The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad: Way of the Zephyrs

Some railroads were seemingly destined to be strong, profitable operations that were blessed with excellent management.  The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy was one such company.  Its history traces back to the pre-Civil War period when trains near or west of Mississippi River were still a relative novelty.  By the early 1850's the "Q's" earliest predecessor had established through service to Chicago and then spent the remainder of the century rapidly expanding.  Its slogan, Everywhere West, was quite befitting for this classic Midwestern granger.  While the CB&Q did operate hundreds of miles of secondary, agricultural branches it also boasted important through corridors to the Twin Cities, Denver, Kansas City, Omaha, southern Montana, and even reached the Gulf Coast!  The Burlington was also quite close with the communities it served and highly visible in the public eye.  It maintained an impressive fleet of high-class trains, the Zephrys, as well as providing several through, transcontinental services with many of its allies.  The two most important were Northern Pacific and Great Northern.  The long sought merger with these roads, in addition to the Spokane, Portland & Seattle, finally became a reality in early 1970 forming Burlington Northern.  Today, all of the Burlington's principal lines are still operated by successor BNSF Railway.

The complete corporate history of the Burlington could encompass many books and the railroad has already been written about extensively ranging from its heritage to fleet of streamliners.  It even once operated remnants of a narrow-gauge network in central Colorado.  Presented here will be a brief synopsis.  During the road's height it spanned across most of the Midwest and thanks to acquisitions like the Colorado & Southern and Fort Worth & Denver was able to reach into Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado.  Its legend continues to live on today through its Zephyr trains and Chicago main line which sees hundreds of freight trains daily operated by successor BNSF Railway.  If you can find a copy the most thorough corporate history of the CB&Q is, "Burlington Route: A History Of The Burlington Lines," by author Richard Overton.  The book was originally published in 1965 in celebration of the railroad's centennial and it is currently out-of-print.  The Burlington's heritage is quite fascinating, owing its start to a predecessor of future rival Chicago & North Western, the Galena & Chicago Union (G&CU).  By the early 1850's railroad fever had spread across the Midwest as promoters clamored to reach or build out from the growing metropolis of Chicago, the future railroad capital of America.

Burlington's Zephyr Fleet And Other Trains

Afternoon Zephyr: (Chicago - Twin Cities)

Ak-Sar-Ben Zephyr: (Chicago - Lincoln)

American Royal Zephyr: (Chicago - Kansas City)

Blackhawk: (Chicago - Twin Cities)

California Zephyr: (Chicago - San Francisco)

Denver Zephyr: (Chicago - Denver)

Empire Builder: (Chicago - Seattle)

Exposition Flyer: Operated in Junction with the Western Pacific and Rio Grande between Chicago and Oakland until the debut of the California Zephyr in 1949.

Kansas City Zephyr: (Chicago - Kansas City)

Mainstreeter: Operated between Chicago and Seattle via allying roads Northern Pacific and Spokane, Portland & Seattle.

Morning Zephyr: (Chicago - Twin Cities)

Nebraska Zephyr: (Chicago - Lincoln)

North Coast Limited: (Chicago - Seattle)

Pioneer Zephyr: (West Quincy - Hannibal, Missouri)

Sam Houston Zephyr: (Dallas - Houston)

Texas Zephyr: (Denver - Dallas)

Western Star: Operated between Chicago and Seattle via allying roads Great Northern and Spokane, Portland & Seattle.

Zephyr Rocket: Operated between Minneapolis and St. Louis in conjunction with the Rock Island.

Predecessors Of The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy

The G&CU was chartered in 1836 and had opened from Chicago to Elgin by January of 1850.  It then extended to Freeport during September of 1853.  Like so many communities of that era, both large and small, the town of Aurora, Illinois yearned for a railroad of its own.  In particular, they were concerned the growing G&CU and the nearby towns it was linking would make theirs obsolete.  The railroad was proving itself the revolutionary vehicle towards a prosperous economic future, able to move freight and people at speeds previously unheard of.  The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy's earliest predecessor was the Aurora Branch Railroad chartered by the Illinois state legislature on February 12, 1849.  On February 22nd the company was formally organized.  It was to run north out of Aurora, along the Fox River, reach Batavia and then turn slightly northeastward to Turner Junction (now West Chicago) where an interchange would be established with the G&CU for direct service into Chicago.  In those days, such fledgling operations had extreme difficulty in just getting started, particularly in the case of a local system like the Aurora Branch.  Without strong financial backing it was forced to rely on its directors going door-to-door and selling stock subscriptions individually.

