All Aboard The California Zephyr

All Aboard The California Zephyr

On May 26, 1934, the first of the Zephyr train consists—the Burlington Zephyr—set out on a maiden voyage that broke a number of world records in train travel. Among the world’s first trains to be streamlined and constructed of stainless steel, the Burlington Zephyr set the world record for the longest and fastest nonstop railroad run, speeding over 1,000 miles across one‐third of the North ­­­­American continent in a little less than half the time it would have taken a standard train of that time. The diesel fuel used was just 418 gallons and cost only $16.72, an unbelievably low amount since diesel fuel at the time cost only four cents a gallon (just 6.7% of the cost of a steam train). The trip forever changed the way passenger trains would be built and signaled the end of the steam engine.

Photo from Streamliner Memories. Ad in March 1952 National Geographic. Click to enlarge

In addition to its revolutionary construction and record‐breaking speed, the Burlington Zephyr—renamed the Pioneer Zephyr on its second anniversary—birthed a family of Zephyr trains to be manufactured by the Budd Company over the next 50 years. Among them was the California Zephyr, also known as the Silver Lady, a pioneer in luxury passenger train travel. Dubbed “the most talked about train in America,” the California Zephyr made its inaugural eastbound run on March 20, 1949 with service between San Francisco and Chicago that covered 2,525 miles and took an average of 2.5 days to complete. The train offered an unparalleled leisure travel experience that is perhaps best demonstrated in this 1950s promotional film below.

The California Zephyr offered sophisticated dining experiences with linens and china; sleeping compartments that ranged from the elegant staterooms complete with bathrooms, showers, drawing rooms, and bedrooms, to the cozier “roomettes”; and Vista Dome cars with windows on every side—including the ceiling—to provide breathtaking panoramic views of the passing mountains, rivers, and countryside. Click here to download the 1950 California Zephyr booklet.

Photo from Streamliner Memories. Passengers enjoying an evening meal

The California Zephyr operated as a passenger train for 20 years, and its 77 cars were later sold to different companies and private owners. Over the years, the majority of these stainless-steel cars have all but disappeared from America’s railways, having been sold off (often to foreign countries), scrapped, or simply left in storage and fallen into complete disrepair. A recently introduced Amtrak policy no longer allows for private train cars to be hitched to the railway’s regular train routes. As this is the only viable manner in which to transport these historic cars without damaging them, the acquisition of the Zephyr trainset was more pressing than ever before. The purchase of this historic four‐car Zephyr trainset by CVSR makes our organization one of the country’s few railroads in possession of four cars from the original California Zephyr fleet (CVSR already owns the Silver Bronco). CVSR is committed to preserving the train cars and sharing the history of The California Zephyr with all who board.

Photo from Streamliner Memories.

Twenty-one CVSR staff, donors and volunteers will be attending the Zephyr’s last trip from Los Angeles to Chicago on September 10-12 on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief route. Follow our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for updates on where the cars are, tours of the train cars, live videos, and Q&A opportunities. Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad is thrilled to be taking this step in our first-ever capital campaign! Learn more about our inaugural capital campaign here.

The first opportunity for guests to ride CVSR’s recently acquired Zephyr cars is at Steam in the Valley. More information here.

To learn more about The California Zephyr, visit the virtual California Zephyr museum.

Katie Brewer

Katie Brewer