POSITIONED JUST SO, with the BMW behind me, I wait for the UP freight to wind down the canyon and through the series of tunnels. Its approach is announced well before its arrival by the high pitched singing of its chorus of brakes. Steel flanged wheels twisted slightly against the teed rim of the equally steel rails…
…A BOBBING HEADLIGHT first. Then, out of the darkness, the silver and orange loco, b-unit and loco.
It’s the Zephyr! The California Zephyr! Look Dad! Look Mom!
|(c) Robert Morris Photography|
The Feather River Route was finally opened in 1909, following the inscriptions of a black Virginia trapper and mountain man name of Jim Beckworth. Beckworth had grown up in the Shenandoah Valley and as young twenty-something, left for the adventures and that promise of the west. This was before the west was tamed enough to suggest a black mountain man was any different or any less deserving, or intelligent or savvy survival-wise, or any less insightful than a mountain man of some other pigmentation.
Scaling a mere 6800 feet, the Beckworth Pass Route was the one that should have been opened to rail traffic first, but the Big Four wouldn’t hear of it. Their hardware business was grounded in Sacramento, not Oroville or Chico. Thus, the Beckworth / Keddie Route (William Keddie was a planner for the WP) was opened fastest, but opened last - an ironic tribute to the stubbornness of the moneyed.
The Chicago and Northwestern now owned the eastern third. The Denver and Rio Grande had the middle. And the WP took the scenic final run from about the Utah / Nevada line across the desert and down this splendid canyon.
|(c) Robert Morris Photography|
This was the Zephyr. A shining tribute to man’s artful triumph over the power and solidity of nature. Shimmering in the mid-canyon sun, the Zephyr awaiting a still photo op.
Mom and dad had stopped along the river to catch a gleaming glance.
We didn’t hear the roar of the Electro Motive Division diesel-electric FP-7s [built by General Motors – yes, that General Motors], just the singing of those brakes and the rumble of those wheels as each passed over randomly spaced joints in the rails. And the occasional bawl of its whistle as it entered a tunnel.
Dad held his Kodak Signet at the ready.
Seven or eight stainless coaches traced the far canyon wall. Two or three of them sporting observation domes. “CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR” was scripted on the side of each coach: “CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR.” “CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR.” “CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR.”
“Dad?” I asked, “What’s zephyr mean?”
Dad was snapping closed the leather case on the Signet. “I think it means breeze.”
THE BREEZE SLIPPED down the canyon and, by 1970, was gone.
Jim Beckworth blazed quite a trail across North America during his days as a trapper and explorer. Starting from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, traces of his life can be seen in museums throughout the west. Some details may be found in many places on the web including: www.d11.org/bristol/Bristol_Wall/1860/front_1860_beckwth.htm and www.historycentral.com/Bio/ant/beckwourth.html
Robert Morris Photography offers a collection of vintage (like from when I was a kid) and current railroad shots. His collection of stunning photographs capture the marriage of grace and power that is railroading. His work is available for purchase through http://www.snowcrest.net/photobob/
The Western Pacific Railroad Historical Society and Feather River Rail Society maintain the fabulous Western Pacific Railroad Museum in Portola, California. Easily visible from State Route 70, the museum has a collection of memorabilia and rolling stock and (get this!) at the WPRM they will actually rent you a locomotive to drive!!! The Church of the Open Road intends to do this and will report back. The WPRHS may be found on-line at http://www.wplives.org/
Holmes, Norman W., My Western Pacific, Steel Rails West Publishing, Reno, Nevada, 1996. Holmes takes a look at the WP from the unique perspective of one of the Feather River Route's engineers.
Zimmerman, Karl R., CZ: The Story of the California Zephyr, Quadrant Press, New York, 1972, 1996. Zimmerman recounts the history of what was once America's most romantic journey with text, photos and diagrams of rolling stock.
© 2005, 2011
Church of the Open Road Press