"May I have your attention, please? Good morning, this is your Zephyrette Jean Williams. On behalf of the Western Pacific, Rio Grande and Burlington railroads, I welcome you aboard the California Zephyr." With those words, first spoken in Oakland, California on board the first eastbound #18 on March 20, 1949, a grand tradition was born.
The California Zephyr, jointly operated by the Western Pacific, the Denver and Rio Grande, and the Burlington, certainly wasn't the first name train to employ the feminine touch on board. But like so many of the CZ's other features, this train brought the concept of an on-board hostess to its pinnacle. The Santa Fe's "Harvey Girls" established a woman's contribution to passenger train service (although they weren't on-board crew), and for all its first-class grandeur, the Southern Pacific's Daylight management could think of nothing better their hostesses than "maids". It was the Burlington, with its radical, sleek stainless Zephyrs portending the future, that elevated the concept of hostess to the Zephyrette.
The Burlington's Zephyrs were first introduced in 1934, as a revolutionary, light-weight, streamlined train. In a time when other railroads were experimenting with streamline designs, the Burlington was not to be outdone by the competition. Built of shiny stainless steel and powered by the latest in technology, the Diesel engine, they defined the cutting edge. The first Zephyr made a dramatic dawn-to-dusk nonstop run in May of 1934, from Denver to the stage of the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago.
When the Burlington decided to introduce an overnight Zephyr between Chicago and Denver, it was decided to hire a group of young ladies to be hostesses. These girls would be college graduates, and would be responsible for working throughout the train with the conductor, making themselves helpful and generally agreeable with the passengers. They would make announcements, arrange for bridge games in the parlor car, send wires and take dinner reservations for the diner. Burlington's management clearly recognized that their new trains were the future of passenger railroading, and their customers wouldn't just be businessmen. The future lay in attracting and accommodating families, and a woman's touch in the management of the passenger trains would be essential for accomplishing this. So the Burlington hired Velma McPeek. McPeek graduated from the teacher's preparation program in Kingman High School, Kingman Kansas, in 1911, attended Southwestern College and was graduated from the Winfield College of Music. She taught for a while but decided that was not the life for her. A course at the School of Domestic Arts and Sciences in Chicago led her to where the Burlington found her, managing a tea room at a department store. As Burlington's Supervisor of Passenger Train Services, McPeek was completely responsible for the development of the concept of the Zephyrettes for the Denver Zephyr in 1936, and the Twin Cities Zephyr soon after. The first uniforms were gray man-tailored suits with a red, silk-lined cape for the winter and light-weight white silk suits over navy blouses for the summer.
(Left) Two Zephyrettes pose in their summer uniforms onboard an early Burlington Zephyr.
(Right) The pre-WWII uniform included a red satin-lined cape.
Burlington Route Photos,
|The train that led to the CZ, the Exposition
Flyer, was inaugurated in June, 1939. Present at its christening were five
of the train's hostesses. Their uniforms have a Carrie Nation look as they
posed with ceremonial hammers in hand, between the drumheads of the train's
Burlington Route photo, BRHS collection.
The original Zephyrette service was discontinued with the onset of World War II, and the ensuing cut back in tourist travel. Railroads actively discouraged passenger travel that wasn't necessary, both in order to save resources for the war effort, and to provide the needed space for the massive movement of troops across the country's rail system. Following the resumption of peace, the Zephyrettes were not reestablished on the other Zephyrs, but when planning was begun for the California Zephyr, McPeek was in the thick of it and was responsible for a number of features of the train. Because the train was to be touted as a vehicle for seeing the magnificent countryside, she felt that the passenger car windows should be lowered to make the viewing easier for women and children. And, of course, she wanted her Zephyrettes onboard. The train's predecessor, the jointly operated San Francisco-to-Chicago Exposition Flyer had its hostesses, but the Zephyrettes would be something more.
Velma McPeek was affectionately known as "Mama" McPeek to the girls,
who all adored her. In turn, she was very protective of her charges, and
often wrote letters to the girls full of words of encouragement and wisdom.
One, called When to Say Yes and When to Say No was a long poem about
how the choices you made could shape your whole life. Velma McPeek was
also very concerned about the danger of gossip amongst the crew. Former
Zephyrette Jane Smith says, "Railroad gossip is like no other I have found
before or since, and the very first thing that Velma McPeek warned us about
when we were hired."
|Ralph Budd, in his last year as President
of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, presents four of the new
CZ Zephyrettes with their "wings" in 1949.
