Curator Interview: Mike Sarna
Mike Sarna is the curator of the Pioneer Zephyr exhibit, which displays a restored streamliner train at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. He describes what makes these trains so special.
Of all the Zephyr's attributes -- looks, speed, novelty -- what do you think captivated the public the most?
The Zephyr was science fiction brought to life. How we looked at the space shuttle taking off for the first time is comparable to the Pioneer Zephyr.
From the aspect of design it looked like no other train in existence. The interior was also designed differently. Gone were the oppressive velvet benches and wood paneling. It was replaced with soothing pastel colors and new materials. Indirect lighting ensured riders did not stare at ugly bare bulbs, and air conditioning kept out the dust and dirt.
But hey, let's face it: the train was about technology. It was the first diesel electric in regular operating service. It was fast, efficient, and could travel long distances without fueling. Travel that normally took two days was cut in half.
When Ralph Budd saw General Motors' new lightweight diesel engines at the 1933 Century of Progress, he approached GM for one. Less than a year later, the Zephyr opened the second year of the Century of Progress.
How was the museum built around the train?
The new portion of the museum in which the train is housed was nearly completed before the train was put into place. The Zephyr is underground -- three stories, in fact. A small section of the roof which is now covered by our front lawn was left open. The three-car train was lifted in sections by a 17-story crane and lowered through the hole in the roof. The Zephyr is articulated and shares trucks or wheels. The locomotive was lowered first onto some temporary tracks and pulled forward by a forklift. The second section came down and was attached to the locomotive, and finally the observation car was lowered. For a few months the train was covered in a plywood cocoon with temporary heat pumped in while the ceiling and the rest of the building were completed.
What is the reaction of visitors to the Pioneer Zephyr exhibit?
Our visitors love the exhibit. Our approach was to create an experience that would immerse the guest in the topic -- not just explain the stats of the train, but put people on the record-breaking run from Denver to Chicago.
We have a hydraulic rocker on one of the cars so it feels as if you're traveling by rail, and as you pass between cars, sound effects make it feel as if you're traveling down the tracks. We also have rear projection screens that double as the train's windows, which make it appear like the train is moving. Visitors also encounter animatronic figures who talk about the record-breaking run. You get to hear from Ralph Budd, the president of the Burlington Route, or "Zeph," a talking burro, who was the mascot of the train. You can even use your knowledge to drive a simulation of the train in our virtual cab.
Historical exhibits tell the history of the record breaker through videos and archival photographs. You can also see how the Zephyr fits in with the whole streamlining craze. We have on display all types of unnecessarily streamlined devices that made people of the 1930s feel as if their appliances were more efficient -- streamlined toasters, coffee pots, and even a streamlined sprinkler!
How do reactions between young and old differ?
I have to admit that the train's mascot, Zeph, is the hit for young and old alike. The animatronic burro -- with attitude, I might add -- tells a great yarn about the record-breaking run and how he became the mascot. Ralph Budd, when asked if a "Rocky Mountain canary" or Denver burro be added for luck, said, "One more jackass on this train won't make a difference."
Was it difficult to refurbish the train?
It took three years and a lot of research to get the train in its present state. The restoration plan was a short novel at 60 pages. We had scientific paint analysis done to duplicate original colors, and traveled to Philadelphia and the Budd Company archives to duplicate the original drawings so that we could remake missing parts. The train was basically dissembled, cleaned, and put back together. We took advantage of this and rewired the train so that it could handle the extensive show that you see today. That meant hiding air-handling systems that control temperature and humidity, electrical and air lines for the animatronics. Now you know why the restoration took three years!
What are some of the most popular questions people ask?
"Why is it called the Pioneer Zephyr?" Well, Zephyr is from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales that Ralph Budd read. Zephyrus was the god of the west wind. The slogan for the Burlington Route at the time was "Everywhere West," which was their route -- Chicago to the West. When other Zephyrs were commissioned, the first was renamed the Pioneer, hence Pioneer Zephyr.
People also love to know what food was served on the train. The Zephyr had what was called the Buffet Grill, where you could order all types of grilled sandwiches finished off with ice cream.
And since it is a record breaker, people are always interested in how fast it went. One hundred twelve and a half m.p.h. was the top speed of the Zephyr.
Do you ride trains yourself?
I ride trains all the time. I take our city's efficient elevated train about town. I also travel from time to time on the Zephyr's original route to visit my parents. The original record-breaking run was from Denver to Chicago. Eventually the Zephyr traveled from Nebraska to Chicago. Regardless, as the train neared Chicago, on either route, it traveled through Aurora, Illinois, and into the city. My parents live in a town in between Aurora and Chicago, so when I take the train to visit them, I travel on that original route.
As you can guess, I'm a train fanatic. I also am on the team to build a new model railroad for the Museum of Science and Industry. I have traveled on trains and visited train yards all across the Midwest. My favorite is visiting hump yards. A hump yard is sort of like a switching yard. Trains come in from around the country and are recombined to form new trains that ship raw materials and freight. It's called a hump yard because the cars are essentially pushed over a hump and roll down a hill into what's called the bowl. They are switched in the bowl (all done by computer in the control tower) to make up new trains that are pulled by locomotives out of the bowl. It's a pretty active and loud place as cars are humped. You see them rolling independently into the bowl where they are slowed and then recoupled. Tank cars that contain liquids are generally not humped but routed around the bowl and added later to the trains.
What is it like being the curator of a historic train?
I have worked at the world's greatest museum, the Museum of Science and Industry, for over seven years, three of which I worked to conserve and interpret the Zephyr.
Many people see this train as a relic of the past, but I see it as a bright beacon of the future. With soaring energy costs and the emergence of new high speed rail in the United States, the Zephyr is an example of how innovation improves our everyday lives.
I am proud to be able to communicate our nation's technological heritage to our visitors. I have been in the museum business for nearly 15 years, and no exhibit has surpassed this one. It's huge, it's real, and it's fun.