The Legendary California Zephyr

Other trains may have been more luxurious and for the well-to-do but none could compare to the California Zephyr in the way of friendly service and breathtaking scenery. Operated jointly by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (the Burlington Route); Denver & Rio Grande Western (Rio Grande); and Western Pacific the train traveled through some of the most spectacular scenery in the country.  As a result it is not surprising the CZ continued to do well even even during rail travel's waning years after World War II.  Following the CZ's cancellation as a through service in 1970, Rio Grande picked up the torch and operated a truncated version along its territory between Denver and Salt Lake City/Ogden as the Rio Grande Zephyr.  The RGZ remained in service for more than a decade until the D&RGW finally handed over the train to Amtrak during the early 1980s.  The national carrier brought back the California Zephyr name and today it remains one of the most popular long distance trains in the country.

Mike Schafer and Joe Welsh note in their fabulous book, "Streamliners: History Of A Railroad Icon," that the California Zephyr had a "double beginning."  An argument could be made that it actually had a so-called "triple beginning" as two notable events preceded its inauguration.  In 1934 the Burlington made a splash by deputing one of the first-ever streamliners, the Zephyr 9900 (also known as the Pioneer Zephyr) during April of 1934.  The sleek, stainless-steel contraption was the first of its kind powered by a diesel engine and proved more successful, operationally, than UP's design.  Both wowed the public and led to the Burlington christening an entire fleet of Zephyrs through the 1940s.  In 1939 the Golden Gate International Exposition opened on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay.  The CB&Q, Rio Grande, and Western Pacific subsequently came up with a plan to provide a through train for this event; known as the Exposition Flyer it traveled virtually the same route as the later California Zephyr albeit utilized largely heavyweight Pullman equipment and was steam powered.

The train entered service on June 10, 1939 and became so popular thanks to its scenic route the railroads agreed to continue its operation after the San Francisco event.  Into the 1940s the Flyer gained diesel power and some lightweight equipment while the three lines contemplated revamping the entire service with new, streamlined cars and locomotives after the war (the Flyer remained in service until the CZ's inauguration in 1949).  The Burlington led the charge, buffered by the success of its Zephyr fleet and new Vista-Domes first delivered by the Budd Company in 1947.  According to, "The Art Of The Streamliner" (Bob Johnston, Joe Welsh, Mike Schafer), Budd designer John Harberson toured the CZ's proposed route, which passed through the Colorado Front Range, entered scenic Glenwood Canyon, worked its way along California's rugged Feather River Canyon, and finally wound through the rolling green hills of Altamont Pass before terminating in Oakland.  He concluded that trainsets should feature no fewer than five dome cars, nearly unheard of at the time, for maximum viewing pleasure of the passengers.

Individually, the three roads could not offer a flagship, transcontinental streamlined train such as the Santa Fe, Union Pacific, Southern Pacific, Great Northern, Northern Pacific, or even the Milwaukee Road. The Burlington provided the longest stretch of unbroken territory reaching as far west as Denver. The railroad was also the gateway to Chicago, the key to any successful long-distance passenger train; without large markets at each end point no train would garner considerable patronage and there was no bigger market than the Windy City.  The Burlington understood this (as did all other western lines) and already worked with allying roads GN and NP to provide service from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest with popular trains like the North Coast Limited and Empire Builder.  In a first within the industry, and perhaps only time it proved wildly successful, the California Zephyr was routed specifically as a scenic train.  It sacrificed speed for viewing and the concept proved a huge success.

In December of 1945 all three agreed on what was dubbed the California Zephyr. In 1947 they placed an order for six sets of stainless-steel cars from the Budd Company, all of which carried a western theme but with the prefix "Silver" as per Burlington's standards.  As the authors point out in "Streamliners," each CZ trainset normally consisted of a baggage, three reclining-set Vista-Dome coaches, a Vista-Dome dormitory-buffet-lounge, diner, four sleepers, and the Vista-Dome sleeper-lounge observation bearing the train's famous neon "California Zephyr" drumhead featuring the Golden Gate Bridge. Officially, the new train debuted on March 20, 1949 when the first eastbound consist, train #18, departed from Oakland under the Western Pacific.  It was immediately splashed as "The most talked about train in America" and despite its slower schedule the use of new lightweight cars and diesels enabled the CZ to sped up its running times from 60 hours, under the Exposition Flyer, to just 51 hours.

