Pop and the Burlington Zephyrs
The train in the photograph is one of a group of very special trains that our dad, C. Wesley Simmons, Jr., helped build — The Burlington Zephyrs. The Zephyr was a completely different train, and its design is considered seminal. In fact The Chicago Museum of Science & Industry calls it “the train that would reinvent travel and design.”
This particular train, the General Pershing Zephyr, is at the Transportation Museum in St. Louis. It was built in 1939 and is the last of the classic “shovel-nosed” Zephyrs. The train ran the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad's St. Louis-Kansas City route for some twenty-seven years until it was retired in 1966.
The General Pershing Zephyr was the ninth of the CB&Q’s Zephyr streamliners, and the last built as an integrated train — that is, the cars fit together with shared wheels. According to source material, this train was named after General Pershing because its route passed near his boyhood home. The power car, or locomotive, was named Silver Charger, after Pershing's horse Charger, and the passenger cars were named after Army badges of rank—Silver Leaf, Silver Eagle, and Silver Star.
Pop built railroad trains — actually passenger trains. He built elegant stainless-steel railcars for every major railroad in the country. He built sleeper cars, dining cars, domed cars, double-decker cars. He built them all. He started with the revolutionary Zephyr and built them for almost 40 years until, inevitably, airplanes and cars took over travel in the United States. He built them until the virtual death of the luxury railcar in the mid-1960s. His timing was good though. He retired in 1970.
Wes started with the Budd Company in Philadelphia as an electrical shop foreman in the early 1930s. Pop was an electrical engineer, but he was far more comfortable on a shop floor than behind a desk. When he retired he was still on the shop floor, but no longer a foreman. He was in charge of final assembly, responsible for every railcar that the company built and shipped.
When the first Zephyr was first built it was a totally new concept in rail travel — the result of three companies all looking to do something different and special at the same time. The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad (CB&Q or Burlington) wanted a special passenger train to rejuvenate its passenger business. General Motors was perfecting a new type of diesel locomotive engine to replace steam. And the Budd Company was looking to do new things with stainless-steel and a proprietary welding method the company had developed. The three companies came together, and the result was this marvelous machine known as the Zephyr.
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 as a 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 cars so closely coupled, the train looked to be a single entity rather than a string of individual cars.
The diesel engine from General Motors 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 generator. The generator then powered electric traction motors located at the locomotive’s axles.
In April of 1934 the Zephyr was introduced to the world — a streamlined, all stainless-steel train with a GM diesel engine. Just a month later it set a speed record traveling between Denver and Chicago - one end of the CB&Q to the other. The new Zephyr made the 1,015-mile non-stop run in just 13 hours 5 minutes for an average speed of 77 mph. There was even one section of the run where the train reached a speed of 112.5 mph. The run was so fast it was scheduled to take almost two hours more! The Burlington’s other passenger trains — all steam powered — typically needed 25 hours for the trip.
The Zephyr was a sensation even before it was put in service. Fifty thousand visitors showed up to tour the train during the two days before the speed run. And the run itself was an event. There were just 86 passengers. Everyone wanted to be on the train, but only special guests had tickets. Many famous names from the likes of politics, and Hollywood were turned away.
People seeing the train go by at a speed faster than that of any other train often referred to the Zephyr as a “silver streak”. The record-setting speed run and the nickname became inspiration for a 1930s film, The Silver Streak. In 1976 there was another movie, Silver Streak, that paid homage to the Zephyrs.
The name Zephyr was chosen by the CB&Q. The railroad’s president wanted the name to begin with the letter Z because the train was to be the “last word” in passenger rail service. Zephyr, the name of the Greek god of the west wind was a perfect choice.
This photo was taken at the St. Louis Transportation Museum. Unfortunately, this St. Louis Zephyr is currently in deplorable condition. Seeing it brought me to tears. In the five or six years between the two times I have seen this Zephyr, it is obvious that the museum has done no work on it. While there are several Zephyrs in museums about the country, the one at the Chicago Museum of Science & Industry is known as the best of all — a complete train and fully restored.
To look at a Zephyr and then reflect that it was designed and built more than 80 years ago, gives you a great appreciation of the elegance of it. Of course having a diesel locomotive meant it was completely different looking from every other train in the world. Many railroads started putting sheetmetal bodywork over their passenger steam engines to try and look as good — they were not very successful. The Zephyrs were just too elegant.
I really believe the Zephyrs are the most beautiful trains ever built. I think Pop did too.