Burlington Route photo, BRHS collection
Great effort went into making the CZ accessible to families (including
a separate area in the forward end of the first Dome-Coach set aside for
women and children, a feature that didn't quite work out and was discontinued
fairly early on), and the Zephyrettes were to be a big part of it. Unlike
the rest of the crew, which as employees were divided between the three
railroads, the Zephyrettes were unique. The were hired in Chicago by Velma
McPeek, and later Mary Lou Gordon, but were considered WP employees , and
thus paid by the WP in San Francisco. There were 10 to 11 Zephyrettes on
staff at any one time, with six on the road (three in each direction),
one each laying over in San Francisco or Chicago layovers, plus an occasional
trainee. The trip would cover 2 ½ days east on #18, a night
layover at the Chicago Hilton, 2 ½ days back on #17, then 2
½ days off back home in San Francisco. Typically, a Zephyrette
would make three round trips a month.
|The Zephyrettes of 1951. Western Pacific Mileposts photo.|
When the original group hired on in preparation for the train's March 20, 1949 inauguration, they received a 30-day training course in how to conduct their duties. All subsequent Zephyrettes only received on-the-job training, traveling with an experienced, senior Zephyrette. Originally, Zephyrettes were required to be between the ages of 24 and 28, single, with a height of five feet four to five feet eight inches tall, and of "good character with a pleasing personality." Also, they were to have a college degree or the equivalent of a registered nurse's training. Later, however, this criteria was relaxed, and at least one Zephyrette, Jane Smith, was 23 when she was hired by McPeek in 1958; and Cathy Moran hadn't finished college when she was hired in 1969.
In 1951, Western Pacific's Company magazine, Mileposts, says of the Zephyrette, "She must conduct herself with dignity and poise, and avoid any familiarities and acceptance of invitations from passengers or employees of the railroads. The Zephyrette is not permitted to drink or smoke while in uniform, and she must avoid spending time with passengers while they are drinking."
The Zephyrettes were resplendent in their teal blue two-piece suits, with CZ-monogrammed white blouse, a Zephyr pin and military-style hat. As the years "modernized", so did the uniforms, with the hat styles changing, the monograms disappearing and the skirts becoming shorter. In 1963, under the supervision of Mary Lou Gordon, the uniforms were completely re-designed and updated. Later, the uniform's colors changed to brown. Serving as Zephyrette in the train's last year, Cathy Moran writes, "At the very end, I wore a new "like the airlines" uniform , a dress which was blue with a white strip down the side, and I had another color green with orange down the side. If the train hadn't come off, the uniform would have been updated and modernized to that."
"...As I pass through the train, I hope you will stop me if you think I can be of service. We are anxious to do all we can to add to the comfort and enjoyment of your trip."
The Zephyrette was an ombudsman. In the early years, with the prosperity
following the war, many folks took to the rails who had never experienced
the old traditions of train travel. Often traveling as families, they were
unfamiliar with the traditional role of the Porter, and what he could do
for them. The Zephyrette acted as a liaison, helping the passengers with
their needs, and introducing them to the services available from the rest
of the crew.
(Left)Zephyrette Mary Louise Gordon is seen here in a 1959 photo.
(Right) Ready to begin her return trip from Oakland to Chicago, Zephyrette Nancy Gephart and Sleeping Car Porter Henry F. Wellington await CZ passengers. Ms. Gephart's uniform is the stlye used in 1969.
WP Mileposts photos
The Zephyrettes weren't just hostesses on a train, they were hostesses for an institution and a tradition. They played the role of tour guide. One of the design features of the CZ was its sound system, which was controlled by the Zephyrette from a communications panel in the Diner. From here, she made periodic announcements which would call attention to the historical and scenic features that were passing by outside the windows. Each lady had her own style and additions to the prepared script. On the train's very first run westbound, the new Zephyrette was so nervous with her first announcement regarding George Westinghouse's famous tests of the air brake on the West Burlington hill, that she boldly announced that George Washington had perfected the air brake on this section of track!
to the passengers consisted of administrative matters, sight seeing points
or dining car information.
(Right) Betty Pittske operates the PA system during the filming of
the feature film Western Pacific Agent.
Among the other types of announcements made by the Zephyrettes were the "lost and founds". In Mileposts, La Faun Williams recalls a time when a lady's corset was turned in. Usual procedure was to announce lost and found articles on the P.A. system, but this was a little disconcerting. With no other solution, La Faun simply announced that a foundation garment had been found, and triumphantly carried it to the somewhat embarrassed passenger's room.
The train's glossy brochure's boasted of the incomparable beauty that was there for the photographers to capture from their perch in the domes, with a note that the Zephyrette could suggest the best camera settings for use in the unique dome environment.
They were there to meet needs. The Zephyrettes, some with formal nursing training, were in charge of the train's first aid station, dispensing bandages and aspirin. One Zephyrette, however, had the misfortune of winding up on the receiving end of first aid when she slipped in the Diner, breaking her leg.