Christening A Legend

A huge celebration took place on March 19, 1949 in San Francisco to officially dedicate the new California Zephyr.  The train's primary terminus in daily operation was Oakland with ferry service provided across the bay to San Francisco.  However, for this special event the WP backed the train down an industrial spur through city streets to the Embarcadero where Mayor Leland Cutler, WP President H.A. Mitchell, and California Lieutenant Governor Goodwin Knight gave brief speeches.  The train was officially christened by Hollywood actress Eleanor Parker and a legend was born.  The following day riders on the maiden trip were given corsages of orchids flown in from Hawaii while Edward Budd, Jr. himself, whose company had built the train's equipment, made the trip to Chicago.

Historically, the CZ was also noteworthy as being the first-ever transcontinental train to run with dome cars.  To provide the very best scenic enjoyment, the train was scheduled so vacationers could enjoy the fabulous views through Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California during daylight hours.  Once again, Electro-Motive was contracted to provide the power as all three roads used a combination of the builder's popular E and F series cab model "covered wagons" as primary road power.  Beyond the scenery, the CZ success was thanks to its friendly staff; passengers were treated warmly no matter if you were just a vacationer or a well-known celebrity (although the “rich and famous” tended to take other trains like the Super Chief and City of Los Angeles). And then, there were the "Zephyrettes," a distinctively Burlington creation; these hostesses were courtesy, friendly, and just plain nice young women that made a lasting impression on thousands of passengers.

The "Zephyrettes"

The "Zephyrettes" were a unique phenomenon during the "Silver Age" of streamlined rail travel.  Outside of the Burlington's network no other service duplicated what the California Zephyr offered in terms of friendly on-board staff members, akin to the present-day airline stewardesses.  They traveled with the CZ from the very beginning and remained a fixture on-board until the very end during its last run on March 22, 1970.  The "Zephyrettes" held a combination of jobs from social director to tour guide and train nurse; essentially, they performed nearly any task requested by the train crew or passengers and always did so with a friendly smile.  The idea for these hostesses came from CB&Q's Supervisor of Passenger Train Services, Velma McPeek.  It had first been tested on the Denver Zephyr and carried over to the CZ. As the book, "Streamliners," notes former "Zephyrette" Beaulah Ecklund (1964-1970) was welcomed back by Amtrak to host the first trip of the re-inaugurated California Zephyr in the summer of 1983.

Other attractive features included prerecorded music played into passenger's rooms and hall windows which allowed guests to enjoy views from both sides of the train.  If their was one signature car aboard-train, similar in nature to the Super Chief's "Turquoise Room,"  it was the buffet-lounge.  Given the moniker of "Cable Car Room" it was dressed in murals and motifs from the Bay Area and even featured scale models of San Francisco's trademark cable cars. According to the train's 1950 timetable it could complete a Chicago to San Francisco run in just over two days across the three different railroads; such scheduling was not bad considering its scenic routing and the fact that Santa Fe's "San Francisco Chief" made the run only about 3.5 hours faster (47 hours and 30 minutes).  After only a few years of operation it was clear the railroads were on to something; annually the CZ averaged about 80% ridership and was often sold out during the summer.  In 1952 new cars were ordered to meet demand and sellouts persisted throughout 1965.

The CB&Q and Western Pacific carried the train for much of its journey while the Rio Grande was in charge during perhaps the most scenic stretches across the Rocky Mountains between Denver and Salt Lake City.   The downfall of the original CZ is an interesting story. While patronage remained incredibly high throughout the 1960s, particularly when compared to the severe declines experienced overall by the industry, costs to operate the train were increasing so rapidly that even strong, sustained ridership made it increasingly unprofitable to operate.  The larger, and more financially stable carriers, Rio Grande and Burlington, could more or less weather the growing red ink although the much smaller Western Pacific could not.  During September of 1966 the WP petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to discontinue its leg.  

(The below California Zephyr timetable is dated effective August of 1950.)

