Riding the Zephyr

by Terry Hogan

Thirty-one years after the diesel "streamliner" was brought into the world by a bold decision of the CB&Q railroad, I boarded a Zephyr for my one and only ride of a lifetime. I was making personal history, and like any good 18-year-old male, I was totally oblivious to it. I don’t suppose "the Q" had an 18-year-old college freshman in mind when it decided to advance the art of railroad passenger trains. But I was willing to take advantage of its good decisions. I just wanted to get from Galesburg to Denver as quickly and cheaply as possible.

It was early 1965, the Spring Break of my freshman year at Knox College. I had sold my rare 1914-D Lincoln penny (in "very good" condition) for $25 to help raise enough money to buy a round trip ticket: Galesburg to Denver. It was to be my first and only trip on the Zephyr. I was on the way to reunite with my high school girlfriend who went off to the University of Denver while I stayed in Galesburg to become a "townie" at Knox. I was spending money I needed badly for college, but when you’re 18, you have your limits on logic.

The Zephyr was sparsely occupied and I felt like I owned the thing. It gleamed in the sun when I boarded, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t know it was stainless steel. I knew about the Zephyr in an abstract sort of way. I believe it was the California Zephyr because I recall wondering about why it wasn’t the Denver Zephyr, if I was going to Denver. But my memory may be incorrect. How could you live near Galesburg and not know about the Zephyr? After all, I attended Lombard Jr. High School, home of the "Zephyrs". But I really didn’t know about the train, its history of 31 years, or the CB&Q’s role in bringing about this fast, stainless steel, diesel-powered marvel. After all, I was 18 and my male mind had other interests.

It didn’t take too long to find a dome car to watch the midwestern towns come and go. Railroad tracks seem to come into towns through the backdoor, by the factories, the dumps, and the scrap yards. If I had read Carl Sandburg’s writings, I probably would have thought about his hobo rail travels. Trains showed you the side of the town that the Chamber of Commerce doesn’t talk about. The Chamber wants to show you the glamorous side, dare I say "sexy" side, of the city. On the other hand, the railroads were more like the cities’ alimentary canal than the reproductive system.

In between towns was the farm lands- the former prairies. It was a time when farming was becoming more mechanized but small farms still existed. As we raced the setting sun west, the farmhouses, nestled in small groves of trees, sped by. The stoic barns stood unprotected against the roar and clank of the Zephyr as it sped its way. The engine’s light pierced the black of the prairie night in search of the next prairie town.

The dome car accentuated the sway of the train as I was sitting higher, thus the lateral sway was greater. I had the view to myself until another Knox student, a female upper classmate, also from Galesburg, joined me for the view. We talked the night through, watching the cities turn to sparkling diamonds on the horizon. We watched lights from small farmhouses appear, zip by and disappear behind us. I recalled being a young lad at my grandparents’ house, watching the searching lights of trains pass by. I wondered if any young child watched us pass by that night, speculating on why we were traveling.

The Zephyr got us both to Denver, pretty much on time. We went our separate ways. We must have scheduled different return times, as I didn’t see her on the return trip. Back on Knox campus, we returned to our separate worlds- me a lowly freshman and she- an upper classman.

I spent nearly all the money I had to make that trip, but it was worth it in many ways. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it even more, if I’d known a little more about the history of this diesel "streamliner" that had its start with the mighty CB&Q.

The Zephyr trains were new, were "state-of-the-art" before there was a phrase for being "state-of-the-art". The Zephyrs had their start, spawning a number of look-a-likes, on April 7, 1934 when the CB&Q’s Zephyr 9900 was finished in Philadelphia. It was constructed by the Edward G. Budd Manufacturing Company. The Zephyr was built on the decision of Ralph Budd, President of the CB&Q (apparently no relation to Edward G. Budd).

The Zephyr 9900 had three cars- a power car that included space for mail; a car that had space for baggage, a buffet-grill and 20 seats; and a car with 40 seats and a 12-seat observation lounge at the rear of the car. (Later while operating, a fourth car was added to increase its ability to meet passenger transport demands.)

On The Zephyr’s first test run on April 9, 1934 it reached a top speed of 104 mph. On April 18, this silvery slice of progress was named the "Burlington Zephyr". The ceremony of its christening was broadcast over NBC radio.

The Burlington Zephyr was a new train in many respects. On the outside, the stainless steel shell created a new look, and promised lower maintenance. The train was also sleeker in design, reducing wind resistance. It had 1/3 less drag. Stainless steel was lighter too. The powerhouse was new, using a two-cycle diesel in a diesel-electric format, increasing fuel efficiency over steam engines. The train was a creature of its time. The car interior was designed with the help of French-born architect Paul Philippe Cret who was over the School of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania.

The Burlington Zephyr was set on setting a record. She was to demonstrate her niche as a fast passenger train. On Friday May 25, 1934, she was scheduled to leave Denver on a non-stop run to Chicago. Her departure from Denver was to be at 4 AM, but a mechanical problem stopped the train before it started. In a move that probably wouldn’t be found in today’s business world, the CB&Q’s competitor, Union Pacific, flew in a required replacement part for the ailing Burlington Zephyr. She left Denver at 5:05 AM on Saturday, with her goal set as Chicago, a trip measured to be 1015.4 miles. It is reported that a flag dropping in Indiana, signaling the start of the Indianapolis 500 Race, was also the signal for the start of the Burlington Zephyr’s race against the clock.

