By Andrew Selden, Guest Commentator; December 16, 2021
In the Spring of 1970, I was 23 and in graduate school when my mother, widowed by then, asked if I might want to go to a friend’s daughter’s wedding in Santa Monica, California, along with two of my siblings. The date coincided with our spring break, late in the Minnesota winter, so it was an easy decision to make.
Those of us interested in railroads all knew that the private passenger train was nearing the end, so I asked back if we might return from California on the fabled California Zephyr (the real one). My Mother agreed, so I went to the Burlington Railroad’s downtown Minneapolis ticket office and managed to book the three Pullman Double Bedrooms in car CZ-10 on train 18, the famous dome-parlor-observation car that carried the markers for the Zephyr. With paper tickets in hand, all was set.
Except that the date of our departure turned out to be exactly one week after the final run of the fabled train. I was not interested in riding the Southern Pacific over Donner Pass, and we would be in Southern California for the wedding, so the obvious fallback was the Union Pacific’s City of Los Angeles via Ogden, Cheyenne and Omaha.
An additional benefit of the UP routing (over Santa Fe’s faster trains via Albuquerque and Kansas City) was that we could ride as far as Savanna, Illinois and change there to a Burlington Zephyr to Minneapolis, saving several hours over going all the way into Chicago and back out again. In the 1970s, I was able to ride the Rio Grande’s plucky remnant of the CZ, the Rio Grande Zephyr, perhaps two dozen times between Denver and Salt Lake City, so I did get to experience the Utah and Colorado crossing in CZ Vista Domes after all.
So with great sadness, I trooped back to the Burlington ticket office to surrender our now useless CZ tickets, booked new space on the Afternoon Zephyr from Savanna to Minneapolis, and marched around the corner to the Milwaukee Road’s downtown ticket office to book three Double Bedrooms on the UP’s City of Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Savanna. Milwaukee Road hosted the UP’s trains then between Chicago and Omaha, so acted as UP’s agent selling space on the trains.
On the appointed day in late March, 1970, we taxied to Los Angeles Union Station to board the City. Our rooms turned out to be in one of UP’s lovely 11-Bedroom Pullmans, overseen by a veteran Pullman Porter named Neal. Neal ran his car by the book and was a perfect gentleman doing it. He said he was in his last few months before retirement. We doubt he ever saw Amtrak service.
The City of Los Angeles carried both a 9000-series dome parlor-lounge car for Pullman passengers, and a dome dining car, then in its last few months of operation. UP withdrew them later that year, but Amtrak didn’t acquire them and they eventually went to Auto-Train. To describe these cars as elegant would not do them proper justice. Our little group of five practically camped out in the dome of the lounge car as we made our way out of Los Angeles, over Cajon Pass (where we saw Southern Pacific’s Colton Cutoff being built), and out into the desert, turning north at Barstow onto UP’s Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad main line to Las Vegas and Salt Lake City.
At dinnertime, we presented ourselves in the dining car, where we asked for and received seats in the dome section, rather than the elegant but still conventional lower level dining room. (The Steward never asked us again for our preference, directing us to the dome at each subsequent meal.)
The two waiters who worked the dome section used a dumbwaiter at the front of the dome to receive food from the galley and return used dishes. Each table was decked out in crisp white linens with ornate heavy flatware, glass glassware, and all the appropriate china table accessories. (We could never have imagined then what a luxury a properly-set table would become in later years.) And there was no experience quite like an elegant meal in a Vista Dome on a luxury passenger train racing across the western landscape.
Back in the dome of the lounge car after dinner, we sat mesmerized by the endless succession of signals, flipping from green to red as we raced across the desert in the gathering gloom of twilight. Just as we had grown accustomed to the darkness, with the train twisting up the rather steep climb to the little pass leading into the Las Vegas valley, we were almost blinded by the explosion of light when we crested and Las Vegas came suddenly into view.
The City stopped at the UP’s depot in downtown, bypassing all the “new” development on the Strip in Henderson, Nevada. After leaving Las Vegas, the more prudent passengers retired to their berths, but I lingered in the dome, to be rewarded by the sight of the City snaking into Ruby Canyon, with the revolving yellow light atop the lead engine flickering off the canyon walls as the headlights swept across them in the continuous curves.
I did not sleep well that night, and rose early—perhaps 4:30—to return to the dome in the lounge car, where, alone in the car, I saw a bright, large comet hanging in the sky to the east before first light.
We stopped briefly at Salt Lake City, but the long servicing stop was at Ogden, where we also added through cars from Oakland via SP, and two more diesels. At Ogden, we caught a glimpse of one of SP’s exotic and rare home-built low-profile dome lounge cars that had come in overnight on the City of San Francisco. Leaving Ogden eastward, our City train had five E8 and E9 engines pulling no fewer than 21 cars. The train was heavily patronized and the diner and lounge cars were quite crowded all that day and the next. We crested the Continental Divide on Sherman Hill after dark.
The next morning, we were enjoying our trip’s second breakfast in the dome, leaving Omaha an hour late, and only slightly concerned about our connection in Savanna (if we missed the Afternoon Zephyr, we could always have dinner in town and catch the overnight Blackhawk to Minneapolis). In the event, we made the connection handily. Two taxies ferried our family group across town from the Milwaukee Road station to the Burlington’s. Soon the Zephyr appeared, actually the combined “Pool Train” with three stainless steel Burlington cars making up the Zephyr section, and the Empire Builder and North Coast Limited sections following. The pool train split up in St. Paul, but until then the three constituent trains carried two dining cars, three café cars, and more Vista Domes than could be easily counted. The Afternoon Zephyr’s last nine miles to Minneapolis usually had four or five Burlington E8s pulling just those three Q cars from St. Paul, for a very impressive ratio of horsepower to trailing tonnage.
The trip was a wonderful farewell glimpse of railroading in the hands of rail carriers who understood how to do it right, and cared enough to make it happen. Every trip, on every train. Today, the Milwaukee Road no longer exists, and its line from Omaha to Savanna is a bike trail. UP and BN (and BNSF) are out of the intercity business, beyond being landlords to the Federalized and sadly diminished trains of Amtrak (both also host substantial commuter operations run by others at various places on their systems). My trip on the City of Los Angeles 50 years ago was a fitting and delightful way to close out an era in our country’s history.