Such tactics usually have mixed results but the group was successful enough in their endeavors that actual grading and construction began within a year of the railroad's chartering. By the spring of 1850 grading was underway, heading south from Turner Junction and by August 22nd rails were in place to Batavia.  In a most interesting historical footnote the Aurora Branch held a special festivities on September 2nd with the first trains operating this initial stretch that day.  However, without any actual equipment of its own the railroad had to borrow a locomotive and coach from the G&CU for the occasion.  The locomotive was none other than the 4-2-0 named Pioneer.  It made its first run on October 24, 1848 earning it the distinction as the first steam locomotive to operate out of Chicago.  As rails of the Aurora Branch pushed southward the line was completed into Batavia on October 4th and only a few weeks later, on October 21st, the railroad launched regular service over the G&CU into Chicago.  It proved a financial success but there was little time to celebrate.  Elements of future rivals were already in place and if the Aurora Branch did not continue to expand it would be rendered inconsequential within the expanding Midwestern railroad scene. 

With an eye towards expansion the company was renamed as the Chicago & Aurora Railroad on June 22, 1852.  Ironically, its original intention here was not to build east to Chicago but rather west towards, "a point 15 miles north of La Salle...to connect with any railroad to built northward from that town."  At the same time much more prominent financial backing arrived as deep pockets in the east, particularly those financing the Michigan Central (the "Forbes Group"), became interested in the project.  The "point 15 miles north of La Salle" was Mendota and the 45.61 miles to this little town, which established a connection with the expanding Illinois Central, was officially completed on October 20, 1853.  In short order the former Aurora Branch was fast becoming one of the Midwest's prominent systems.  Its successor was later joined by the Northern Cross Railroad (Chartered on February 10, 1849 from the remnants of another carrier by same name established in 1837.  Most of this failed predecessor eventually became the Wabash except for a stretch of grading completed north of Quincy.), Central Military Tract Railroad (chartered on February 15, 1851), and Peoria & Oquawka (incorporated February 12, 1849).

The 1850's was a whirlwind decade that witnessed a great deal of expansion and the official creation of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad.  On February 14, 1855 the state legislature authorized the C&A to adopt this new name and what followed included the railroads previously mentioned joining it.  On December 7, 1854 the Central Military Tract began operation between Mendota and Galesburg, then joined the CB&Q on July 9, 1856.  The Peoria & Oquawka was completed between Galesburg and East Burlington on March 17, 1855 subsequently followed by the Northern Cross between Quincy and Galesburg on January 31, 1856.  The former was renamed as the Peoria & Burlington Rail Road before joining the CB&Q on June 24, 1864; the latter was also renamed, as the Quincy & Chicago, had joined a few months earlier on April 28th.  That year also witnessed the Burlington constructing its own route into Chicago to obviate the need to utilize the G&CU into the Windy City.  The line officially opened for service on December 26, 1865 and gave the CB&Q a network shaped roughly like an "X" extending from Chicago to Galesburg before splitting west to Burlington, southwest to Quincy, and southeast to Peoria.

The Modern Burlington Route, "Everywhere West"

These roads constituted the original core of the Burlington system.  However, like every other major Midwestern "granger" many other predecessors went on to create its modern network.  Two other notables included the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad (chartered on February 16, 1847) and the Burlington & Missouri River Rail Road.  The former, acquired by the Forbes group in 1854, was the first to complete an east-west route across the length of Missouri, opening on February 15, 1859.  The railroad connected its namesake cities and interchanged with another Forbes road, the Quincy & Palmyra, at Palmyra.  This little pike was only 14 miles which connected to the CB&Q at Quincy once a bridge had opened over the Mississippi River on November 9, 1868.  Following the H&StJ's completion the B&MR was chartered on May 12, 1869 to build another lengthy route, this time across Iowa from Burlington to Council Bluffs/Omaha at the eastern point of the recently completed Transcontinental Railroad (Union Pacific).  Work on the road proceeded quickly and, via lease, had reached Council Bluffs on January 3, 1870.  A direct link into Omaha was established by July 19, 1871 (Omaha & South Western Railroad).  The CB&Q took lease of the B&MR on December 31, 1872.

