For most people, riding the California Zephyr was an experience that produced memories lasting a lifetime. Thanks go to all of the folks that have taken the time to share their personal encounters with the Silver Lady.
We extend an open invitation to anyone who has ever ridden on the original California Zephyr, (sorry, no Amtrak trips, only the CZ from 1949 to 1970), to write and share their experiences with all the Zephyr fans out there. If you want to share, please send your memories to the CZMuseum@yahoo.com Memories can be listed anonymously, if you wish.
A Simpler Time...
I was born in 1955 and my parents had never taken a plane trip until I was 14 (1969). Prior to that they took trains throughout the country and I was lucky enough to accompany them on the Super Chief, the Lark, the Broadway Limited, the Capitol Limited, and the California Zephyr.
I simply have no more favorite memories of my childhood than those train trips, particularly the abundance of dome cars on the CZ, and the dark overnight mystery of the Lark. On the CZ, I remember sitting in the dome cars hour by hour, watching the world pass, and sitting at the diner's table with its tablecloth and carnations. There was a simplicity to life then, both because of my age and the country's age around me, that I miss wholeheartedly today.
I have taken Amtrak numerous times but it, and I, are not the same. The vestibules don't have the same noisy, hot fear and attraction for a small boy, or at least the small boy still in this big boy, the meals aren't as good, and the beds are far to short for a 6 foot 3 inch man-boy.
Thank God I have the memories. I was in the last generation to be able to have them.
-- Dan Thomas Nelson
The first time I rode CZ was summer 1958. I was a child of 12 and a train nut. It was a religious experience. My father booked us into the pullman section, a PRR through car from New York. Although is was a little noisy, the ride from Chicago to Oakland was heavenly. The ride through the Rockies was a revelation and the ride the next morning through the west end of their Nevada desert into the Feather River Canyon was the experience of my short life.
The next time I rode CZ was a vacation to San Francisco and up to Seattle to the World's Fair in 1962 and back home on the Empire Builder. The experience was superb and I fell in love with a beautiful young lady that I never saw again.
The next time I rode the CZ was on on my honeymoon. We traveled from Chicago to Glenwood Springs. Then from Glenwood Springs on to Oakland. That was in September 1968. The trip was spectacular. You haven't lived until you've seen the aspens in golden hue in mid-September,
The really memorable experience was when we had dinner on the second day eastbound. At the time we were approaching Denver from the west, descending the front range as the sun was setting. We both ordered the New York Steak. Our order was not taken by a waiter, but by the Dining Car Steward, who recognized us from the first leg of journey. He recommended a wine for the dinner. I told him that although I was twenty-one, my wife was a few months shy of legal drinking age. He told me "If you don't tell anyone, neither will I. This was in September 1968.
The dinner was delivered and we enjoyed the wine. When the bill came, the wine was not the bill. Needless to say, we left a generous tip.
Although we did not it at that moment, the couple we had been talking with for the past two days, the husband was a pediatrician, who gave us a good amount of good advice, which we later availed us of, after our first born came into the world.
The last time I rode the CZ was in Amtrak times and I was greatly disappointed. The year was 1984, the year of the Los Angeles Olympics. This was during the time of Amtrak Airline Food and, of course, Bi-Level equipment, instead of Vista Domes. The situation has changed with Amtrak Diners and I plan to take the trip again soon.
A California Zephyr Fan for all time.
Phillip C. Bold email@example.com
I was raised in the 'burbs of San Diego, CA, but every summer meant a trip to visit my Grandmother on her Wayne County, Iowa farm. The usual trip was with family; San Diegan to LAUPT, El Capitan LA to Kansas City's monumental Union Station, then the Rock Island Twin Star Rocket , later the Plainsman, from Kansas City to Allerton, Iowa. After a number of years, this became old hat.
In 1966, by now an experienced train rider of 13, I was up for something a bit more adventurous, the California Zephyr. This required a ride on the San Diegan to LAUPT (were the Alco PAs the usual power then?), the Lark overnight to San Francisco, a transfer from SP's 3rd & Townsend Station to the Transbay Terminal, a bus to Middle Harbor Road yard in Oakland, then the CZ to the CB&Q's tres moderne glass station in Ottumwa, Iowa, where I would be met by indulgent friends of my parents. Along the way, I vividly remember the miles of slide fencing in the Feather river canyon, a triple deck chicken sandwich in the diner with Denver in the distance, and hours spent in the front seat of the forward dome watching the target signals change from green to red. Somehow the luggage I had checked several days earlier in San Diego hadn't made it to Ottumwa before me, and after much checking by the station agent, my parent's friends and I spent much of the day waiting at CB&Q's classic wooden Albia, Iowa depot, (closer to my true destination, but not served by the regal CZ) for the far more plebeian Ak-Sar-Ben Zephyr to disgorge my suitcase in a blue-gray haze of brake shoe smoke.