There were always baby bottles to be warmed, and when the parents wanted a quick break, the Zephyrette was there to do a little babysitting. The pinnacle of this role came in 1955 when a blessed event occurred on the CZ, as described in the following excerpts from an article entitled Mr. Stork Rides the "Zephyr" in Western Pacific's company magazine, the Mileposts: "Peter Reed Alexander Zars, of Oakland, will have an unusual story to tell his friends some day. The story...occurred at 11:20 a. m. on March 1 while his mother, Mrs. P. M. Zars was riding the eastbound California Zephyr, then speeding its way through Ruby Canyon in Utah. Peter will not remember the excitement which took place in Car CZ-11 [the next-to-last car in the train, a through sleeper to New York]. Pullman conductor Donovan (now better known as "Doc") was apprised of the situation when the train reached Helper, Utah, and wired ahead for a doctor to meet the train at Grand Junction.... When it was later decided an ambulance was needed, the train was stopped at Thompson, Utah, to wire ahead.
"With the assistance of Zephyrette Helen Schwartz, passengers Mrs. Henry Adams and Mrs. George Stout, and Porter Roosevelt Williams, baby Zars was loudly proclaiming his delight at picking the California Zephyr as his place of birth when the train reached Grand Junction, Colorado. Peter and his mother left the train there, met by a doctor and an ambulance. Mr. Stork, so the passengers say, flew off quite unperturbed. A little unusual, perhaps, but one never knows what may happen in this business." Seven years later, another Zephyrette and the rest of the crew hosted Peter Zars seventh birthday party on board, in the Diner.
The elderly and handicapped were also recipients of the Zephyrette's attention. A favorite passenger of Zephyrette Marion Vranna was "a crippled lady, able to walk only with crutches. Her charming personality made it a joy to help her.
The Zephyrette was expected to pass through the train every couple of
hours, checking on the passengers. If there were letters or post cards
to be mailed, she would be happy to take care of them. If a passenger needed
some item that wasn't available onboard the train, the Zephyrette would
rush out to a local store during a station stop. (One Zephyrette took the
shopping thing a bit too far, more than once spending too much time at
the newsstand, and had to be put into a cab in Denver, rushing off to catch
up with the train that had already left.)
|A couple in Coach receive their color-coded
card indicating their dinner seating time. Their names will also be recorded
on the Zephyrette's seating chart.
WP Mileposts photo, BRHS collection.
Scheduling so many passengers into a single dining car for dinner was an art, and to make it all work, the California Zephyr used a reservation system with multiple seatings. Before the train left San Francisco or Chicago, the passengers could stop at a booth attended by the Zephyrette before boarding to make their reservations for the dinner seating of their choice. During the rest of the days onboard, the Zephyrette would take reservations as she passed through the train. In the process, she would discuss the menu and wine list with the patrons, making recommendations when appropriate.
In later years, as rider ship and revenues declined, and equipment aged,
mechanical problems plagued the Zephyr more and more. The Zephyrettes became
apologists, smoothing over the rankled feathers of passengers as she suffered
with them the inconvenience of inoperative equipment and late schedules.
|The Easter Bunny, cleverly disguised as a
Zephyrette, makes the rounds in the Observation Lounge.
D&RGW photo, BRHS collection
This was a train that often celebrated special events on board. These were usually led by the Zephyrettes and were established by management, although some came from the Zephyrettes themselves, including Floraine Lovitt's Halloween parties in the diner for the kids (beginning in 1950, and initially at her own expense), and Nancy Trimarco's special talks about the Mormon Trail. At Christmas, when holly would appear with the carnations on the tables in the diner, and Santa would sometimes appear in the Observation Lounge, at least one Zephyrette was known to gather the kids together in one of the domes to sing Christmas carols, and then it was off to the diner for cake and ice cream.
To many Zephyrettes, some of the most precious memories center on helping children. In 1951, Elna Johnson was visiting with passengers in the Lounge-Observation car. A little 6-year-old girl named Susan, watching Elna, said, "You're pretty." Elna replied, "Well, thank you, that's a very lovely compliment." Susan then quickly asked admiringly, "What kind of soap do you use?"
Rhodna Walls, in an interview in WP's Mileposts, remembered well a young displaced couple and their little girl, who were unable to speak English. Through a fellow passenger who acted as interpreter, she learned of their meager existence, life in labor camps and their hopes and gratitude for a future in America.
|Zephyrette Shirley Chap became an honorary
Boy Scout when the CZ hosted a scout troop on a short trip between Oakland
and Niles. We wonder if she received a merit badge for her efforts?
WP Mileposts photo.
|Ten-year-old Janet Hencke wrote to the Burlington,
confiding that she feared her favorite CZ car, the Silver Thistle
had disappeared. To reassure her, and to generate some good publicity,
Janet was made an honorary Zephyrette for a day during a ride on the Thistle,
complete with a party, cake and presents. Janet eventually became a Burlington
employee after graduating from high school.