History records that the train flew down the tracks, aided by carefully controlled traffic and pre-positioned flagmen at each private and public rail crossing along the entire route. However, despite the best-laid plans, things do "go amuck". In route, a door was slammed on an electrical cabinet that shorted out the starter cable. Burning insulation caused smoke and the engineer shut down the throttle and stopped the engine. Because the starter cable was what had burnt, the engine could not be re-started. The mighty Burlington Zephyr began to coast to a stop. Showing great bravery, or fear of "the Q" senior management, an assistant chief engineer grabbed the bare wires and held them together while the starter was engaged. The engine was restarted, the run continued, but Roy Baer received electrical burns to his hands. "The Q’s" president had promised that the train would make a dawn to dusk run in only 14 hours, nonstop.

At 4:38 PM, the mighty Burlington Zephyr, new queen of the passenger trains, crossed the mighty Mississippi River, with plans of shining her light soon on Chicago. At 6:41 she passed through Aurora and arrived at Chicago at 7:10 PM. She had averaged 77.61 mph over the trip.

The Burlington Zephyr’s peak speed on the trip was an impressive 112.5 mph. She got 2.77 miles per gallon of fuel, which cost 4 cents a gallon. This equates to a whopping $14.64 fuel bill for the Denver to Chicago trip. Not bad, even in year 1934 dollars!

She had a reported 600 hp engine, but she also had a backup for this historic trip- a burro. The story goes that a Denver newspaper offered up a "Rocky Mountain Canary" as a mascot for the trip. "The Q", never one to pass up a media opportunity, agreed. It was expecting a bird, not a burro. However, with the addition of some last minute hay, the mascot, given the nickname "Zeph", was loaded aboard. When "the Q’s" president, Mr. Budd, was asked about the burro, he was quoted as saying "Why not? One more jackass on this trip won’t make a difference."

After this trip, she visited the Century of Progress, in progress at Chicago. In one day (Sunday, May 27, 1934) she was visited by 15,757 people. Despite being a workhorse for moving passengers, she also had time to become a movie star. In September, she starred in the RKO movie "Silver Streak" (a catchy name).

On November 11, 1936, she was renamed the "Pioneer Zephyr". It is reported that the new name was prompted by her success- the addition of new Zephyrs in "the Q’s" stable. She continued her service in various capacities. The Pioneer Zephyr found herself working a number of different service routes including St. Louis to Kansas City, Lincoln to McCook Nebraska, Denver to Cheyenne; Galesburg to Quincy, Brookfield to St. Joseph Missouri, and St. Joseph to Lincoln.

One fateful Sunday, March 20, 1960, was her final run. On that date, she made a farewell performance run for railroad enthusiasts. She traveled from Lincoln, to Galesburg. Galesburg, with its long history and dedication to the railroads, was her final stop.

On May 26, 1960 she was presented to the Museum of Science and Industry, in Chicago. It was the 26th anniversary of her Denver to Chicago run. At the time of her retirement, she had traveled over 3.2 million miles (3,222,898 miles, if there are any railroad "buffs" reading this). She has been restored and is open for inspection. By the way, don’t be surprised if you visit her and encounter an animatronics version of Zeph, the "Rocky Mountain Canary". He may have just been "one more Jackass" on the trip, but he was in the right spot at the right time, and became part of the Burlington Zephyr’s mystique. I don’t suppose a movie writer could have written a better script than that real-life adventure of the Burlington Zephyr.

But, I would be a poor genealogist, if I didn’t mention the children, grandchildren, and look-alike children that followed in her tracks. "The Q" had other Zephyrs, e.g. Denver Zephyr, California Zephyr, Mark Twain Zephyr, and the Silver Streak Zephyr. Budd also built stainless steel cars for other railroads. In 1934, the year of the Burlington Zephyr’s "birth", Budd built a five-car stainless steel subway train for New York. By 1935, there were three look-a-likes: the Q’s Twin Zephyrs and the Flying Yankee (Boston & Main/Main Central). Others followed. Santa Fe, Northern Pacific, and the Canadian Pacific had their versions of the stainless steel cars, originally conceived by "the Q" in 1934.

I wish I’d known this in the spring of 1965 as the Zephyr sped me on my way from Galesburg to Denver, but I didn’t. Trains were too much a part of Galesburg in 1965 and Galesburg was too much a part of me.

I took it all for granted.

I gave it no more thought than a prairie breeze whispering in my ear.


Anon. 1984. "Streamliners on the Property", pages 21-29 in Passenger Train Journal. May 1984.

Anon. 1997. "Burlington 9900" pages 46-47 in Trains. September 1997. Published by Kalmbach Publishing Company.

Zenon Hansen, 1984. "Zephyr 9900, 1934-1984, at Fifty", pages 30-40 in Passenger Train Journal. May 1984

Tom Nelligan. 1981. "Citadel of Stainless Steel", pages 21-31 in Passenger Train Journal. October 1981. PBS "Streamliners"