The New California Zephyrs Are On The Way

After the Twin Zephyrs and the Colorado Eagle, the next great–some would say the greatest–domeliner to hit the rails was the California Zephyr. This train followed the route of the Exposition Flyer, a train that began running in 1939, the year of the Golden Gate International Exposition, after which the train was named.

The Flyer was operated by three railroads: the Burlington from Chicago to Denver; the Denver & Rio Grande Western from Denver to Salt Lake City; and the Western Pacific from Salt Lake City to Oakland. The Rio Grande and Western Pacific had a shared history, as the latter was financed and built by the former when it was under the control of George Gould.

Click image to download a 5.0-MB PDF of this brochure advertising the Exposition Flyer and announcing the California Zephyr.

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The Colorado Eagle

I was surprised to learn that the second train, after the Twin Zephyrs, to feature a dome car in regularly scheduled service was the relatively little-known Colorado Eagle. I don’t have any memorabilia for this train, and it doesn’t seem like many other people do either.

The Colorado Eagle between Pueblo and Denver. Click image for a larger view.

Patrick Dorin’s book, The Domeliners, covers the Eagles in chapter 10, well after chapters about trains that only acquired domes several years later, such as the Empire Builder and North Coast Limited. Karl Zimmerman’s book, Domeliners, barely mentions the Colorado Eagle and has only a couple of photos of the dome cars used later on the Texas Eagle. Though Zimmermann’s book is full of images of memorabilia, there are none of the Eagles.

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Dome Car Chronology

The domeliner–a streamlined train with domecars–was the pinnacle of passenger train development. The railroads tried several new ideas after domes were developed, but only one of them–the Santa Fe hi-level cars–was successful. I’ll always feel that riding in a dome car was the most elegant form of land-based travel ever devised.

The Baltimore & Ohio was the first railroad to operate dome cars east of Chicago.

Yet dome cars were built for only about thirty trains. As rail patronage dropped off in the late 1950s and early 1960s, many railroads sold their dome cars, so another dozen or so trains became domeliners for a short time. Still, only a tiny minority of pre-Amtrak passenger trains ever operated with dome cars in the United States and Canada.

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Aboard the Vista-Dome Twin Zephyr

Click image to download a PDF of this postcard.

The Burlington gave passengers this and similar postcards to mail to their friends. “Morning and afternoon in each direction the new Diesel-powered, stainless steel, TWIN ZEPHYRS featuring the unique VISTA DOME cars, flash along the scenic Mississippi River route between Chicago and St. Paul-Minneapolis,” says the back of the card.

Click image to download a PDF of this letterhead. Click here to download a PDF of the matching envelope.

First-class passengers in the parlor-observation car also had access to this stationery, which was similar to stationery on the Burlington’s many other Zephyrs.

The Vista-Dome Twin Zephyrs

As an indication of its enthusiasm for dome cars, in 1947 the Burlington completely re-equipped the Twin Cities Zephyrs with a new dome-car train. Each train consisted of a baggage-club-lounge car, four dome coaches, a diner, and a dome-parlor-observation car that included a private drawing room with five seats. For some reason, the Burlington was never interested in dome diners or dome sleepers (not that the Twin Zephyrs needed sleeping cars).

Click image to download a 2.0-MB PDF of this brochure.

The dome coaches seated 54 people on the main level, plus of course 24 in the dome. The bulkheads in front of the domes featured murals of historical scenes by Philadelphia artist Kathryn Fligg who, among other things, also illustrated books. The dome-parlor car was for first-class passengers and was sometimes supplemented by a flat-topped parlor car that ran between the diner and the observation car. The flat-glass domes (sometimes called pattern domes) Silver Dome and Silver Castle also sometimes were used on the Twin Zephyrs.

The new train entered service in December 1947, while the old Twin Zephyrs were bumped into duty as the Nebraska Zephyr (now often powered by an E5 locomotive instead of the original shovel-nosed locomotive) between Chicago and Omaha/Lincoln. One of these Nebraska Zephyr‘s still exists in the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, Illinois.

Advertising the Train of Tomorrow

Click image for larger view.

Even though it never sold a single ticket to ride the train, General Motors advertised the Train of Tomorrow in numerous magazines. The above ad was on the back cover of the September, 1947, issue of Boys Life magazine. Slightly different ads appeared in other magazines. They all urged readers to watch their newspapers for when the Train of Tomorrow would be on display in their city.

General Motors also distributed this newsreel footage of the train. The advertising must have worked: nearly 6 million people walked through the train on the tour, which lasted nearly two-and-one-half years and only ended on October 30, 1949.

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Touring with the Train of Tomorrow

After taking delivery of the Train of Tomorrow from Pullman, General Motors sent the train on a 65,000-mile tour of the continent. Starting in Chicago, the train first took a shake-down and publicity cruise to French Lick, Indiana, where reporters, General Motors and Pullman executives, and other guests spent the night at the French Lick Springs Hotel before returning to Chicago the next day.

Train of Tomorrow in French Lick, Indiana.

On May 28, the train was officially christened with a bottle of champagne at Soldier Field by Jane Kettering, granddaughter of retiring General Motors research head C. F. Kettering.

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The General Motors Train of Tomorrow

To promote its new E7 passenger locomotive, General Motors took the unusual–for a locomotive manufacturer–step of ordering four dome cars from Pullman: a dome coach, dome diner, dome sleeper, and dome lounge. Completed in May, 1947, the cars and matching locomotive were painted an unusual shade of blue, with stainless steel fluted panels bolted on to give the train an added taste of modernity. General Motors called it the Train of Tomorrow and sent it on a tour throughout the nation.

General Motors staged this photo of the Train of Tomorrow near Lake Orion, Michigan.

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Publicizing the First Dome Car

In addition to the brochure presented yesterday, the Burlington distributed thousands of copies of this postcard showing the new Silver Dome car. “In this new type of car,” says the back of the card, “24 passengers are seated in the Vista Dome, a laminated, heat and ray-resisting glass penthouse.”

Click image to download a PDF of the front and back of this postcard advertising the Silver Dome.

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The First Dome Car

In 1944, Cyrus Osborn, a General Motors vice president in charge of its Electro-Motive Division that built Diesel locomotives, rode in the cab of a Rio Grande Diesel through Glenwood Canyon in Colorado. “If the traveling public only knew what they could see from the operating cab of a Diesel locomotive or caboose of a freight train,” he remarked afterwards, “the railroads could sell seats in these two places at $500 apiece and always keep them full.” That night, on stationery from the Hotel Utah, he sketched an idea for the first modern dome car that would offer a view even better than from a locomotive cab: a car with a bubble on top giving passengers 360-degree views of the landscape.

“A monument to an idea.” The Rio Grande Railroad erected this memorial in Glenwood Canyon, where Osborn first conceived the modern dome car, in 1950. When Interstate 70 was expanded in this location, the monument was moved to the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden, where it can still be seen today. Click image for a larger view of this postcard, which shows the Alco PA-powered California Zephyr, with its five dome cars, in the background.

Osborn shared his idea with other railway executives, and Ralph Budd of the Burlington immediately told his mechanical chief to cut a hole in the top of the next Budd-built coach to go through the railroad’s shops and put a dome in it. The car happened to be called “Silver Alchemy,” but after the dome was installed, it was renamed “Silver Dome.” The railroad introduced it to the public in 1945.

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