California Zephyr (1949–1970)

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California Zephyr
WP 805A with the California Zephyr on Altamont Pass, March 1970.jpg
The California Zephyr on the Altamont Pass in 1970
Service typeInter-city rail
LocaleWestern United States
PredecessorExposition Flyer
First serviceMarch 20, 1949
Last serviceMarch 22, 1970
Former operator(s)Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad
Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad
Western Pacific Railroad
StartChicago, Illinois
EndOakland, California
Distance travelled2,438 miles (3,924 km)
Average journey time39​34 hours
Service frequencyDaily
Track gauge1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in)

The California Zephyr was a passenger train that ran between Chicago, Illinois and Oakland, California via Omaha, Denver, Salt Lake City, Winnemucca, Oroville and Pleasanton. It was operated by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (CB&Q), Denver & Rio Grande Western (D&RGW) and Western Pacific (WP) railroads, all of which dubbed it "the most talked about train in America" on March 19, 1949, with the first departure the following day. The train was scheduled to pass through the most spectacular scenery on its route in the daylight. The original train ceased operation in 1970, though the D&RGW continued to operate its own passenger service, the Rio Grande Zephyr, between Salt Lake City and Denver, using the original equipment until 1983. In 1983 a second iteration of the California Zephyr, an Amtrak service, was formed. The current version of the California Zephyr operates partially over the route of the original Zephyr and partially over the route of its former rival, the City of San Francisco.


Pre-California Zephyr (1939 to 1949)[edit]

In 1939, the Golden Gate International Exposition opened on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. The CB&Q, D&RGW and WP decided to operate a train that could take passengers to the event. Service on the Exposition Flyer began on June 10, 1939. In the beginning, the train used steam locomotives as motive power and consisted of heavyweight Pullman standard cars. In later years, the train used diesel power and in the final months of service, used streamlined passenger cars. Initially, the service was to be temporary, but its popularity made it a significant rival to the City of San Francisco, the Chicago-Oakland train operated jointly by the Chicago & Northwestern, Union Pacific and Southern Pacific, and it remained in operation until 1949. The CB&Q, D&RGW and Western Pacific replaced the Exposition Flyer in 1949 with the all-streamlined California Zephyr, which used the same route.

California Zephyr[edit]

The train in Altamont, California, prior to its first run in 1949

In its original run, California Zephyr operated over the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad from Chicago to Denver, Colorado, the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad between Denver and Salt Lake City, Utah, and the Western Pacific Railroad from Salt Lake City to Oakland, California. Cars owned by different railroads ran together; cars cycled in and out for service, repairs, and varying passenger loads with the seasons.

The first train was named in San Francisco by Eleanor Parker while California Lieutenant Governor Goodwin Knight, mayor of San Francisco Elmer Robinson, and WP President Harry A. Mitchell looked on. For the inaugural run in 1949, every woman on the train was given "silver" and orange orchids flown from Hilo, Hawaii. The car hostesses were known as Zephyrettes.[1]

In summer 1954, the scheduled run for the 2,532 miles from Chicago to San Francisco was 50 hours 50 minutes. An eastbound California Zephyr through Ruby Canyon saw the train's first birth on March 1, 1955, when Reed Zars was born onboard.


A Zephyrette (center, in blue uniform) at work on the lower level of a California Zephyr Vista-Dome car in 1967

The brainchild of Velma McPeek, the Burlington's Supervisor of Passenger Train Services, the Zephyrettes were train hostesses who performed a wide variety of roles, from tour guide to first aid responder to babysitter. After debuting on the Denver Zephyr in 1936, they served on the California Zephyr from 1949 until it was discontinued in 1970.[2] Described by former Zephyrette Julie Ann Lyman as "the railroad's answer to the air line stewardess",[3] the various duties of the position included welcoming passengers, making announcements, sending telegrams, making dinner reservations, and generally serving as a liaison between the train's passengers and its crew. At any one time, there were 10 or 11 Zephyrettes who were actively employed.[2] When Amtrak revived the California Zephyr in 1983, it invited a former Zephyrette, Beulah Bauman, to christen the train.[4]

