While visiting in the St. Louis area we took a train ride to Chicago, my indulgent wife, Linda, and I. It was a pilgrimage of sorts.
We rode a train to go see a train. We went to see the Pioneer Zephyr, a special passenger train from the 1930s on display at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.
Nicknamed "The Silver Streak" by the public, the Zephyr changed the landscape for passenger rail travel. It was the first streamlined train. It was the first stainless-steel train. It was the first diesel-powered train. It was the first... Oh, you get the idea.
My interest in the Zephyr-class trains is simple – my dad was involved in the production of these special trains. He was an electrical shop foreman for the Budd Company in the 1930s when these trains were built. When he retired from Budd's in 1970 he was responsible for the company's railcar assembly.
Everything about this train was different. It was stainless-steel, not painted. The cars were long and sleek, not dumpy and dark green. And there was no steam engine, but rather a stainless-steel, diesel-powered locomotive that was as smooth and shiny as the rest of the train. The Zephyr was a beautiful thing by any measure.
The long, low stainless-steel railcars were like none ever seen before, as different from the passenger railcars of the day as your flat screen TV is from a 1950s black and white model. The cars did not even have their own wheel sets or trucks. These railcars were articulated with connecting cars sharing a set of wheels. With the carbodies so closely coupled, the train looked to be a single entity rather than a string of individual cars. It looked like... well, like a silver streak.
A very nice young lady from the museum arranged for me to get in an hour early to take some photos before the museum opened. She also had the train's interior opened for me even though it is currently closed to the public as they are redesigning their interior exhibit.
The Zephyr is located in a long narrow hall constructed exclusively for the train during a museum renovation in the late 1990s. It is three stories below ground level; the train was lowered into place by cranes, and the building closed over it. The long, narrow hall made it awkward to take pictures, and I was limited to few angles of the exterior of the train along with just a few interior shots. Nevertheless, it was a thrill for me.
Allow me to take you on a tour of the three carbodies that make up this train, moving from front-to-back with a few photos and some brief descriptions. Please enjoy this short visit with the Silver Streak, which the Chicago Museum of Science & Industry calls “the train that would reinvent travel and design.”
The Lead Carbody
Here you see the Zephyr's locomotive. Think of how incredibly different this must have seemed to someone in the mid-1930s when all other trains were powered by big, black, noisy, smokey steam engines. With its smooth shovel-nose, stainless-steel skin, and diesel engine, the Zephyr neither looked nor sounded like any other train.
And it was like no other train. It was quieter. It was cleaner. It was shiny. It was fast. It was a revolution. The entire Zephyr train was just two-thirds the weight of a typical passenger steam locomotive alone.
There was not much room inside the cab for the engineer or the fireman. Here you see the engineer's compartment; it is not exactly a comfortable accommodation. That big wall to the left hides the generator that powers the traction motors. The fireman sits on the other side of the generator, and I could see no practical way for the two of them to communicate with each other. Directly behind the cab is the huge diesel engine that made everything go.
Trainmen had a love-hate relationship with the Zephyrs. They loved the diesel engine, the smooth ride and the speed. But they hated riding at the very front of the train. They were used to steam locomotives with lots and lots of iron in front of them. When they were in the Zephyr they were right up front, and they felt they were riding in a deathtrap.
The Zephyr's prime mover was an eight cylinder, 600 horsepower diesel engine located directly behind the cab. My estimate is that the engine was about 10 feet long and 4-1/2 feet high.
The engine was from General Motors, and it was a radically new design that was some four times more powerful than previous diesel engines of similar size and weight. The engine did not drive the train, but actually powered a 600-volt DC generator. The generator then powered electric traction motors located at the locomotive’s axles.
The Railway Post Office (RPO), 30 feet long and directly behind the engine, takes up the back half of the front carbody. It is a mini mail center fitted out for mail sorting and handling with shelves, compartments, and pigeonholes, and frames to hold the mailbags.
RPOs were common on trains. They were part of the U.S. postal system, and only postal employees were permitted. They would sort mail as the train moved from one city to another. At smaller towns where the trains did not stop the mail bag would be hung by the trackside and grabbed on-the-fly by a hook on the train. The last RPO was discontinued in 1977.
The Middle Carbody
The second carbody was in three sections. At the front was the baggage compartment. In the middle was a small galley with a short buffet service.
The rear of the car was a 20-passenger coach section – the smoking car. The nice wide, well-cushioned seats here were leather as opposed to the cloth-covered seats in the following car.
The Third Carbody
The final carbody of the train was divided into two sections – half coach and half observation car (think first class).
The front part of the car was a 40-passenger coach section. Little has changed when comparing this compartment to the train we took from St. Louis.
The rear half of the car was the posh observation car with just 12 seats. The seats were really individual armchairs that could be moved about and grouped as the passengers pleased.
Today we are again in a completely different era – airplanes, Interstates and automobiles. But even with today's Interstate highways the Zephyr would have beat you to Chicago by 2 hours – even more if you stop for gas and bathroom breaks. And if you stay off the Interstates (after all, this was a land of 2-lane highways in 1934), then your no-stops drive will have you arrive more than 7 hours after the Zephyr.
The Zephyr-class trains sped across the rails for more than twenty-five years even after newer designs became the standard. Eventually, inevitably, airplanes and cars took over travel in the United States, and passenger trains essentially went away. Sic transit gloria.
We hope you enjoyed your time on the Pioneer Zephyr. Thanks for joining us for the train ride!
THE FIRST STREAMLINE TRAIN IN AMERICA IN REGULAR SERVICE
MAY 26 1934 • NON-STOP RUN DENVER TO CHICAGO
1015.4 MILES IN 13 HOURS 5 MINUTES
AVERAGE SPEED 77.6 • MAXIMUM SPEED 112.5 MILES AN HOUR
JULY 3 1934 • NEAR OTIS COLORADO 10 MILES AT AVERAGE SPEED 107.25 MILES AN HOUR
NOVEMBER 11 1934 • BEGAN DAILY SERVICE
BETWEEN LINCOLN • OMAHA AND KANSAS CITY