Burlington photo, BRHS collection
Language was also a bit of a problem for Jane Connor. For Four French passengers, two Italians and a Greek, none of whom could speak English, she had to "sketch figures of people in the domes, eating, etc, to explain life aboard the CZ."
|(Left) On board, Judy May oversees the cutting
of another cake, with a piece for each of the passengers.
WP Mileposts photo
(Right) The 15th anniversary celebrations included Velma McPeek coming
out of retirement to cut the cake with Mary Lou Gordon at Chicago.
The train's anniversaries weren't forgotten, either. For the 10th
anniversary, Zephyrette Jane Smith writes, "We had a huge cake for the
children and then for the adults, as the trains were passing at Glenwood
[the half-way point in Colorado where the two opposite direction CZ's would
meet]. Didn't think I would ever get the frosting out of the cuffs of my
uniform! And, I had to wear all that for another day!"
|Zephyrette Carolyn Murphy made sure this
car's dome was spotless for the party celebrating the 20th anniversary
of the inventing of the Vista Dome, introduced by the Burlington in July,
1945. Carolyn, too, was born in July, 1945.
Burlington photo, BRHS collection.
The 15th anniversary was celebrated with Velma McPeek and
her successor, Mary Lou Gordon, cutting a big cake in a ceremony at Chicago's
Union Station. On board, Zephyrette Judy May helped further the celebration
with cake for each of the passengers.
|For several years, retired WP Ditcher Engineer
and Mrs. William H. Sanford have shared their lovely Cecil Burner Pink
roses with California Zephyr passengers. Zephyrette Margaret Smith is shown
here recieving a basket of roses from the Sanfords at Oroville, Ca, for
delivery to the passengers.
WP Mileposts photo
For all of their efforts, the Zephyrettes were warmly remembered. During one part of the train's life, a man and his wife from Creston, Iowa would meet the train with candy and flowers for the Zephyrettes, whom they new by name. While the Zephyrettes were strictly forbidden to take tips (unlike tradition with other crew members), they often received gifts and Christmas cards from both grateful and enamored passengers. These young women were helpful, intelligent and beautiful (one, Rita Pelz, even modeled for I. Magnin while not traveling). Young men were prone to fall for them on site, which was sometimes flattering, and other times a bit embarrassing. A Zephyrette's average term of service was only 1 ½ years, and many would end up marrying either a former passenger, or a railroad employee.
As symbols of the train, the Zephyrettes often appeared in the train's promotional literature, and on a couple of occasions, the CZ's publicity folks used Zephyrettes in magazine ads for the train. In 1956, Nellie O'Grady was featured in one of Western Pacific's "story board" adds, following her though the train as she talked with the passengers. Then, in the 1960s, Madelon Martin appeared in an ad that featured fan mail which had been sent in by satisfied passengers.
At the end of her day, the Zephyrette would retire to her compartment in the aft-end of the Dome-Buffet, which was right over the car's trucks, and was somewhat uncomfortable (just forward of her compartment were the sleeping accommodations for the waiters and chefs, which were three-high bunk beds; unlike other name trains which housed the crew at the front end, the CZ planners put them here so that when the chefs rose at 3-4 a.m. to prepare the day's food, they wouldn't have to walk through and disturb the sleeping coach passengers). There, in the evening quite, she was expected to complete a detailed daily trip report, which would be forwarded to the Management offices in Chicago for review. It was by way of the trip report that Management kept tabs on the needs of the passengers, and made adjustments to the services and features. About 10 pm the Zephyrette finally went off duty (midnight ringing of her call bell notwithstanding), and had a chance to get a bit of rest before doing it all again the next day.
Rolling into Chicago for the last time on March 22, 1970 (it had left Oakland 21 years to the day of its inauguration), train #18 ended the career of "The World's Most Beautiful Train." The Zephyrette, one last time and with a bit of sadness, intoned the words, "I want you to know that it has been a pleasure to all of us to have had you with us. The dining car Steward, Pullman conductor, and other members of the crew join me in the hope that you have enjoyed the trip." What was left off, what had been said thousands of times before but not today, was, "...and that we may again have the opportunity to welcome you aboard the California Zephyr." The tradition came to a close.
|Hedrich-Blessing shot many publicity photos for the Burlington, most of them in the Chicago coach yards, which makes one wonder about the mountains outside the windows. Hedrich-Blessing photo, BRHS collection.|
|Over the years of the train's life, a series of publicity brochures was published, highlighting both the trains features, and the glamour of the California destination. The art on the cover of this article, showing a Zephyrette in a dome, was from the cover of an early 1950s version. The above photo was from an early 1950s edition, and the photo below was from a 1967 edition.|
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