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People & Events: The Burlington Zephyr

If the glory years of the Burlington Railroad began in 1934, with the Burlington Zephyr's phenomenal Dawn-to-Dusk Run, surely they culminated in 1949, with the arrival of the California Zephyr. Gliding through the Colorado Rockies, the "cruise ship on wheels" celebrated train travel, and was in turn celebrated in song by Hank Williams. Williams, however, took poetic license when he sang of "the California Zephyr, the Union Pacific Queen." The inspiration for his song truly belonged to the Burlington, two men named Budd, and to the fleet of trains that spearheaded a revolution in the railroad industry.

When Ralph Budd and Edward Budd (no relation) met in 1932, the golden age of railroads had long since faded. Ralph Budd, president of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (generally known as CB&Q, or simply Burlington), and Edward Budd, an auto body manufacturer from Philadelphia, joined forces to revive their industry and increase its revenue. Ralph Budd sought improvements in speed, efficiency, and appearance; Edward Budd brought this vision to life with his innovative use of stainless steel and streamlining.

Simultaneously, Charles Kettering of General Motors was experimenting with perfecting the diesel locomotive engine. Inspecting the efficient and reliable engine at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, Ralph Budd recognized this as the engine that would propel his lightweight train out of the gate.

By April 1934, the Burlington Zephyr -- named by Ralph Budd for Zephyrus, the god of the west wind and a symbol of rebirth -- was ready. It was unlike any train that had come before it, even the Union Pacific M-10,000 streamliner, which beat it out of the factory by two months but was not as technologically advanced. The corrugated stainless-steel exterior emphasized the machine as art, and the interior stressed efficiency: clean and simple, without the overstuffed look of Pullman cars. For the first time, aesthetics and engineering acted together, spawning the streamlined craze of the 1930s.

Ralph Budd, as savvy a marketer as an engineer, organized a publicity stunt for his train that would allow it to capture the American imagination. On May 26, 1934, the Burlington Zephyr made its Dawn-to-Dusk Run, from Denver to Chicago, breaking the record for nonstop train travel and speed.

Then the Zephyr really took off. In 1934, it starred in a Hollywood film, The Silver Streak. With a railroad president's polio-stricken son in desperate need of an iron lung, only the Silver Streak (the Zephyr's fictional name) is fast enough to make the trip to save the boy. The railroad president, who had once scoffed at the train, is forced to eat his words. The film was popular, though it didn't receive stellar reviews.

The real train was an unqualified hit. After completing a wildly successful exhibition tour of the West, the Zephyr returned to Chicago, where it was put into regular service from Lincoln to Kansas City on November 11, 1934. Renamed the Pioneer Zephyr in 1936 to celebrate its position as the first in the Burlington's new fleet, the premier streamliner was largely responsible for ridership and revenue growth over the next two years.

As more Zephyrs were built, new routes cropped up around the Midwest. With speed and economy firmly in hand, the Burlington began to seek ways of improving service. By 1941, the Burlington introduced all-female Zephyrettes, a staff of on-board hostesses, adding passenger comfort to the list of luxuries at which the Zephyrs already excelled. In 1948, the Federation for Railway Progress awarded the Burlington the Passenger Service Award for 1947.

By the 1950s, the passenger rail business was suffering an irreversible decline. From 1946 to 1965, passenger volume plummeted from 790 million to 298 million. Though retired from service 26 years to the day after its triumphant run from Denver to Chicago, the Pioneer Zephyr has long remained a shining symbol of the streamliner era. The train was presented to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago for permanent exhibition, where museum curators have restored it to its original grandeur.

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