Fred Frailey Blog

Thoughts while waiting for a train

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I am writing this while sitting on a hard, unforgiving wooden bench inside the Amtrak station in Glenwood Springs., Colo., pecking it out one letter at a time with my right index finger, onto an iPad. This is not my ideal work environment. But what else is there to do waiting for a train that never comes? At 11 this morning, Julie, the automated agent, said train 6, the eastbound California Zephyr, would arrive at 1:23. At noon it was expected at 2. At 1, make it 2:30, and at 2, make it 3. You get the idea. Frozen switches west of Grand Junction, Colo., is what the Glenwood Springs agent says, but for the life of me I cannot think of any trains the Zephyr would meet west of Grand Junction.

I think back to my first trip on a train with this name. The date was May 1969, less than a year before the original, pre-Amtrak, vintage 1948 California Zephyr, that magnificent domeliner, was truncated west of Salt Lake City. And what a trip it was for this 25-year-old. I began by riding Santa Fe's legendary 40-hour transcontinental intermodal freight train, the Super C, from Corwith Yard in Chicago to Hobart Yard in Los Angeles. Next came a parlor seat in the observation car of Southern Pacific's Coast Daylight from LA to San Francisco. And the day after that, east I went by sleeper on the California Zephyr to Chicago, laying over for a day in Salt Lake City to attend the centennial ceremonies of the driving of the golden spike of the first transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah. 

And do you know the most amazing thing about this week-long odyssey?  It was entirely underwritten by the Chicago Sun-Times. Yes, the same tabloid newspaper whose city editor would beg us reporters to hold down the telephone calls to Gary and Hammond, Ind., just across the state line, because they involved small tolls. Yes, the same newspaper that would rather lose a story than pay overtime. But the stars somehow aligned for me. The editor of the Sunday magazine wanted a story about the Super C, and the city editor accepted my idea of a story from Promontory. Because the Sunday editor didn't have much of a freelance budget, it was decided I would report these stories as part of my regular work week. And when the paper sends a reporter out of town, it picks up the tab. 

Well, it was a great trip. I wrote a while back about the Super C part (see my column in the November 2011 issue). The enduring memories of the Coast Daylight are going around the curve on Cuesta grade just north of San Luis Obispo, passing so many yellow wooden depots as we raced up the Salinas Valley, and being hit on by a good looking prostitute just outside the San Francisco station. 

The agent says the Zephyr is at Rifle, Colo., so I better peck faster. I would hate for this to be published half written. I have lots of memories of the day at Promontory. Union Pacific's eastbound City of Los Angeles-City of St. Louis streamliner arrived in Salt Lake City with U.S. flags adorning both sides of the lead E9 locomotive. A special train borne by a brand new DD40AX monster diesel locomotive took invited guests to Ogden, Utah, and from there we traveled by bus through rugged mountains north of the Great Salt Lake to the celebration at a new national park. On the way back to Salt Lake City our special was pulled by UP steam locomotive 8444, and so help me, half the population of Utah seemed to be stopped on the side of roads to cheer us on. I stood in a vestibule and got goose bumps witnessing this sight. 

That day was the first time I laid eyes on Louis Menk, then president of the Northern Pacific and soon to be the first president of the new Burlington Northern. He stood out in a crowd, being the tallest man in sight. During his later years we spoke  many times, and I developed some affection for that plain-spoken man. It was also one of the few times I ever met and conversed with David P. Morgan, the editor of Trains and the guy who taught me how to write, by his example. I wish I could remember what he said. Witty and urbane with friends and professional colleagues, David could be terribly introverted in public, and in my eagerness I don't think I put him at his ease.

Finally, off I went on the California Zephyr again, across Colorado, past the station I am sitting in now and for the first time in my life, through all those spectacular canyons: Glenwood, Gore, Byers, Fraser, Coal Creek, and South Boulder, before descending the east slope of the Rockies going into Denver in a glorious spring sunset. At some point in the descent, again in the vestibule, I saw a freight train directly below us. I swear I could have struck it with a rock. How far in front of us is it, I asked the conductor as he ushered me back into the sleeping car. About half an hour, he said.

After experiences like this, is it any wonder I don't remember anything that happened east of Denver? My story about the Super C was duly published in the Sun-Times Sunday magazine, and it was probably the most juvenile and witless piece of writing I have ever committed to paper--what happens when a kid tries to hit a home run and swings too hard at the plate. The paper promptly paid my expenses, however, and I concluded to myself that this here big city newspaper biz ain't a bad way for an ambitious, wide-eyed boy from East Texas to make a living.

So here we are 44 years later. I'm back in Glenwood and still going strong, and so for that matter is the Sun-Times; I wonder whether reporters call Gary and Hammond today without a guilty conscience. Oh, and here comes the Zephyr! At 3:30! I made it to the finish line. Gotta go. -- Fred W. Frailey

  • Honestly, I cannot think of any better place to pass the time than a train station. Must have something to do with the way I was raised. Hope you are having a pleasant trip.

  • Could have taken you to lunch in Chicago if you were a day later or I a day earlier....if you are coming east on the Lake Shore, we will pass in the night, that is if the westbound Lake Shore can break its 2+ hour blockage in Buffalo. Enjoy it all, even a late train is good!

