The Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway Company was chartered on May 28, 1873, to build a railroad from Galveston to the interior of Texas without passing through Houston. The projected route crossed the Brazos River near Columbia and ran through Caldwell, Cameron, and Belton on its way to the western boundary of Texas and its terminus at Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory. At Santa Fe the GC&SF planned to connect with the Denver and Rio Grande. The authorized capital stock was $2,000,000. Funds for the railroad were largely subscribed in Galveston, where the office was located. The first officers of the company included Albert Somerville, president; Moritz Kopperl, vice president; C. R. Hughes, secretary; George Sealy, treasurer; and Gen. Braxton Bragg, chief engineer. Bernard M. Temple served as Bragg's assistant. Construction began on May 1, 1875, but it was two years before the road reached Arcola and 1879 before the rails reached Richmond, sixty-three miles from Galveston. On April 15, 1879, Sealy, as trustee, purchased the GC&SF at foreclosure to satisfy a $250,000 deed of trust. Four days later Sealy and his associates reorganized the company under the original charter. The new organization resumed construction in early 1880 and by the end of 1881 had built 291 miles between Richmond and Fort Worth. An additional forty-eight miles was placed in service between Belton and Lampasas on May 1, 1882. In that year the company bought the Chicago, Texas and Mexican Central Railway Company, fifty-three miles between Cleburne and Dallas, as well as the Central and Montgomery Railway Company, twenty-three miles between Navasota and Montgomery. Several branch lines were also opened during this period, the most important being the twenty-five mile line between Alvin and Houston on May 1, 1883. The main line was extended in 1886, when the 132 miles between Lampasas and Ballinger was placed in operation.
By the end of 1885 the GC&SF was operating nearly 700 miles of track, but it was not a financially strong railroad. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad Company had recently completed a route from Kansas to the Pacific Coast and was looking towards extending its operations south to the Gulf. In March 1886 Sealy and William B. Strong, president of the Santa Fe, reached an agreement whereby the larger company would purchase the GC&SF. However, the GC&SF was required to turn over 1,000 miles of track and had one year to construct a 171-mile line from Fort Worth to Purcell, Indian Territory, 111 miles between Dallas and Paris, and forty-two miles between Cleburne and Weatherford. The connection between the GC&SF and a Santa Fe subsidiary was made at Purcell on April 27, 1887. Although now also a subsidiary of the Santa Fe, the GC&SF continued to be operated as a separate organization. In 1888 the company completed a thirty-five mile extension from Ballinger to San Angelo, and the Texas, Louisiana and Eastern Railroad Company was bought at foreclosure on July 26, 1897. This line, running twenty-nine miles east from Conroe, was extended an additional fifty miles to Silsbee in 1902. A ninety-eight mile branch from Lometa to Eden was placed in service in 1911.
In 1891 the promoters of Temple and railroad officials established the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Hospital Association, and on March 2, 1892, a small hospital opened to serve railroad employees along the line from Galveston to Purcell, Oklahoma. On October 1, 1892, Dr. Arthur Carroll Scott moved to Temple to be chief surgeon of the Santa Fe Hospital (later the Scott and White Santa Fe Center). By 1895 Scott had hired Raleigh R. White as a surgeon for the hospital, and both men worked as the railroad's chief surgeons by 1898.