A pair of the Western Pacific's Budd Rail Diesel Cars (RDCs), replacements for the Royal Gorge (trains No. 1 and 2), also used the name Zephyrette.[5]:26 From September 15, 1950, to October 2, 1960, they were in service between Oakland, California, and Salt Lake City, a distance of 924 miles (1,487 km),[6] which made the route the longest RDC service in the United States.[7][8][9]

Decline and replacement[edit]

The crew of the last California Zephyr upon its arrival in Oakland in 1970

The California Zephyr was not immune to falling passenger travel in the 1960s; moreover, it began to lose money even when sold out. The Western Pacific applied to discontinue its portion in 1966, but the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) refused after public outcry. The D&RGW made the same request in 1969 and in 1970 the ICC permitted Western Pacific to end its portion, provided the D&RGW and Burlington provide "some semblance of [service]" between Chicago and Ogden, Utah. The last westbound California Zephyr to the west coast left Chicago on March 22, 1970 and arrived in Oakland two days later. The original California Zephyr had operated for 21 years and 2 days. East of Salt Lake City the train was reduced to a tri-weekly schedule, operating as California Service on the Burlington and as the Rio Grande Zephyr on the Rio Grande. The Rio Grande portion of the train was extended beyond Salt Lake to Ogden, Utah, allowing Nevada and California passengers to connect to the Southern Pacific Railroad's City of San Francisco. This continued until the creation of Amtrak on May 1, 1971.[10]

Amtrak intended to revive the California Zephyr as part its original route network in 1971, using the Burlington Northern east of Denver, the Rio Grande between Denver and Ogden, and the Southern Pacific west of Ogden, Utah. At the last minute, the Rio Grande refused to join Amtrak, fearing the new company's passenger trains would interfere with profitable freight traffic. This forced Amtrak on to the Union Pacific's Overland Route through southern Wyoming instead of Colorado. Between the spring of 1971 and the summer of 1972, passengers traveling between Chicago and Oakland would have to travel on two different trains: the Denver Zephyr, which operated daily between Chicago and Denver, and the City of San Francisco, which operated three times a week, between Denver and the San Francisco Bay Area. Eventually, however, after several false starts, Amtrak consolidated the two trains into one, dubbed the San Francisco Zephyr, homage to both the California Zephyr and the San Francisco Chief, between Chicago and Oakland. The Rio Grande continued to operate the Rio Grande Zephyr between Denver and Ogden.[11]

In 1983 the D&RGW elected to join Amtrak, citing increasing losses in passenger operations. Amtrak re-routed the San Francisco Zephyr over the D&RGW's Moffat Subdivision between Denver and Salt Lake City, its original preference from 1971. The change was scheduled for April 25, but a mudslide at Thistle, Utah closed the line and delayed the change until July 16. With the change of route, Amtrak renamed the train as the California Zephyr.[12][13] The modern California Zephyr uses mostly the same route as the original east of Winnemucca, Nevada. The train uses the route of the former City of San Francisco, along the Overland Route (First Transcontinental Railroad), between Elko, Nevada and Sacramento. Across central Nevada, the two rail lines have been combined to use directional running. As such the exact spot the train switches lines depends on the direction of travel.[14]

Route description[edit]

Both the Current and original iterations of the California Zephyr operated on Chicago, Burlington and Quincy (today part of BNSF Railway) between Chicago and Denver, and the former Denver and Rio Grande Western main line from Denver to Salt Lake (today part of Union Pacific Railroad's Central Corridor). West of Salt Lake City the modern California Zephry departs Salt Lake on the Shafter Subdivision of the former Western Pacific Railroad, as did the original. However, in central Nevada the train changes to the Overland Route, the route used by the City of San Francisco.

The original California Zephyr used the Feather River Route as its path through the Sierra Nevada, and served different cities from the modern iteration west of Winnemucca, Nevada. Instead of passing through Reno, the original Zephyr was routed via Gerlach, Nevada and in California passed through Portola, Oroville, Sacramento, Stockton and Pleasanton before arriving at the Oakland depot, where a ferry service was available to San Francisco.[15] The Feather River Route is still in use for freight; however, anyone wishing to see this portion of the original route must now use State Route 70 which runs parallel to the old Western Pacific track.