  • Fred,

    Just weeks before your trip, I started my employment with the Illinois Central's Marketing Research Department.  I is very likely that I read your article in the Sun Times, but strange as it may seem I don't remember, so your own assesment of the article will have to stand.

    If your blog was written while waiting for the CZ yesterday (Saturday) and you are traveling on to Washington tonight, I does not appear that you will have much of a wait for the Capitol Limited.   Actually it looks like you might have come close to a full day in Chicago, as you know, not so great in the winter.


  • Jay, I got off in Denver, spent the night and returned to Glenwood Springs today. BTW, in the lounge car today I heard a fellow calling a Glenwood taxi company asking the fare from there to Bond, some 60 miles. He was picking up a big truck UP has leased, to take to Elkhart Ind. The fare would be $365! So I drove him to Bond on my way back to Edwards. By yhe time we got to Bond I think I had converted him to a Trains subscription.


  • First trip on CZ Denver - StLC 1960, last 1967, through Oakland - Chicago.   Rode "California Service" 1969.  D&RGW's RGZ almos yearly, often round trip, 1971-1987, then occasionally on Amtrak after, to 1995.  Rode it once with the Thistle mudslide and air Grand Junction (great little airport) - StLC    Even without Leonard Bernstein's tender care and the great D&RGW food and service, still the world's best train ride in my book.   Hope you get to enjoy it  more often.

  • A nice piece of writing, Fred.  I too met Lou Menk about the same time you did and developed both fondness and respect for him.

  • I can remember swimming in the big pool across from the Glenwood Springs depot in the late 1950s while on a childhood vacation to Colorado. Several years ago some big wildfires were raging around Glenwood and one account of riding the train in from the east made it sound almost like Hinckley, Minn., 1894! I rode the original CZ to Oakland in February 1968, when one of its several discontinuance petitions was pending. A wonderful trip, regardless of the season. The Golden Spike Centennial brings back memories too. Several of us rode on Bill Kratville's "Cornhusker Club" 10-section observation from Omaha to Ogden and took in the festivities. But May 10, 1969, was a hot and dry day, with huge crowds and little food or water until we got back to Ogden. Everyone was bused in from big parking lots some distance away. One member of our group did return to Nebraska on the CZ the next day.

  • Geez Fred, I thought that was YOU that I saw at Promontory in 1969.  We both had lots more hair then.

  • Oz, I still have my red hair. Too bad about yours, Mr. Billiard Ball.


  • West of Grand Junction and East of Price, you do run into the occasional BNSF track rights freight, so somebody has to go into the siding.

  • Rode the Zephyr eastbound on 12/28/12 and had the very same problem east of Reno (frozen switches) and Grand Junction (our destination). In our case they had a broken rail near Cisco UT. On the radio I heard the dispatcher tell the engineer to pull up to the signal and relax a bit. On the radio it was stated that they were going to 'bar' the rail. After about 45 minutes we rolled through the break and on our way past a BNSF freight stuck in the siding at Cisco with a frozen switch. It was going to have to back out the siding if they couldn't get the switch cleared. 3 hours late we arrived in Grand Junction. OK for me, but a tough day for the railroaders.

  • My wife and I rode the Rio Grande Zepher in  November 1971 from Denver to Glenwood Springs.  A derailment ahead  held us up at Bond for an hour but, we didn't mind as we kept the bar tender in Silver Sky busy making drinks (only 4 people in the car).  Next day we rode it back to Denver with a whole bunch of skiers from Aspen.  The dome cars are wonderful, especially at night watching the signals in front of you turn snowy canyons green, yellow,  and red as they change. We met 4 trains (one running meet) before getting to Denver.  I will never forget turning out of Boulder canyon and seeing Denver all lit up at night.  You would have thought you were in a slow flying airplane.  Hellava ride.

    Tom Stamey

  • Glenwood Springs is one of the most beautiful stations in the US.

  • While I took a few trips west of Chicago on pre-Amtrak trains of the 1960's, I never had an oppurtunity to ride the CZ.  To partially make up for what I missed, a couple of years ago I rode Amtrak's Cal Zephyr from Chicago to Sacramento.  Obviously my trip didn't get me the WP's Feather River Route and the Superliner Sightseer Lounge doesn't have the forward view of the classic dome cars, but it was still a great trip.  

    On the plus side, the west bound morning departures from both Denver and Reno provide daylight travel through the spectacular scenery of the Front Range, Colorado Rockies, and the Donner Pass route.  A bonus-fellows travelers on my trip included several who share my interest in train, all of us headed for the same meeting.

    For my money, the CZ ranks near the top of Amtrak's routes, and since we can't go back to the past...

  • Rode the CZ all the way CHI - SFO in Feb '69 on our honeymoon. Beautiful train, wonderful trip; 1st run through the Feather River Canyon after some serious washouts.  One dinner in the diner we sat with the retired VP Motive Power of the NYNH&H talking C-Liners, o-p engines, PAs & DL-109s.  good times.

    You do better syntax and spelling with one finger than some full-time (?) professional journalists can do

    with all 10.

Thoughts while waiting for a train