On December 12, 1895, the Santa Fe was reorganized as the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company and subsequently acquired a number of railroads that were leased to the GC&SF for operation. In Texas these included the Gulf, Beaumont and Kansas City Railway between Beaumont and Roganville; the Gulf, Beaumont and Great Northern Railroad between Roganville and Center; and the Texas and Gulf Railway between Center and Longview. Other Santa Fe-owned railroads leased to the GC&SF were the Jasper and Eastern Railroad between Kirbyville and Oakdale, Louisiana, and the Gulf and Inter-State Railway of Texas between Beaumont and High Island with a ferry connection to Galveston. Outside of East Texas the GC&SF leased the Cane Belt Railroad between Sealy and Matagorda and the Concho, San Saba, and Llano Valley Railroad lines between Miles and Paint Rock and between San Angelo and Sterling City. The GC&SF also leased that part of the Pecos and Northern Texas Railway between Coleman and Sweetwater. In 1937 the Santa Fe acquired the Fort Worth and Rio Grande Railway between Fort Worth and Menard and leased it to the GC&SF for operation. With the exception of the Gulf and Inter-State and Pecos and Northern Texas, all of the leased companies were merged into the GC&SF on December 31, 1948. The Pecos and Northern Texas was merged into the Panhandle and Santa Fe Railway Company on the same date, but the portion of track east of Sweetwater continued to be operated under lease by the GC&SF. Another railroad leased by the GC&SF was the Port Bolivar Iron Ore between Longview and Ero. Although the Santa Fe advanced certain funds for the construction of this railroad, it was not a Santa Fe subsidiary and was abandoned in 1927 shortly after the lease expired. The GC&SF owned a 25 percent interest in the Houston Belt and Terminal Railway Company and a one-eighth interest in the Union Terminal Company at Dallas. On June 30, 1957, the company merged the Beaumont Wharf and Terminal Company and the Union Passenger Depot Company of Galveston and on September 2, 1960, merged the Fort Worth Union Passenger Station Company. All three companies were Santa Fe subsidiaries.
The GC&SF constructed 355 miles of track before the state law granting sixteen sections of land for each mile of track constructed was repealed. The company received certificates for 3,554,560 acres of vacant unappropriated state land and from the sale of these certificates netted $211,168.06. Under the land grant law the Central and Montgomery received 263,040 acres and the Chicago, Texas and Mexican Central 225,280 acres, but there is no record of the amount received by these roads for the sale of the land. In addition, between 1880 and 1888 the GC&SF received liberal support from individuals as well as cities and counties along its route, totaling nearly $395,000. An additional $89,000 was donated for the construction of the line from Lometa to Eden. Gross earnings in 1892 were nearly $5,000,000, of which $1,125,000 came from passenger revenue. In that year the GC&SF owned 124 locomotives and 2,420 cars. Operating revenues in the Great Depression year of 1933 were $12,742,000, or only 42 percent of earnings in the boom year of 1929. At the end of 1933 the company owned 230 locomotives and 597 cars and operated 1,927 miles of main track, of which 681 miles was leased. Texas accounted for 1,728 miles, Oklahoma for 135 miles, and Louisiana 64 miles. By 1962 owned and leased mileage had increased to 1,991 miles. The increase since 1933 primarily reflected the addition of the former Fort Worth and Rio Grande and the opening in 1955 of a forty-nine mile line between Sanger and Garland, giving the company another entrance into Dallas. In 1962 the GC&SF reported passenger earnings of $1,500,000 and gross earnings of $51,000,000. All equipment was supplied by the Santa Fe as required. Several lines were abandoned, including the twenty-seven miles between Gary and Grigsby, in 1933 and the seventeen miles between Miles and Paint Rock in 1937. In 1959 a total of 111 miles between San Angelo and Sterling City, Cresson and Weatherford, and Brownwood and Brady were also abandoned.
On August 1, 1965, the GC&SF was merged into the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company. Several of the former GC&SF lines have subsequently been sold or abandoned, including the sixty-one miles between Paris and Farmersville that became the Chaparral Railroad on April 6, 1990. Other new operators include the Gulf, Colorado and San Saba Railway Company, which acquired the 67.5 miles between Lometa and Brady on May 10, 1993; the South Orient Railroad Company, which acquired the seventy-three miles between San Angelo and San Angelo Junction on January 2, 1992; and the Cen-Tex Rail Link, which bought 134 miles of the former Fort Worth and Rio Grande line between Fort Worth and Ricker, near Brownwood, on May 20, 1994. The Cen-Tex Rail Link also acquired the eighteen miles between Cresson and Cleburne. Trackage in and around Dallas has been sold to the Kansas City Southern Railway Company. The Santa Fe abandoned a total of fifty-eight miles between Brady and Eden and Homer Junction and Menard in 1972 and in the early 1990s abandoned the forty-two miles between Sealy and Wharton.