Inaugural 1949 consist
  • Baggage
  • Vista-Dome chair car
  • Vista-Dome chair car
  • Vista-Dome chair car
  • Vista-Dome dormitory-buffet-lounge car
  • Sleeper (10 roomettes, 6 double bedrooms)
  • Sleeper (10 roomettes, 6 double bedrooms)
  • Diner (48 seats)
  • Sleeper (16 sections)
  • Sleeper (10 roomettes, 6 double bedrooms)
  • Vista-Dome dormitory-buffet-lounge-observation (1 drawing room, 3 double bedrooms)

The Budd Company manufactured six ten-car trainsets; three went to the Burlington, two to the Western Pacific and one to the Rio Grande. In line with the train's sightseeing schedule, each set included five of the new "Vista-Domes" (three coaches, a dormitory-lounge, and a dormitory-observation car). The California Zephyr was the first long-distance train to carry domes in regular service.[1] The Pennsylvania Railroad owned a single 10-roomette 6-double bedroom sleeping car, the Silver Rapids, which was used for through service to New York City.[17]

The forward section of the first Vista-Dome car was partitioned off and reserved for women and children. A door was located in the corridor under the dome just behind the women's restroom to allow access to the reserved section. Early on, this reserved section was opened up to all passengers and the door and partitions were removed. Ownership of the cars was split between the three railroads almost evenly across all car types. Each car was owned by one railroad, but the ownership of the cars in any one day's train depended more on what was available at the terminals than whose railroad the train was operating over.

Generally positioned as the second Vista-Dome coach was the car referred to as the "Conductor's Car". This car was like the other Vista-Dome coaches, except a small booth with a bench seat and desk for the conductor was located in the B end.

In 1952 another Pullman sleeper (6 double bedrooms/5 compartments) was added to each consist. With the new cars delivered that year, cars arriving in Chicago on the California Zephyr were made available for use on the Ak-Sar-Ben Zephyr for an overnight round trip to Lincoln, Nebraska. When the cars returned from Lincoln the next day, they were placed back in the westbound California Zephyr's consist for the next train out of Chicago that afternoon.[18][19]


The former California Zephyr dome coach Silver Lariat en route to Oakland on the Coast Starlight at San Luis Obispo
The former California Zephyr dome coach Silver Bridle in service with the Inland Lakes Railway at Plymouth, Florida

The high quality Budd-built cars of the California Zephyr have proven to be popular with private car owners. Several operate in private charter service on Amtrak, including dome-observation car Silver Solarium,[20] dome-coach Silver Lariat, sleepers Silver Rapid and Silver Quail and a dome lounge now known as the Sierra Hotel. In 2018, the Silver Lariat, Silver Solarium, Silver Rapids and the baggage car Silver Peak were sold to the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad outside Cleveland, Ohio and are expected to enter service there in September 2018.[21]

Seven museums currently hold equipment once used on the California Zephyr:

  • The Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum in Calera, Alabama owns[22] the Silver Maple (ex-CB&Q 400 [sleeper], rebuilt 1963 to chair car configuration, CB&Q 4742) now numbered 4741. The Silver Maple is used in regular excursion service.
  • The Illinois Railway Museum owns several Burlington locomotives that were used to pull the train on occasion, and Rio Grande dome coach Silver Pony.
  • The Colorado Railroad Museum has two Rio Grande locomotives that also saw California Zephyr and later Rio Grande Zephyr service.
  • The Gold Coast Railroad Museum in Florida owns two former Western Pacific Railroad California Zephyr cars: baggage car Silver Stag and dome-observation car Silver Crescent.
  • The Avon Park Depot Museum in Florida owns one former Western Pacific California Zephyr car: the Silver Palm, originally a sleeper car, is now a buffet dining car used by the museum for dinner parties. The car was converted to its buffet car state by the Auto-Train Corporation when it bought the car.[23]
  • The Austin Steam Train Association, which operates the Austin & Texas Central Railroad in the Hill Country between Cedar Park and Burnet, has completed its restoration of the Silver Pine. Originally a 16-section sleeper manufactured in 1948 by the Budd Company, the coach car re-entered revenue service in 2011 for the first time since its Denver & Rio Grande Western days.
  • The largest collection of preserved equipment can be found in Portola, California at the Western Pacific Railroad Museum. One locomotive and four cars are currently preserved there as part of the museum's "Zephyr Project" restoration program. Western Pacific 805-A is the last intact locomotive built specifically for the California Zephyr. The cars include dome-lounge Silver Hostel, dome coaches Silver Lodge and Silver Rifle (on long-term loan from the Golden Gate Railroad Museum) and the diner Silver Plate.