Odd that I cannot remember much of the second trip, made with my parents several years later, except boarding the train as it sat in the middle of the street at Oakland's WP station, which is still there, just off Broadway between the freeway and Jack London Square. There were just the two rides on the REAL CZ, though I made another on Amtrak's pale imitation of "The Most Talked About Train in the Country" while a graduate student. That trip included a visit to St. Louis' Union Station while its Grand Hall was a haven for pigeons rather than the hotel lobby it is today, but that's another story
-- Hiram K. Evans
I used to ride the California Zephyr with my dad between Denver and Chicago in the mid 50's when I was 5 or so. My favorite part of the trip would be, on returning to Denver, the ride through the old Burlington train wash. We'd be sitting in the Vista Dome, watching the big brushes overhead and to the side as we would pull through the train wash and then onto the wye leading over the South Platte river. We would then leave the locomotives and back through the train wash again. Then we would go forward through the train wash and past the locomotives onto the Platte river bridge. We would then back into the station.
My last trip on the original CZ was in January of 1970. When I boarded in Denver, there was snow on the ground and in the vestibules from the snowy ride through Nebraska. Snow remained on the ground through Utah and Nevada. In fact, the train's steam lines froze the third car back and it was an awfully cold night in my roomette as I tried futilely to turn the heat up. The next morning, when I woke, we were three hours late and stopped in Winnemucca as workmen thawed the steam lines. Of course, the ride through Feather River Canyon followed, and I did not notice things getting greener, though, in retrospect they did. So it was quite surprising and thrilling when, after passing over the North Fork Bridge and through, I believe, three tunnels, I emerged overlooking a summer-green landscape. I had never seen anything like it in January.
Dr. Stephen J. Levine
Note: Dr. Levine has also included two photos (more info on these is in the Gallery):
CZ Meet #1
CZ Meet #2
When Burlington (Ia.) dismissed school for Christmas in 1961, my neighborhood friends and I headed for Aspen Grove Cemetery with our sleds. A big rippling hill provided a fast ride to the railroad tracks below. As worldly wise second graders, we would listen for trains before pushing off. Passenger trains were a problem as they descended Burlington Hill making only a whisper.
Late one morning, my friend Jeff took off ahead of me at furious run and dropped on his sled. I followed. As we neared the bottom of the hill I looked west and to my horror saw a nearly silent string of silver engines followed by a parade of Plexiglas domes. It was the California Zephyr. Hollering at my friend I dug in my heels and stopped at the base of the ballast.
Jeff heard my warning, but could not stop until crossing the west bound tracks. He got a worm's eye view of silver cow catcher less than a yard away as he halted. The engineer never saw us until the last minute. His horn never sounded a warning, but looks could have killed. After this incident, we angled off at the base of the hill to avoid tangling with trains.
William H. Dahlsten
In August of 1968, my Dad informed the family that we were being transferred from our home in Sacramento to Chicago. He also told us that we would be traveling on the California Zephyr instead of driving. We had traveled by train before, such as the San Francisco Chief to Texas, but nothing could prepare me for the experience of true first class rail travel. What I remember the most from the trip, was the people who made the trip so enjoyable. First was the Zephyrette. As a 17 year old, I fell in love with that beautiful woman.
Then there was our porter, Mr. Jones. He knew I was not happy about having to move "back east", so he went out of his way to cheer me up. He would greet me in the morning with a joke or two, tell me when and where the best sights were, even introduced me to our Zephyrette! On the second morning as we were getting ready for breakfast, my Dad couldn't find his wallet. As we frantically searched our compartment for the lost money, there was a knock at the door. It was Mr. Jones with the missing wallet, money and all. It seems Dad had put it in his shoe and put his shoe in the shoe locker. Mr. Jones found it as he was taking the shoes to be shined. Not wanting to put the wallet back in the locker were anybody could get at it, he kept it safe until the next morning.
And I'll never forget the dining car attendant. He was carrying a large tray of plates down the aisle when he suddenly stopped, put the tray down on our table and said "Here comes da bullet". At that moment a huge freight train roared by our window, shaking the whole car. He just smiled at us and said "When you've been riding them as long as I have, you can feel them coming!" Of course I could tell you about the wonderful scenery and the many hours in the dome cars, but it was the staff I will always remember. These people loved their work, and had a high level of professionalism that added to the whole experience. Amtrak could well learn from these "old pros". They knew how to spoil you rotten.