Read Down Time/Leave (Train #17/Burlington) Milepost Location Read Up
Time/Arrive (Train #18/Burlington)
3:30 PM (Dp)0.0
Chicago, IL (Union Station) (CT)
1:30 PM (Ar)
4:06 PM38
Aurora, IL
12:44 PM
5:45 PM (Ar)162
Galesburg, IL
10:58 AM (Dp)
5:50 PM (Dp)162
Galesburg, IL
10:53 AM (Ar)
6:35 PM206
Burlington, IA
10:07 AM
7:46 PM (Ar)280
Ottumwa, IA
8:55 AM (Dp)
7:48 PM (Dp)280
Ottumwa, IA
8:53 AM (Ar)
9:42 PM (Ar)393
Creston, IA
7:02 AM (Dp)
9:45 PM (Dp)393
Creston, IA
6:58 AM (Ar)
F 10:30 PM443
Red Oak, IA
11:45 PM (Ar)496
Omaha, NE
5:00 AM (Dp)
11:59 PM (Dp)496
Omaha, NE
4:55 AM (Ar)
1:04 AM (Ar)551
Lincoln, NE
3:55 AM (Dp)
1:19 AM (Dp)551
Lincoln, NE
3:40 AM (Ar)
2:49 AM (Ar)648
Hastings, NE
2:09 AM (Dp)
2:52 AM (Dp)648
Hastings, NE
2:06 AM (Ar)
4:49 AM (Ar)779
McCook, NE (CT)
12:14 AM (Dp)
3:55 AM (Dp)779
McCook, NE (MT)
11:09 PM (Ar)
Akron, CO
9:13 PM
8:20 AM (Ar)1034
Denver, CO (Union Station)
7:15 PM (Dp)
Time/Leave (Train #17/Rio Grande) Milepost Location Time/Arrive (Train #18/Rio Grande)
8:40 AM (Dp)1034
Denver, CO (Union Station)
7:00 PM (Ar)
East Portal, CO (Moffat Tunnel)
12:35 PM (Ar)1163
Bond, CO
3:12 PM (Dp)
12:38 PM (Dp)1163
Bond, CO
3:09 PM (Ar)
2:01 PM1219
Glenwood Springs, CO
1:35 PM
3:48 PM (Ar)1309
Grand Junction, CO
11:35 AM (Dp)
3:58 PM (Dp)1309
Grand Junction, CO
11:46 AM (Ar)
7:21 PM1485
Helper, UT
8:36 AM
9:21 PM1560
Provo, UT
6:32 AM
10:20 PM (Ar)1604
Salt Lake City, UT
5:40 AM (Dp)
Time/Leave (Train #17/Western Pacific) Milepost Location Time/Arrive (Train #18/Western Pacific)
10:40 PM (Dp)1604
Salt Lake City, UT
5:20 AM (Ar)
1:55 AM (Ar)1867
Elko, NV
11:17 PM (Dp)
1:57 AM (Dp)1867
Elko, NV
11:15 PM (Ar)
4:01 AM (Ar)2000
Winnemucca, NV
9:12 PM (Dp)
4:08 AM (Dp)2000
Winnemucca, NV
9:05 PM (Ar)
5:38 AM2094
Gerlach, NV
7:33 PM
6:42 AM2160
Herlong, CA
6:26 PM
7:39 AM (Ar)2211
Portola, CA
5:30 PM (Dp)
7:42 AM (Dp)2211
Portola, CA
5:27 PM (Ar)
11:02 AM (Ar)2327
Oroville, CA
2:14 PM (Dp)
11:05 AM (Dp)2327
Portola, CA
2:11 PM (Ar)
11:38 AM2353
Marysville, CA
1:39 PM
12:28 PM2393
Sacramento, CA
12:50 PM
1:34 PM (Ar)2438
Stockton, CA
11:53 AM (Dp)
1:37 PM (Dp)2438
Stockton, CA
11:51 AM (Ar)
4:00 PM2525
Oakland, CA (3rd & Washington Street Station)
9:44 AM
4:15 PM (Ar)2528
Oakland Pier, CA (PT)
9:30 PM (Dp)
4:30 PM (Dp)2528
Oakland Pier, CA (PT)
9:20 PM (Ar)
4:50 PM (Ar)2532
San Francisco, CA (Via Ferry)
9:00 PM (Dp)

There was strong public backlash from this attempt, which the ICC labeled a, "unique national asset."  A second try came in 1969 when the Rio Grande filed to discontinue its section but again the ICC rebuffed the idea.  The commission finally relented a year later; in a ruling that came down on February 13, 1970 it allowed the WP to cancel its section but required the D&RGW and Burlington to continue operating a tri-weekly version of the CZ from Chicago to Ogden.  From there passengers continuing westward could take Southern Pacific's/Union Pacific's City of San Francisco into the Bay Area.  On March 20th the final, original California Zephyr's left Chicago and Oakland for the last time arriving at their destinations on March 22nd.  Following its cancellation regional versions included Burlington's "California Service" (Chicago - Denver) and Rio Grande's Rio Grande Zephyr (Denver - Salt Lake City - Ogden). Interestingly, while Amtrak had been setup in 1971 to operate all intercity passenger trains across the country the Rio Grande would not relinquish control of its Rio Grande Zephyr until the early 1980s.

