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Edition #51, April 1, 2007

Last Zephyr To Salt Lake City

Photographer: Peter Diurni

                Photo © by Peter Diurni

Last Zephyr To Salt Lake City

Up until the early eighties, I had always been a ‘Reluctant’ Railfan. Not venturing out too far from my home of Sacramento, California to follow my passions for trains. As a young man I had many other things vying for my attention, like the usual: girls, work and college. I would hang out in Roseville at Southern Pacific’s big classification yard to get my fix of trains Every month I’d hit the hobby shop for my favorite train magazines which kept me informed about things elsewhere or of the history that I’d missed. All that changed one gloomy day in February 1983 after picking up a CTC Board rail magazine and reading that, "The writing was on the wall" for the Rio Grande Zephyr! It was to be discontinued at the end of April and Amtrak had already run a trial Superliner train to Denver via the Moffat Route.

" My God! They can’t do that! I was going to ride it one day!" This little train was a last remnant of the famous California Zephyr that plied the rails from Oakland, California to Chicago, Illinois beginning in 1949. It was a joint operation by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, Denver & Rio Grande Western and the Western Pacific Railroads to compete with the ‘City’ trains of the Chicago and North Western, (later, Milwaukee Road) Union Pacific and Southern Pacific union. The CZ, as it was shortened to, was known for the scenery through the Rockies on the D&RGW and the famed Feather River Canyon bisected by the WP. The train was discontinued in 1970, primarily by the WP citing heavy financial losses. The Chicago Burlington and Quincy (later, Burlington Northern) continued to run a Zephyr between Denver and Chicago until the advent of Amtrak and the D&RGW declined to join Amtrak in 1971. Thank God.

Do you realize this was the last major railroad, privately funded inter-city passenger train in the United States? Being pulled by EMD F-series locomotives? Followed obediently by Budd Corporation stainless steel blue glazed Dome cars!? Had a real, honest-to-God, the Chef cooks in the diner, dinning car? Was STEAM heated! And was finished off with a round end Observation car? In the Nineteen Eighties? Huh!

"Foolish boy! Should have been on this train years ago!" It was these few items that were the KICK in the pants that I needed! So, I got off my reluctant horse in a dash and made arrangements for a roundabout journey via Amtrak’s The Spirit of California south to Los Angeles. Then heading northeast on the Pioneer, putting me into Salt Lake City on Tuesday morning April 12th. Cash flow would only allow me to make Grand Junction, Colorado if I wanted to eat in the last, privately owned, for the public rolling diner. I had always read that the food prepared and dinning ambiance was excellent! Then returning to Salt Lake City on Thursday, the 14th (Never On Wednesday), for an anti-climatic run back to Sacramento on Amtrak’s San Francisco Zephyr.

And folks, that’s what I did! I was so excited when I walked... no, let’s be honest here, RAN from the Union Pacific Station in Salt Lake City that early Tuesday morning to the Denver and Rio Grande Depot a little under a quarter mile away. It was a little like the movie, ‘Ten’, the beach scene, "I have found you my love!" And she was. My treasure, strung out long around the back of the depot! WOW! What a beautiful train! A little torn and frayed around the edges but who wouldn’t be showing a bit of age after 34 odd years and thousands of well worn miles on the clock. The train was well cared for by the Rio Grande folks who were obviously proud of a long gone tradition of privately funded passenger revenue. And from the moment the first ticket was punched it showed in its staff, too, who nearly outnumbered passengers on today’s run to Denver.

Remember your very first train journey. Step boxes set out in front of vestibule doorways, a dapper older gentleman, dressed in a dark blue suit with shinny buttons gleaming. A smart creased hat with a polished black brim setting squarely on his head, proclaiming that he WAS The Conductor, with an equally polished ornament above the brim. The smell of oily steam escaping from a not-so-tight joint somewhere. It was all that and more. Ticket punched, I was directed to my car. Sad. In days of yore, seats would be filled with excited families traveling the length of the country; business men from city to city reclined in fashionable new chairs with a picture window displaying the passing of a new and bustling America outside. As it turned out I was the only occupant in this car that sat forty-four people.

Echoes of the past dissipated as a slight jolt was felt and we were under way. The smell of frying bacon wafting in the air ahead somewhere called me too a Rio Grande French Toast and scrambled eggs prepared fresh from the pantry. Everything I imagined it would be, as breakfast and memories go. Full and content, I left the diner to explore and document and enjoy the passing scenery.

Countless places I had read about. Thistle, Soldier Summit! The Price River Canyon, Helper and west of town, up on a shelf, the birthplace of countless coal drags being lugged west via trackage rights by aging Alco’s of the Utah Railway in years past. Castle Gate and Solitude. Lonely little Thompson. All the while, always, the crew with kind smiles, a tale or two at seat side and a geography lesson out the window. And before I knew it the step boxes were being put down for Grand Junction and that was that for my first trip on the RGZ. "WOW! AWESOME!"

Wednesday was spent exploring Grand Junction as far as my feet would take me, which is another story and heartfelt words need to be conveyed here to the Station Agent, Mrs. Walker, for pointing me in all the right directions! "THANK YOU!" For a Rio Grande memorable day!

Returning to the depot, Thursday afternoon, tension was in the air. There had been a landslide in the Spanish Fork Canyon near Thistle, Utah after days and days of heavy rain that had covered the tracks, a highway and Spanish Fork Creek. Crews had managed to keep the line open, but it looked grim and the word was that we may have to be bussed back to Salt Lake City. Dire indeed. As the Zephyr approached from the east, authorization was given for it to continue on and as we left Ruby Canyon and notched up for the desert run, urgency seemed to be the byword as we hustled toward the storm. I was in the dome of Silver Sky as we rounded a sweeping left bend and grabbed this parting shot of ancient F’s, trailed by silver steel and blue tinted glass, never to pass this way again.

In the end, we WERE the last train through the canyon before Mother Nature took back a little of itself, closing this route forever. The RGZ would end its last remaining weeks of travel from Denver to Grand Junction and months later after a costly re-route for the Rio Grande, Amtrak’s San Francisco Zephyr got a name change to the California Zephyr and Superliners began their new route through Utah and Colorado.

The lesson learned, "Ya just got to go for it, ‘cause you know it won’t be there tomorrow!"

Peter Diurni

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