With a route already established to Kansas City the Burlington was fast becoming one of the Midwest's preeminent carriers. The two men most instrumental behind the railroad's great expansion throughout the 19th century was John Murray Forbes and John L. Gardner.  Forbes died on October 12, 1898 who was followed by Gardner on December 10th.  However, before their passing most of the modern CB&Q had been put into place and its future slogan "Everywhere West" was quite befitting!  On May 29, 1882 it opened to Denver, Colorado and then four years later finally had a coveted direct route into the Twin Cities, completing its own line to St. Paul on August 23, 1886.  There was additional growth during the 1890's as a new corridor reached St. Louis on March 4, 1894 and the CB&Q pushed further west into Montana where an interchange opened with the Northern Pacific at Huntley on October 28th that same year.  The transcontinental NP became more than just a connection both at this point and the Twin Cities; the great "Empire Builder," James J. Hill, acquired the Burlington on May 21, 1901.  Hill oversaw completion of the Great Northern then acquired the Northern Pacific in 1899.  Shortly thereafter he also established the Spokane, Portland & Seattle as a bridge road linking Spokane, Washington with Portland, Oregon.

But, even into the 20th century the Burlington was not finished expanding.  Its biggest acquisition came on December 19, 1908 when it acquired the Colorado & Southern Railway.  The C&S had been created on December 19, 1898 to take over bankrupt Union Pacific, Denver & Gulf Railway stretching from Orin Junction, Wyoming to the Texas/New Mexico border running via Cheyenne, Denver, and Pueblo.  The property also included a segment of narrow-gauge trackage stretching southwest of Denver and reaching Gunnison, Leadville, Como, and Georgetown.  These lines were operated by the Colorado Central, Denver & Middle Park, and most notable of all the Denver, South Park & Pacific (until 1918 it also included the Colorado Midland Railway, operated jointly with the Rio Grande).  Finally, there was the Fort Worth & Denver City, which the C&S also acquired through the Union Pacific bankruptcy following the financial Panic of 1893.  At Texline, Texas the FW&DC connected with the C&S end-of-track and offered through service to Fort Worth.  On June 1, 1925 it acquired trackage rights over Rock Island's Chicago, Rock Island & Gulf to reach Dallas.  

Beyond Dallas/Fort Worth the C&S came to control the Trinity & Brazos Valley Railway in 1905 operating between Cleburne and Mexia.   It was jointly owned with the Rock Island and extended from Mexia to Houston as well as between Teague and Waxahachie in 1907.  To reach nearby Galveston the road established trackage rights over the Texas & New Orleans (Southern Pacific) but chronic financial problems forced the T&BV into bankruptcy during 1914.  It was later reorganized as the Burlington-Rock Island Railroad on July 7, 1930 with the two parent roads in control.  The Cleburne-Mexia segment, which utilized trackage rights over the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe to reach Fort Worth was abandoned during 1930's.  This followed another change in trackage rights agreements between Dallas and Waxahachie as the B-RI switched from the T&NO to the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (Katy) on June 1, 1931.  Beyond the extensions into the great Lone Star State little other major expansions occurred (one notable was the opening of a new extension connecting the C&S at Orin Junction with the CB&Q's original trackage into Montana at Fromberg which opened on October 18, 1914).  The modern Chicago, Burlington & Quincy was a powerful system operating 11,000 route miles from the Midwest to the Rocky Mountains and even reaching the Gulf Coast.

