Mexico to Colorado by way of Fort Worth as early as 1869. The financial panic of 1873 delayed construction of the railroad until 1881, when Grenville M. Dodge became interested in the project. Dodge organized the Texas and Colorado Railway Improvement Company to build and equip the Fort Worth and Denver City in return for $20,000 in stock and $20,000 in bonds for each mile of track laid. In April 1881 the Fort Worth and Denver City and the Denver and New Orleans Railroad Company agreed to connect at the Texas-New Mexico border. Dodge began construction at Hodge Junction, just north of Fort Worth, on November 27, 1881, and by September 1882 had completed 110 miles of track to Wichita Falls. Construction resumed in 1885, when the line was extended from Wichita Falls to Harrold, a distance of thirty-four miles. In 1886 the line was extended thirty-one miles from Harrold to Chilicothe. The following year 194 miles of track were built from Chilicothe to the Canadian River, and in 1888 the line was extended to the Texas state line. The Denver, Texas and Fort Worth Railroad, organized to build the section south of Pueblo, Colorado, had not arrived at the state line, and the Fort Worth and Denver City construction forces continued to build into New Mexico Territory, where the railheads met at Union Park, 528 miles from Fort Worth, on March 14, 1888.
The Fort Worth and Denver City had been built with no state subsidy other than the right-of-way across state-owned lands totaling 2,162 acres. Service between Fort Worth and Denver began on April 1, 1888. During that year the Denver, Texas and Fort Worth acquired stock control of the Fort Worth and Denver City. In 1890 the Denver, Texas and Fort Worth became part of the Union Pacific, Denver and Gulf Railway Company, but both it and its Texas connection entered receivership during the panic of 1893. The Fort Worth and Denver City was reorganized in 1895 under the same name and charter, with Dodge as president. Since the charter of the Fort Worth and Denver City prohibited the construction of branch lines, new companies were formed to do any new work. The first of these companies was the Panhandle Railway Company, chartered on December 13, 1887, to build between Washburn and Panhandle City, where connection was made with the Southern Kansas Railway Company of Texas (Santa Fe). This fifteen-mile line was leased to the Santa Fe in 1898 and sold in 1900. The Fort Worth and Denver Terminal Railway Company was chartered on March 24, 1890, to give the Fort Worth and Denver City its own entrance into and terminal facilities in Fort Worth. Another company, the Acme Tap Railroad Company, was incorporated on January 7, 1889, when it became necessary to condemn a right-of-way from Acme to Agatite in order to construct an industrial spur to serve the Salina Cement Plaster Company. Other feeder lines were built at Wichita Falls, but these were not directly promoted by the Fort Worth and Denver City. Morgan Jones and Dodge were among the parties who incorporated the Wichita Valley Railway Company on February 8, 1890. This company constructed a line from Wichita Falls to Seymour. Jones was also active in the Wichita Falls and Oklahoma Railway Company, chartered on October 12, 1903, to build a line to Byers, as well as in the Wichita Valley Railroad Company, which ran from Seymour to Stamford and was completed by January 1, 1907. Another company, the Abilene and Northern Railway Company, built between Stamford and Abilene. These feeders were all acquired by the Colorado and Southern Railway Company, successor to the Union Pacific, Denver and Gulf. The Colorado and Southern also constructed the Stamford and Northwestern Railway Company between Stamford and Spur in 1909. These feeders were all leased to the Wichita Valley Railway Company. In the 1920s the Colorado and Southern expanded its service area by building several new railroads. The Wichita Falls and Oklahoma Railway Company of Oklahoma was formed to extend the Wichita Falls and Oklahoma line to Waurika, Oklahoma. On March 6, 1925, the Fort Worth and Denver South Plains Railway Company was chartered to tap the growing agricultural market in the South Plains. This line began at Estelline and by mid-1928 had completed 206 miles to Lubbock and Plainview with branches to Silverton and Dimmit. The Fort Worth and Denver Northern Railway Company, chartered on May 29, 1929, completed its 110-mile line between Childress and Pampa in July 1932. Both the Fort Worth and Denver South Plains and the Fort Worth and Denver Northern were leased to the Fort Worth and Denver City for operation. Elsewhere during the 1920s the Fort Worth and Denver City extended service from Fort Worth to Dallas in 1925 by acquiring trackage rights over the Chicago, Rock Island and Gulf. In June of 1925 the Fort Worth and Denver City purchased the one-eighth interest in the Union Terminal Company at Dallas owned by the Trinity and Brazos Valley.
As the first rail line to penetrate Northwest Texas, the Fort Worth and Denver City influenced the area's growth. The construction of stockyards at Wichita Falls and later railheads ended the necessity for long cattle drives. The Fort Worth and Denver City actively promoted the growth of towns and farming to increase traffic for the line; "No settlers, no trains" was the company's rule. The line is given credit for promoting winter wheat as food for cattle. The railroad pioneered control of wind erosion by furnishing trees and trees seedlings to use as windbreaks. The road urged the introduction of cotton to the plains country, actively supporting the work of agriculturist Seamann A. Knapp. The Fort Worth and Denver City cooperated with ranchers and land developers in experimental farms to show potential settlers the value of West Texas as farm country and was instrumental in lobbying for the first federally funded experimental farm in the Panhandle. The line also furnished seed for experimental plots on private lands to encourage agricultural diversity. Some of the line's major stockholders were closely associated with land development firms that provided land at extremely liberal terms to attract settlers to the region. During the drought years of the 1890s the railroad provided free seed for farmers to keep them in business. In other years the line acted as a banker for the farmers and accepted crop liens as collateral for loans. During the Centennial Year of 1936 the Fort Worth and Denver City and the Burlington-Rock Island cooperated in operating the first streamlined train in Texas, the Sam Houston Zephyr, between Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth. In 1931 the Fort Worth and Denver City and the Rock Island jointly leased the Burlington-Rock Island between Waxahachie and Teague and expanded the lease to the entire property in 1950. On June 13, 1952, all of the other Colorado and Southern properties in Texas, with the exception of the Burlington-Rock Island, were merged into the Fort Worth and Denver. In 1965 the Colorado and Southern and Rock Island absorbed the Burlington-Rock Island, with each owner acquiring an undivided one-half interest in the property. The Colorado and Southern's interest was also merged into the Fort Worth and Denver. Other acquisitions included the purchase of Wichita Falls terminal properties from the abandoned Wichita Falls and Southern in 1954. In 1973 the Fort Worth and Denver acquired forty-two miles between Stamford and Rotan from the Texas Central. However, this line was abandoned in 1976. Other abandonments included the line between Stamford and Spur in 1967, the Wellington to Pampa line in 1970, the track from Teague to Mexia in 1976, and the Sterley to Silverton section in 1978. When the Colorado and Southern was merged into the Burlington Northern Railroad on December 31, 1981, the Fort Worth and Denver expanded to operate the track between Texline and Denver. The Fort Worth and Denver, in turn, was merged into the BN on December 31, 1982. In 1989 the BN abandoned the former Fort Worth and Denver South Plains between Estelline and Lubbock in favor of trackage rights over the Santa Fe. Sixty-four miles of the right-of-way between Estelline and South Plains were opened in 1993 as a hike-and-bike trail as part of the Caprock Canyons State Park Trailway System.