Reboot for a classic ‘California Zephyr’ book

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, May 02, 2017

The 'California Zephyr' rides Western Pacific rails toward the lowering sun near Tracy, Calif., on its final run in a memorable Ted Benson photo.
You know a train is great when it gets the spotlight in a single-subject, hardcover book. Not many name trains from the classic era have such status. New York Central’s Twentieth Century Limited earned it, of course, twice. Santa Fe’s Super Chief comes to mind. There are a few others.

Then there’s the California Zephyr, that svelte, stainless-steel domeliner that made a glittering splash in the postwar streamliner era. The CZ got its first full-dress book in 1975 with Karl Zimmermann’s CZ: The California Zephyr Story. A curtain call came two years later with Portrait of a Silver Lady, a sprawling, 357-page volume from Pruett Publishing in 1977.

Good news for CZ and passenger-train fans: Silver Lady will be making a comeback. Like a rock band remastering a classic album, authors Bruce A. MacGregor and Ted Benson are working on a new edition they say will be bigger and better.

Ted was in the Classic Trains offices this week, visiting along with his pal and fellow California photographer David Styffe. They were in the Midwest for the Center for Railroad Photography & Art’s annual “Conversations” symposium April 28–30 at Lake Forest College near Chicago. Afterward they made a short detour to Kalmbach’s David P. Morgan Memorial Library for photo research.

As is his nature, Ted is self-effacing about the prospects for the new edition, but there’s no doubt the arrival of the new book will be exciting when it comes out in “two to three years,” as he put it. Loaded with historic images, and graced with the bold photography of Benson, MacGregor, and several other top shooters, Silver Lady was a landmark book when it came out 40 years ago.

MacGregor and Benson's landmark book 'Portrait of a Silver Lady' came with a silver slipcover emblazoned with the California Zephyr emblem, and a dust jacket featuring a painting by Howard Fogg.
The train deserved no less. A revolutionary service when it was introduced on March 19, 1949, the California Zephyr was the fullest expression of the idea of the cruise train. Operated by three railroads — Chicago, Burlington & Quincy; Denver, Rio Grande & Western; Western Pacific — it matched state-of-the-art equipment with some of North America’s finest scenery, which over its nearly 51-hour journey included the best parts of both the Colorado Rockies and the Sierra Nevada.

In his richly researched narrative, MacGregor traces the CZ’s roots in the 19th-century construction of the Rio Grande and the WP, and in earlier trains such as the Scenic Limited and the Exposition Flyer. He shows how CB&Q’s visionary president, Ralph Budd, laid the groundwork for the integrated three-railroad passenger route. The book captures the excitement of the CZ’s debut as the “most talked-about train of 1949.”

The new train was a wonder, six sets of all-stainless-steel cars from the Edward G. Budd Manufacturing Co., replete with long-distance coaches, sleeping cars, diners, and lounges, and studded with those famous “vista-domes,” as the railroads called them. Domes were featured on lots of trains in the U.S. and Canada, but they found their ultimate expression on the CZ.

The train was a hit for the better part of two decades, but as the late 1960s wore on, the CZ suffered the same fate as virtually all long-distance trains, with patronage declining in the face of competition from Interstate highways and 707s. Some thought the last runs of March 21, 1970, were premature, but in all honesty the train was lucky to make it that far.

Ted Benson goes through photos in Kalmbach's David P. Morgan Memorial Library for the revised edition of 'Portrait of a Silver Lady.' Kevin P. Keefe photo
But even as they put the CZ out of business, the three railroads knew what they were losing. In promotions surrounding the last runs, the WP called the train “a gracious lady and a thoroughbred iron horse.”

The CZ lived on, sort of, for several years as the D&RGW’s tri-weekly Rio Grande Zephyr between Denver and Ogden, kept in service through the 1970s because the road initially stayed out of Amtrak. But even the RGZ would succumb in 1983 when the railroad joined Amtrak’s other partner railroads.

The RGZ created its own separate legend, however, first with Ted’s memorable cover story “Chasing the Ghost of the Silver Lady” in the April 1975 issue of Trains, and later with a fine book of its own, Never On Wednesday, by Mel Patrick and Richard Loveman.  

Meanwhile, today the authors are hard at it, diving into the painstaking work that always comes with a book. On Monday, Ted spent several hours in the Kalmbach library, leafing through dozens of 8 x 10 prints from the Q, Rio Grande, and WP files, even rediscovering with delight some of his own original photographs.

Based on Ted’s description, the new book will be irresistible, even to fans of the original. Bruce MacGregor’s original text will be included, but in a completely redesigned format. “We’ll also be featuring anywhere from 50 to 60 percent new images, including color,” explains Ted. “With four-color available throughout, we’ll have way more color than in the new edition.” Now that’s a reboot.

Their book also will reprise the original Introduction by the late Trains Editor David P. Morgan, in which he described the CZ as “the train that behaved like a Caribbean cruise ship, inviting you to loaf and look, dine, and drink, with ultimate destination beside the point.” This promises to be quite a ride.

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