The Dome-Buffet

Second only to the observation car, the dome-buffet car was one of the most elaborate cars on the California Zephyr. In front of the dome–the short end of the car–were tables and seats for 19 people, plus two small restrooms. The photo below shows murals carved in linoleum by Pierre Bourdelle, who also did the murals at the steward’s station in the dining cars.

Click image for a larger view.

Under the dome was tables and chairs for six more people, plus one chair without a table, giving the lounge a total of 26 non-revenue seats. The rest of the space under the dome was used for a bar and small kitchen for making light meals such as sandwiches and soups.

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Dining Aboard the California Zephyr

The California Zephyrs each had a stewardess known as a Zephyrette who assisted mothers and children, made train announcements, and took reservations for the diner. As explained in the Zephyrette manual, there was a specific procedure for those reservations. Unusual for rail service, passengers had a choice of three different kinds of dinners in the diner.

While her seatmate looks on dubiously, a California Zephyr passenger receives a dining car reservation card from a Zephyrette. Click image for a larger view.

First, early dinners were offered for passengers who wanted to save a little money. Starting at 4:15 pm (except the first night on the westbound train, which left Chicago too late to have a 4:15 service) and repeated at 5:00 pm, the early dinner offered limited selection but a full-meal price of just $1.10 (in 1950), compared with $1.65 (for ham and eggs) to nearly $4 (for a tenderloin steak) at the later seatings.

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The Classic Train of Our Time

In about 1980, Passenger Train Journal called the California Zephyr “the classic train of our time” even though the Chicago-Oakland train had stopped running a decade before. What made the CZ special was that, as one ad said, it was the first transcontinental train “designed and timed [more] for sightseeing” than for getting from one place to another. While only the third train to have dome cars, it was the first to travel through scenery that truly deserved dome cars.

When the California Zephyr began running in 1949, the City of San Francisco was still on a 39-3/4-hour schedule aimed at attracting business travelers. The California Zephyr required 10-1/2 hours more, so rather than compete with the City on time, the Cal Zephyr competed on scenery: it was timed so that passengers could see the best scenery in Colorado, Utah, and California in daylight, while they slept through the relatively boring parts across Nevada and the Great Plains. The domeless City train, by comparison, crossed relatively desolate southern Wyoming during daylight hours and went over the scenic Sierra Nevada at night.

Click image to download a 2.0-MB PDF of this 20-page brochure.

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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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