The Profitable Burlington

The Burlington had long been a prosperous carrier throughout the 19th century and this continued into the 20th.  The company was one of the few to never experience a bankruptcy throughout its corporate history.  By the 1920's Mr. Overton's book notes the CB&Q was somewhat unique from the classic granger lines in that it did rely on any one particular source of freight.  Its traffic base was considerably diversified ranging from agriculture and coal (tapped from the Ohio River valley in southern Illinois) to manufactured goods.  There was also various less-than-carload movements and several interchange gateways.  Following the Great Depression of 1929 and the downtrodden economy of the 1930's the Burlington struggled but avoided bankruptcy.  According to Mike Schafer's book, "Classic American Railroads," its worst year was 1932 which was also the year Ralph Budd became president.  Arguably the road's most influential president he turned the company into an even greater machine of efficiency and profits. Budd, unlike most within the industry, did not hold onto outdated operational beliefs of the 19th century.  This issue, the lack of modernity and innovation, plagued the industry through the postwar years.  He realized as early as the 1930s that railroads would need to continually come up with new ways to retain business if they were to survive into the modern age of highways and airliners.

The most publicly visible aspect of its aim towards modern transportation was unveiling the Zephyr streamliner.  Rival Union Pacific beat it to the punch by acquiring the first-ever such trainset on February 25, 1934 known as the M-10000.  However, the Burlington's ultimately proved the most successful.  As Mike Schafer and Joe Welsh note in their book, "Streamliners: History Of A Railroad Icon," the railroad placed its order with the Budd Company on June 17, 1933 for a sleek, stainless-steel trainset which was 197-feet long and featured three cars (Railway Post Office, baggage-coach, and coach-parlor observation).  Received on April 7, 1934 it was the first of its kind to utilize a diesel engine; a 660 horsepower prime mover from the Winton Engine Company (a subsidiary of General Motors/Electro-Motive).  The diesel proved much more successful than the M-10000's gasoline-distillate engine.  The Zephyr #9900 (or Pioneer Zephyr) wowed the public with its sleek appearance and blazing speeds.  During a trial run held on May 26th it left Denver at 5:05 AM in anticipation of reaching Chicago that same day.  With an average speed of 78 mph it completed the 1,015-mile trip in just 14 hours, arriving in the Windy City at 7:10 PM.

Not surprisingly, this accomplishment and the train's good looks made it an instant hit with the public and the Burlington would go on to order several of these trainsets.  It went on to launch an entire fleet of Zephyrs with names like the Twin Cities ZephyrMark Twain ZephyrDenver Zephyr, and Ozark State Zephyr.  Perhaps the railroad’s most famous was the California Zephyr which was jointly run with the Rio Grande and Western Pacific. The train, launched in 1949, traveled through some of the most spectacular scenery in the country and it was not surprising that it continued to do well even when train travel by the 1960s and 1970s was waning with the public. The train would eventually be operated only by the Rio Grande (which was then renamed as the Rio Grande Zephyr) and after it relinquished the train to Amtrak in the 1980s it was not only retained but also returned to its original name. While Budd retired from the CB&Q in 1949 his legacy was far reaching. Always looking for ways to cut costs and improve service he launched the transition from steam to diesel (Steam was gone from main line service by the late 1950's although its C&S still had a locomotive in service as late as 1962.  In addition, fan trips were maintained through president Harry Murphy, Budd's successor, until his retirement in 1965 when they were discontinued the following year.) and implemented Centralized Traffic Control (CTC) as early as 1927.  

Diesel Locomotive Roster

The American Locomotive Company

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
S29300-93081943-19449

The Baldwin Locomotive Works

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
VO-10009350-93791943-194430

