Sunday, November 2, 2008

Profiling a song from The Unreleased Recordings: California Zephyr

Profiling a song from The Unreleased Recordings: California Zephyr

By Hank researcher Brian Turpen


            A song that Hank wrote, but never recorded commercially, “California Zephyr” was first discovered among demo recordings that Hank left with his music publisher, Acuff-Rose. It was only a vocal-guitar demo, and Acuff-Rose registered the song with the Library of Congress on December 30, 1955, almost two years after Hank’s death. The demo was overdubbed and released as MGM 12185 in February of 1956. A legit full band recording had never been heard until now.

            It is believed that Hank wrote “California Zephyr” sometime around August or September 1951. His buddy, Hank Snow, was in the charts with train songs like “Golden Rocket,” and Hank himself had scored a hit with another train song, “Pan American,” earlier in his career, so he probably thought the moment was ripe for “California Zephyr.” On his Mother’s Best radio show (issued on The Unreleased Recordings), Hank introduced the song by saying, “wrote this here a few days ago, a new song called, ‘The California Zephyr.’ Let’s ride, all aboard …” He sings it with his full band, and it’s a truly fabulous performance. 

            What many may not know is that the song was written about an actual train. In fact, the song opens a window onto an era when cross-country travel was usually by train rather than by airplane, bus, or car. That said, Hank’s lyrics weren’t entirely accurate (the train was operated by Western Pacific not Union Pacific) and Hank got the itinerary wrong.  


            This is the story of the real train called the California Zephyr. In 1949, three train companies, Denver and Rio Grande Western (D&RGW), Western Pacific, and Chicago, Burlington & Quincy joined forces to operate perhaps the best-known passenger train of all time, the California Zephyr. They’d begun talking in the late years of the Depression, but times were hard, money was short, and the plans were postponed, only to be further interrupted by the World War II. When the war was over, restrictions were lifted on non-vital materials and services, and the door opened for the creation of the California Zephyr.

Partnership agreements were reached between WP, D&RGW, and the CB&Q railroads.  The initial orders for the cars were placed with Budd Manufacturing Company.  It was decided that each train would contain five dome cars. The dome cars were the brainchild of C. R. Osborn, General Manager of GM's Electro-Motive Division while riding west in 1944.  It was also agreed that every car would be abide by CB&Q's practice of including the word “Silver” in the names of its stainless steel cars. Seventy-seven "Silver" names would eventually be used in naming the Zephyr's cars. The actual train consisted of thirteen cars (five of them dome cars).

            On Saturday, March 19th, 1949 the California Zephyr made it's only appearance in San Francisco. Situated in front of the Pier 3 Ferry building on the Embarcadero, the Zephyr proudly stood waiting for its official inauguration ceremony. As sunlight gleamed off the stainless steel cars, the ceremony began. It wasn’t Hank Williams who sang that day, it was soprano Evelyn Corvello of the Pacific Opera Company. San Francisco Mayor Leland Cutler gave a welcome address. Western Pacific President Harry A. Mitchell presented the California Zephyr to California Lieutenant Governor Goodwin Knight who accepted it "on behalf of the People of California."  Christening ceremonies were then performed by Warner Brothers Studio actress Eleanor Parker. Breaking a champagne bottle over the nose of WP F3 number 802 she declared, "I christen thee the California Zephyr."

            The next day, the California Zephyr was officially inaugurated. Service was offered between San Francisco and Chicago. Through-car service from Chicago to New York City was provided via the Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads. West bound trains would be numbered 17, while the east bound trains would be numbered 18.  The first eastbound run would begin at 9:30 am PST on the 20th of March. Thus a legend in passenger train history was born.

The weather-proof route of the California Zephyr covered 2,525 miles and took an average of 2 ½ days to complete. Although it was not the fastest route, it had the best scenery and became known as the “most talked about train in America.” A trip on the California Zephyr was aptly called, a “Vista-Dome Adventure,” a name that would appear in many advertisements for years. The CB&Q handled the train from Chicago to Denver, Colorado where it was then handed over to the D&RGW. The D&RGW would then handle it until reaching Salt Lake City, Utah where it was received by the WP for its final leg into California. Scheduling intentionally allowed passengers the most breathtaking views during daytime.  Fantastic scenes of the Feather and Colorado River; South Boulder, Red Gore and Niles Canyon and the great Rocky Mountains were seen during daylight hours, while the Nevada deserts and plains states were crossed at night. In the mountains, the train passed through a series of 47 tunnels, including the great Moffitt tunnel at 9,239 feet above sea level.  As the train passed the Sierra-Nevada, there was only a 1-degree grade down the mountains, making it a smooth ride.  In each of the 5 dome cars were 24 unreserved seats (120 total) along with an observation lounge at the end of the train.  Under each dome was a lounge.  Passengers were free to move about the train to catch a view in one of the domes, relax in one of the lounges or retire to their cabin, which had complete facilities.

            Nearly as well known as the train, were the hostesses, the “Zephyrettes.”  They were the primary point-of-contact for the passengers, and became ambassadors for the train and all it represented.  Unlike the rest of the crews, who were divided among three railroads, the Zephyrettes were unique.  There were 10 to 11 Zephyrettes on staff at any one time, with 6 on the road, 3 in each direction.

       In 1962 the California Zephyr began to show signs of becoming a serious financial liability.  Travel by rail had slowly begun a downward spiral. Airlines and bus routes had begun to make serious cuts into rail travel by offering faster or cheaper methods of transportation, though neither offered the opulence or service afforded to the rail passenger.  From 1965 to 1969, three applications to the International Commerce Commission (ICC) to terminate service of the California Zephyr were denied.  On its fourth application, the ICC released an order on February 13, 1970 stating, "operation of the train was no longer required". The death warrant for the "Silver Lady" had been signed. Final operation of the train was made on March 22, 1970 with a westbound train terminating at Oakland, California. The California Zephyr had operated for 20 years and 2 days and had pampered nearly two million passengers.

       Although the WP and CB&Q no longer operated passenger service under the banner of the California Zephyr, a remnant of the once-proud train remained while maverick D&RGW operated its Rio Grande Zephyr service between Denver and Salt Lake City into the Amtrak era. This too terminated, when D&RGW passenger services were finally handed over to Amtrak in 1983. Amtrak currently offers passenger service under the name of the California Zephyr, although it follows a modified route from the original, and in the opinion of many a purist, Amtrak's version is hardly a fitting repository for such a rich name.

       Almost all of the California Zephyr's 77 cars remain in existence today, although most have been modified by their new owners.  Some of the California Zephyr cars found themselves in the employ of Amtrak, while others went into service on railroads in Mexico and Canada. A few found themselves in museum collections to be restored, or in private ownership.

Thanks to John Wilson and Alan Radecki for information provided.

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