Of all the many passenger trains that served Denver from the Midwest, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy’s Denver Zephyr was very likely the most popular. The train dates back to the earliest years of the railroad's streamliner era and despite competition from a handful of other lines it remained popular for several years. As with the CB&Q’s entire Zephyr fleet, the DZ (as it was commonly known) was clad in striking stainless steel and virtually every car was domed (following the train’s upgrading in the 1950s) allowing for maximum sightseeing across the Midwest and Plains. While the DZ survived the transition to Amtrak in May of 1971 it lasted for only a few years before being discontinued.
The Denver Zephyr came about because of the tremendous successes surrounding the Burlington’s original Zephyrs. However, unlike the originals which were fully articulated the Denver Zephyr was a ten-car, semi-articulated train that replaced the original #9900 and #9903 on November 8, 1936. A few years after the train's debut two additional cars were added including a coach dinette and full-room sleeper giving it a consist which included a total of ten cars. The train was an instant hit, in no small part due to its extremely fast speeds, great scenery, and on board amenities (such as lounges, coaches, diners, sleepers, and a parlor-observation).
The train's entire route between Chicago and Denver covered exactly 1,034 miles and could be completed in just 15 1/2 to 16 hours with an average speed of 64 to 66 mph (according to the CB&Q's official timetable). For instance, departing Chicago Union Station at 5:30 pm (Central Standard Time) the westbound DZ (Train #1) could arrive at Denver Union Station by 8:30 am (Mountain Time) the next day. Also, if one so chose, connecting service via the Denver & Rio Grande Western was available as far west as Ogden, Utah.
The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy's original Zephyrs were built in conjunction with the then Electro-Motive Corporation Zephyr, and the trains would revolutionize rail travel. These articulated trainsets were streamlined, lightweight designs that would be powered by the new diesel engine, which allowed for efficiencies far beyond what steam could provide. The first of these trainsets, cast in all stainless steel, was the Zephyr #9900 and after touring across the country made its famous nonstop trip between Denver and Chicago in mere hours, an unheard of accomplishment for its day. Not surprisingly this alone coupled with the trains high speeds made the Zephyr an instant hit with the public and the Burlington would go on to order several of these trainsets. Of course, the Burlington loved the streamliners as well due to their extremely inexpensive costs to both build and maintain.
The Denver Zephyr remained under its 10-car setup until October of 1956 when the train truly came of age. That year the Burlington completely reequipped the DZ (28 cars in total to operate two versions of the train) with domes galore built by the Budd Company featuring two “flattop” coaches, Vista-Dome counter-lounge (called the “Chuck Wagon”), Vista-Dome coach, dining car, five sleepers, two Slumbercoahes (the first train ever to feature such amenities), and a Vista-Dome observation. From a historical standpoint, the 1956 reequipping of the DZ was the last, entirely new streamlined passenger train built in the United States. For full consist and timetable information about the Denver Zephyr please click here.
(Thanks to Stephen Levine and Bill Haithcoat for help with the information on this page.)
The Denver Zephyr remained such a popular train that it was virtually unchanged until 1968, when most other railroads were substantially reducing their flagship train’s services or eliminating them altogether as ridership was quickly declining. While some cars were cutback on the DZ during the off-season and at differing times the train still remained mostly intact through the end when Amtrak took over intercity passenger rail operations on May 1, 1971. The Denver Zephyr was initially kept by Amtrak although it was eventually combined with City of San Francisco (itself renamed the San Francisco Zephyr before being named again as the California Zephyr and given the original routing of that famous train, which remains to this day) and eliminated.