The Electro-Motive Corporation/Electro-Motive Division

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
FTA100A-115A, 100D-115D194432
FTB100B-115B, 100C-115C194432
F2A150A-154A, 156C-159C19469
F3A116A-128A, 116D-129D, 130A-138A, 130D-138D, 160A-162A, 9960A-9962A, 9960D-9962D1947-194954
F3B116B-138B, 116C-138C, 160B-162B, 160C-162C, 9960B-9962B1947-194955
NW2150-153 (C&S)1947-19484
SW7154 (C&S)19501
SW1200156-160 (C&S)19595
F7A163A-169A, 167C-169C195010
F7B167B-169B19503
GP40170-189, 620-6391966-196840
GP7200-2671951-195368
GP9270-289195420
SD7300-324, 400-4111952-195337
SD9325-374, 430-4591954-195780
SD24500-515195916
SD45516-530196915
NW2603, 605-606 (FW&DC)1941-19463
SW1200607-610 (FW&DC)19594
F7A700A-702A, 700D-702D (C&S)19506
F7B700B-702B, 700C-702C (C&S)19506
F9A700D (C&S)19591
F9A750A (FW&DC)19591
F7A750A-752A, 750D-752D (FW&DC)19506
F7B750B-752B, 750C-752C (FW&DC)19506
SD7810-819 (C&S)195310
SD9820-846 (C&S)1957-195927
SD7850-860 (FW&DC)195311
SD40875-887 (C&S)1967-196813
GP20900-935196136
GP30940-9771962-196338
GP35978-9991963-196422
SW9130-913519376
SW19136-91531939-194118
NW9200-920119372
NW29203-92481940-194946
SW79249-9268195020
SW99269-927019512
SW12009271-92921955-196522
TR29400A-9413A, 9400B-9413B1947-194928
Zephyr Trainset9900-9905, 9906A-9907A, 9906B-9907B, 99081934-193911
E5A9909, 9910A-9912A, 9913, 9914A, 9914B, 9915A, 9915B1940-19418
E5B9910B-9912B19403
E7A9916A-9937A, 9916B-9936B, 99491945-194944
SW10009310-9321196622
E8A9937B, 9938A-9949A, 9938B-9948B, 9964-99691950-195230
E5A9950A (C&S)19401
E5B9950B (C&S)19401
E5A9980A (FW&DC)19401
E5B9980B (FW&DC)19401
E8A9981A, 9981B (FW&DC)19522
E9A9985A-9989A, 9985B-9989B, 9990-99951954-195616

General Electric

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
U25B100-10519646
U28B106-115, 140-1491966-196720
U30B150-15419685
U23C460-46819699
U25C550-561196512
U28C562-577196618
U30C890-893 (C&S)19684
44-Tonner9103-91071940-19415

Steam Locomotive Roster

Class Type Wheel Arrangement
A-1 Through A-6American4-4-0
D-1 Through D-7Consolidation2-8-0
E-1Switcher0-4-0
F-1, F-2Switcher0-8-0
G-1 Through G-10Switcher0-6-0
H Through H-4Mogul2-6-0
I-1Saddle Tank0-6-2T
K-1 Through K-10American4-6-0
L-1Switcher0-10-0
M-1 Through M-3Santa Fe2-10-2
M-4Texas2-10-4
N-1Columbian2-4-2
O-1 Through O-4Mikado2-8-2
O-5Northern4-8-4
P-1 Through P-6Atlantic4-4-2
R-1 Through R-5Prairie2-6-2
S-1 Through S-3Pacific4-6-2
S-4Hudson4-6-4
T-1, T-2Articulated2-6-6-2
T-3Articulated2-8-8-2



Murphy continued the improvements by updating the road's big classification yard in Chicago, Clyde Yard, into a modern hump facility, expanding CTC to protect 1,750 main line miles by the 1960's, opened the "Centennial Cutoff" on October 28, 1952 (this route shortened the distance between Chicago and Kansas City by 22 miles), and acquired the popular Vista-Domes for its top trains.  The railroad, however, was destined to be merged with its allying roads, a dream James Hill had envisioned since the early 20th century.  The attempt had been made numerous times until finally on August 24, 1964 the Interstate Commerce Commission approved the deal.  On March 2, 1970 Burlington Northern was born through the CB&Q, GN, NP, and SP&S.  The BN lasted only 25 years before merging with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe to become the Burlington Northern Santa Fe on September 22, 1995.   Even though the Burlington is no more today it continues to live on as almost all of its main lines are still important routes for its successor. Forever recognized as one of the best managed railroads of all time perhaps it is best remembered by the communities it served as a down home company who deeply cared about its roots, something all but lost in today’s Class I systems.

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