Additionally, three of the diners are presently still in revenue service with Amtrak as of 2015.


A non-functional replica of the California Zephyr was displayed at Disney California Adventure Park in Anaheim, California. It housed Baker's Field Bakery and Bur-r-r Bank ice cream counter cafes at the Sunshine Plaza main entrance. The exhibit closed on July 31, 2011, as part of the park's $1.1 billion overhaul. Disney gave the replica to the Western Pacific Railroad Museum in Portola, California.[24]

In popular culture[edit]

Hank Williams' 1956 single "California Zephyr" is likely Hank's take on the traditional "Wabash Cannonball," made famous by his hero Roy Acuff; the melody and references to American cities and towns are strikingly similar.[25][better source needed]

Grant Hart (of Hüsker Dü fame) wrote a song called "California Zephyr" for his 2009 album Hot Wax. The song may be a paean to gay liberation, especially following the AIDS epidemic.


  1. ^ a b Schafer (1997), p. 68.
  2. ^ a b Radecki, Alan; Wilson, John. "The Zephyrettes...a History". California Zephyr Virtual Museum. Retrieved January 31, 2015.
  3. ^ Lyman, Julie Ann (January 20, 1963). "Life of Zephyrette Is Wacky, Wonderful". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved February 1, 2015.
  4. ^ "New Amtrak train christened Zephyr". Gadsden Times. July 17, 1983. Retrieved February 7, 2013.
  5. ^ Humbert, James E. "Railroading in the Feather River Canyon: Past, Present, and Future". Prototype Modeler: 21–27, 44. Archived from the original on March 5, 2014.
  6. ^ Brehm, Frank. "The Zephyrette's - Trains 1 & 2: Page 3". Western Pacific Railroad History Online. Retrieved February 1, 2015.
  7. ^ Ingles, J. David (December 1965). "Christine and the Mongeese" (PDF). Trains. 26 (2): 37. ISSN 0041-0934. Retrieved February 1, 2015.
  8. ^ "Rock Island 1957 Timetable". Streamliner Memories. October 12, 2014. Retrieved February 1, 2015.
  9. ^ McCann, Gary Garth. "Budd RDC car in National Geographic ad and the Zephyrette and Choctaw Rocket in photos". Streamliner Memories. WordPress. Retrieved February 1, 2015.
  10. ^ Schafer (1997), p. 69-70.
  11. ^ Sanders (2006), p. 136–137.
  12. ^ "Scenic route to be taken by Amtrak". Eugene Register-Guard. March 17, 1983. Retrieved September 12, 2010.
  13. ^ "Last passenger trains rolling across Wyoming". Spokesman-Review. July 13, 1983. Retrieved September 12, 2010.
  14. ^ Nevada Road and Recreation Atlas (Map) (2003 ed.). 1:250000. Benchmark Maps. 2003. pp. 41–44. ISBN 0-929591-81-X.
  15. ^ "California Zephyr- Time Table August, 1957". Burlington, Rio Grande and Western Pacific Railroads, republished by California Zephyr Museum Online. August 15, 1957. Retrieved April 4, 2016.
  16. ^ Brehm, Frank. "California Zephyr Consists". Western Pacific Online. Archived from the original on April 12, 2013. Retrieved February 5, 2013.
  17. ^ Wayner (1972), p. 220.
  18. ^ Wayner (1972), p. 221 & 225.
  19. ^ Zimmermann (2004), p. 140.
  20. ^ Zimmermann (2004), p. 155.
  21. ^
  22. ^ [1] Archived April 7, 2015, at the Wayback Machine
  23. ^ [2] Archived July 14, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  24. ^ Weiss, Werner (May 8, 2012). "Golden Gate Bridge at Yesterland". Yesterland. Retrieved February 6, 2013.
  25. ^ California Zephyr (Hank Williams song)


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