In 1968, there were hot any heavy rumors about a Train Off order for the California Zephyr. It was a train that I had wanted to ride ever since I could remember. My friend Larry and I each scrapped up the money for the trip, made our reservations for the middle of June (after we were both out of school for the summer), and waited impatiently for the big day. As far as experiences go, I had a lot of them that I would be happy to share. But I would like a little guidance from you as to just what you are looking for. I am assuming vignettes like:
-The Hippies in my seat and how the conductor disposed of them in the
middle of Colorado.
-The upgrade to Pullman for $20.00.
-Making up time from Denver to Chicago.
-The greenhouse effect in a dome with no air conditioning in the Feather River Canyon.
-Holding up the big parade in Burlington.
Well, as you can tell, it was an adventure fraught with adventure and I would be glad to share some of it as time permits.
Many thanks for your Zephyr site. I traveled on the train during a visit to the USA in 1970 (that`s right - 26 years ago!!) and the pictures in particular brought back some memories of a very pleasurable and interesting 18 hours during the trip from San Francisco to Denver. My room was immediately in front of the rear club/observation car and I had many views of the full length of the train - I can visualize the gradient loop at the head of the Feather River but can`t remember the name (I do remember that it was named after a person - Jenkins?). (Incidentally, there is a similar loop on our "oldest" preserved narrow gauge railway in Wales, built to take the track higher than a newly built reservoir.) The only unfortunate thing was that a freight train was de-railed in front of us making us 3 hours late emerging from the tunnel above Denver. The lights were pretty but I would have liked to see the City from that elevation. It was a great pity that the train was almost empty and we couldn`t understand why it wasn't marketed more as a tourist attraction.
(Note - The loop that the gentleman was referring to in
the letter above was Williams Loop -- JW)
Watching the World from a Dome Car
Don't have any idea if you are interested but I thought I'd let you know that I once rode the CZ from SF (bus to Oakland) to Denver. Should have kept a diary since I don't remember much. It must have been the late 1960's. Here are the impressions:
1. Taking a bus from SF to a parking lot in Oakland. Never had boarded a train in a parking lot before, especially one of, if not the best, trains in the USA at the time.
2. Sitting in the dome while trundling down a street in Oakland. I think we even made a stop. Don't know if it was a traffic light or station stop or what.
3. Not sure but it may have been my first trip in a dome car. Really enjoyed watching the train ahead as well as the signals - looking to see if we were to stay on the main or "go into the hole".
4. On the way up the Sierra Nevada it was raining as we went through tunnel after tunnel. As we rode I kept looking ahead wondering how we would get over/through the next mountain and eventually we'd hit another tunnel. Anyway, I was really impressed when we entered a tunnel in the rain and upon exiting it was snowing. Snowed from then on until too dark to see.
5. We, an associate from work and I, were in a compartment (bedroom?) that had a radio built in. It worked fine in Oakland but wasn't much use during the remainder of the trip.
6. During the first night out I slept the best I ever have in a berth since becoming an adult.
That's about all I remember from the trip. Still have a mint deck of cards from the club car as well as a timetable or two.
Once, when in Boulder, CO, a friend took me to watch the CZ come down off the mountain - quite a sight as it snaked it's way down the escarpment.
I rode the CZ a number of times between 1958 and 1970 including a couple of trips between Sacramento and Chicago. Unfortunately all my trips were coach.
My most memorable trip was a few weeks prior to its discontinuance as a through train. A friend and I chose to take in a round trip between Sacramento and Salt Lake, while we still could. The train made a rather lengthy stop in Portola (California) in order to work on some of the equipment. Most of the passengers (mainly railfans) had stepped off the train to chat and get some fresh air. I got off but chose to walk up to the locomotive. The engineer apparently sensed my deepest desires and invited me up to the cab. As much as I enjoyed my visit the conductor's signal was soon heard and the engineer told me that I had better get back to my seat now...unless I would rather ride in the cab. I was quickly told that I would have to stay there until their crew change at Gerlach...112 miles away. I felt I could deal with that and had a trip of a lifetime, in the cab of my favorite train.
Thad McKinney firstname.lastname@example.org
I, too, am a veteran of one Zephyr ride. In 1965 my parents took us (six kids!!) by plane from Boston to Chicago where we boarded the Zephyr and rode it all the way to SF. We took up the only three bedrooms in the Observation car and my siblings and I drank the bar dry of Coca Cola -- I still have a photo of the Filipino bartender!!
Had I known what a treat it was -- the equipment (all EMD stuff as I recall) the silver sided cars, the beauty of it!
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