Railroad Stories: Child Was Train Enthusiast

Became train enthusiast as a child.

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The train was called the Silver Streak. Its first locomotives were called the Silver King, Silver Queen, Silver Knight and Silver Princess. Later locomotives were called the Silver Bullet, Silver Comet, Silver Clipper and a veritable host of other "Silvers." It was, of course, the Burlington Zephyr. And I was a train enthusiast!

During the mid-1930s, one of the highlights of my young life was to ride my new bike down to the embankment that overlooked the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad Co. tracks to watch those silver trains streak by. I wasn't alone. Sometimes it seemed as if the whole town of Rochelle, Ill, was there. We sat in the sun on green grass in the summer, or stood in the grayness of winter snow, waiting for the distant rumble. We leaned forward breathlessly to be the first to catch sight of the magnificent, eerily quiet, streamlined marvel.

The railroad was founded in 1849 as the Aurora Branch Railroad. Gradually it ranged farther and farther afield from Aurora, Ill., reaching Quincy, Ill., and then Burlington, Iowa. Its headquarters remained in Aurora into the last quarter of this century as it covered much of the midwest, competing with the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad.

The first diesel-powered stainless steel locomotive in America was built for the CB&Q by the E.G. Budd Manufacturing Co. of Philadelphia. It made its first run April 9, 1934, to Perkiomen Junction and returned to Philadelphia. On April 18th, at the Broad Street Station in Philadelphia, it was christened the "Burlington Zephyr."

The origin of the name is interesting. It was taken from Geoffrey Chaucer's Prologue to "The Canterbury Tales" written in the 14th century. A modern English translation by J.J. Nicolson in 1934, goes like this:

When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower; when
Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,
Quickened again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and buds, and ...

The Silver Streak made history May 26, 1934, when it ran nonstop from Denver to Chicago, a distance of 1,015.4 miles, in 13 hours, 5 minutes and 44 seconds. This cut the normal time almost exactly in half and bested the previous record of 58 mph for a 401-mile run set by the Royal Scot on the London to Edinburgh run in 1928.

Fourteen trainmen crewed the train. There were three engineers, four pilots, four road foremen, a conductor, a dining car inspector and a radioman. They reached a top speed of 112.5 mph during a three-mile stretch from Yuma to Schramm, Colo. The average speed for the run was 79.1 mph. A total of 418 gallons of diesel fuel was consumed, at four cents per gallon, for a total cost of $16.72.

The track for the entire thousand miles was guarded by local law enforcement officers, the American Legion and the Boy Scouts. All other trains were side-tracked. The switches were all spiked to prevent tampering. Flagmen cleared every road crossing from Denver to Chicago.

After its arrival at the Halsted Street Station in Chicago, it wound its way over city tracks to Chicago's lake front and the Century of Progress World's Fair, then in its second year.

During the long reign of the Silver Streak, up to 1968, about 225 Zephyrs were manufactured and put into service. But the ones I remember, are those I saw during the Depression years when I waited eagerly for them to purr through my town.

Birney Dibble
Eau Claire, Wis.

Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.