The Rio Grande Zephyr

Despite the California Zephyr's cancellation in early 1970, ghosts of the train lingered for many years.  The Western Pacific had had enough with passenger service but under ICC's directive the Burlington launched what it called the "California Service" along its rails between Chicago and Denver while the Rio Grande introduced the Rio Grande Zephyr from Denver to Ogden where it connected with the Southern Pacific.  On May 1, 1971 Amtrak began operations, a quasi-government entity that took over most intercity rail services across the country and largely relieved the private freight railroads from this money-losing burden.  However, for various reasons some roads elected not to join Amtrak and continued operating their own trains.  The Rio Grande was one such renegade although its reasoning was largely financial in nature.  As a prerequisite to joining Amtrak, railroads were required to pay a fee equal to revenues lost on passenger operations in an average year.  They were also subject to annual incremental fees of operating the trains.  It seems the Rio Grande felt the more economical route was to operate the RGZ itself and thus sidestepped Amtrak.

A Typical Rio Grande Zephyr Consist

EMD F9's (A-B or A-B-B)

Steam Generator Car (Ex-Alco PB-1)

Combine #1230/1231

Coach: Silver Aspen

Coach: Silver Pine

"Vista-Dome" Coach: Silver Bronco

"Vista-Dome" Chair Car: Silver Pony

"Vista-Dome" Chair Car: Silver Colt

"Vista-Dome" Chair Car: Silver Mustang

"Vista-Dome" Dormitory-Buffet-Lounge Car: Silver Shop

Diner (48 seats): Silver Banquet

"Vista-Dome" Buffet-Lounge-Observation: Silver Sky

In response, the national carrier launched its own version of the California Zephyr, which it called the San Francisco Zephyr.  Unfortunately, the SFZ was neither as scenic nor offered the services of its predecessor (no domes and pre-heated/cooked meals were the norm).  It utilized the Burlington's main line as far as Denver but then turned north to Cheyenne via the Union Pacific until reaching Salt Lake City/Ogden.  From this point the train ran on Southern Pacific trackage into the Bay Area. In an age when rail travel was looked upon as antiquated and outdated the Rio Grande Zephyr was a fine train.  Its tri-weekly service continued to run with domes (some of which were converted from sleepers) and full-service dining was maintained for more than 12 years.  Alas, as operating and labor costs continued to climb the Rio Grande eventually understood the logical and obvious choice was to hand over the country's last privately operated passenger train to Amtrak.  

In a New York Times article entitled "Rail Buffs Bid Adieu To Rio Grande Zephyr" by William Schmidt published on April 24, 1983 the paper covered its final run west from Denver on April 23rd.  The engineer that day was John Schoening whose train was packed with 375 passengers with tickets having sold out weeks in advance.  It left Denver Union Station at 7:30 AM and made history as not only the final privately operated passenger train but also the last to offer full-service dining, an amenity which has never returned to this day.  The Times article quoted Rio Grande's director of passenger and dining car services at the time, Leonard Bernstein, who stated, "I've obviously got mixed emotions but I'm looking forward to Amtrak taking over the route. I think their service is getting better all the time."  Considering the carrier's chronic lack of on-aboard accommodations since then some will likely disagree with his assessment.  After the RGZ's last run, Amtrak reinstated the California Zephyr name and, after a delay due to a mudslide, returned its routing via Rio Grande trackage on July 16th that year.  

It was at this time in 1983 that Amtrak, due to CZ’s popularity, decided to reinstate the train, operating virtually the same route as the original California Zephyr. While the reborn CZ may no longer feature streamlined equipment, "Zephyrettes," classic diesel locomotives on the head-end, or Vista-Domes it remains a very popular and respected train under Amtrak thanks largely to the corridor it travels across the West.   Finally, if you are interested in possibly riding the train visit Amtrak's website to learn more about reserving and booking a trip (there you can learn more about cost, available stations, and on-board amenities offered).  To read more about other other trains like the CZ please visit the Streamliners section of the site, which can be reached from the top of this page.

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