History come alive

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, August 1, 2019

A couple of decades ago, a friend of mine named John William Schultz set out to chronicle the Burlington Route’s lengthy list of Zephyr streamliners. And chronicle them he did, in a manuscript so massive that no book publisher he approached would undertake the challenge of printing it. This has bothered me over the years, because Bill, as I called him, had written a masterpiece. You can forget the books you own about the Hiawathas, the 400s, the Century, the Chiefs and everything else. Burlington Zephyrs stood above these other train biographies like Jawn Henry in its scholarly breadth, sweeping prose and exquisite detail. But you don’t have to believe me, because recently Burlington Bulletin, the irregular publication of the Burlington Route Historical Society, has published a piece of Schultz’s towering achievement.

It’s called “Overnight, Every Night,” the story of Burlington’s Denver Zephyr. This is but one chapter of Burlington Zephyrs, but just to bring it into print the Bulletin gave over two complete issues totaling almost 350 pages (and weighing just under three pounds).

You may suppose that the California Zephyr was the apple of the Burlington’s eye, its Super Chief. Nope, not so. The Denver Zephyr was this railroad’s favorite child, and it acted the part for 35 years—a wildly successful train in both popularity and operational profitability almost to the very end in 1971.

The DZ came in two editions, starting with the shovel-nosed, articulated streamliner that debuted in 1936 with 11 cars and a revenue capacity of 102 in coach and 119 in sleepers. The permanently coupled trainset quickly proved inadequate to demand, because the smaller Mark Twain Zephyr train soon became a second section between Chicago and Burlington, Iowa. Then the Q began “augmenting” (its term for expanding) the main train with extra coaches and food-service cars on the front of the train.

As the two trainsets neared the start of their third decade (and Union Pacific reequipped the rival City of Denver), Burlington went back to the Budd Company for a completely new Denver Zephyr, which made maiden runs at the end of 1956. At 14 cars (including four that went on to Colorado Springs via the Denver & Rio Grande Western), it too caught the fancy of the traveling public. But not being permanently coupled, its consist could be enlarged at will, and by then Burlington also had the streamlined resources to run second sections, which became a frequent seasonal event right into the late 1960s. In fact, the train eventually became something of a victim of its own success, swelling to such size that double stops to entrain and detrain passengers began to destroy the reliability of the schedules. Trainmen began using walkie-talkies in 1963 to hold station delays to a bare minimum.

The author tells the story of this fabled train lovingly and thoroughly, often relying on internal company memos and letters. There are hundreds of photos, scads of menus and scores of actual train consists. In that last category, a favorite of mine is the description of the two sections that left Denver on November 2, 1963, with a total of 41 cars, including 22 coaches and a round-end Great Northern sleeper-obs on the rear of the second section.

Is there anything I don’t applaud about “Overnight, Every Night”? Yes, that the world can now marvel at this slice of Schultz’s scholarship but not the whole loaf of Burlington Zephyrs. In the digital era, the railroad book business remains surprisingly brisk, but still no publishing company has the courage to take on this fabulous manuscript in its entirety. Moreover, it’s safe to say that that Bill didn’t realize a penny from publication of “Overnight, Every Night.” This should embarrass all of us.

To possess your own copies of this labor of love, go here and order Bulletins 50 and 55. They will set you back $95 plus shipping, but when you get to the final page you will, like me, consider it a bargain and be hungry for the rest of what the author has written.—Fred W. Frailey


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