Profiling a song from The Unreleased Recordings:
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
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,
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).
The next day, the California Zephyr was officially inaugurated. Service was offered between
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
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
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
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
Thanks to John Wilson and Alan Radecki for information provided.