Friday, May 20, 2011



[2005] 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
Starting in Chicago, who knows how many days ago, this silver snake has crossed the northern plains of the Dakotas, the Colorado Rockies, the beastly intermountain basin of a barren Nevada and up over the Beckworth Summit to find its way into a sublime Feather River Canyon, seeking Oakland and the Pacific shore and the promise that is California.

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.
Beckworth followed his nose over the Sierra finding a low pass that would have been much more merciful than the one chosen by the Donners some forty years before. More merciful, also, than the route mapped by Theodore Judah for Huntington, Stanford, Hopkins and Crocker and consummated at their meeting in Dutch Flat, California in 1862 – the route to be carved by the Central Pacific at the cost of the lives of thousands of Chinese and, in the end, old Ted Judah his-own-self.

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
So today, one 1963 day, this aluminum clad marriage of technology and grace spirited Midwesterners three quarters of the way across the country in a matter of days.

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.

I waved at the engineer, or the brakeman or the fireman, or whoever it was whose elbow caught the breeze out the window of the open locomotive and had lifted a hand to wave back. Then I waved at the lucky people who had paid their fare and were dining or drinking or just looking out the coach window back at those of us who’d pulled off the highway to look at them. Like an attraction at a zoo with iron rails instead of iron bars.

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: and

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

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


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


  1. Tom Carter of the railroad museum offered a correction regarding the manufacturer of the Zephyr's power units and adds: "I think it fitting that they were made in the same family as the "Cadillac" as they rode like them."

    Thanks, Tom.

  2. A great, informative read! I especially liked the stuff on Beckworth. I love historical tidbits like that! Anyway, just last week my friend (a photojournalist) posted some excellent pics on Facebook from his recent trip on the along the old Zephyr route out of Chicago. Since he enjoyd it so much, I decided to do some research and found this great post. Thanks!

  3. Natalie: How might we hook into his photos?

  4. One of my great adventures as a little boy was a ride with Grandma and my brother on the final leg - Sacramento to Oakland. Our family movie taken from behind the wheel of the Desoto on the highway as Dad raced the Zephyr where the track ran adjacent. Very grateful that Dad made a visual record of so many memories. Big thanks Brilliant for bringing the memories back.

  5. Thanks Dave for taking me on a nice little trip today. There's a nice little zephyr accompanying me today :)