Today, a silver streak. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
The year 1934 was when modern commercial airliners finally
took form with their retractable landing gears, aluminum skins, and improved engines.
Several companies build such planes and one, the DC-2, was the forerunner of the
DC-3, which forever changed air travel.
By then, our huge country had been connected, coast-to-coast by rail for 65 years and
crossing the country was generally a trip that took several days. Nineteen years later,
I spent four hard days and three nights on a train from Seattle to Richmond.
Four years earlier, our 24-million new automobiles were already bringing the railroads
under threat while airplanes were still an ignorable part of travel. The DC-3 was not
yet on any horizon; so four companies, including GM and the Burlington & Quincy Railroad,
joined to build a train for the future. They called it the Zephyr. When it was
unveiled in 1934, it was to rail what DC-3s would be to flight.
It was made of gleaming stainless steel and author Margaret Coel rightly likens it to
Buck Rogers' rocket. Modern design was just moving from Art Deco to Streamlining, and
the Zephyr helped lead the charge. Boss Kettering
of GM oversaw the development of a radical "two-cycle" (that is literally a two stroke)
Diesel engine to replace bulky steam engines.
The train was a beautiful thing by any measure, and its unveiling lived up to its
appearance. It left the factory on April 7th and headed for its maiden trip on May --
26th a never-before-attempted, nonstop, dawn-to-dusk run from Denver to Chicago.
As the day approached, requests poured in for tickets. The 86 passengers on the short
train included a burro named Zeph to represent Colorado transportation from another age.
Movie stars and poli-ticians had to be turned away, but fifty thousand visitors got to
tour the train during a brief two days before the run.
Then the trip itself; The Zephyr set records that've never been beaten. It made
the 1015-mile run in 14-1/4 hours and it averaged almost 78 miles an hour. Margaret Coel
reports that Diesel fuel for the entire trip cost less than seventeen dollars. Of course,
that was during the Depression, and Diesel fuel cost only around four cents a gallon.
Eight more such trains were built upon the Zephyr archetype. And the original
Zephyr ran for 25 years before it finally retired in 1959. By then it'd traveled
more than 3,200,000 miles between Kansas City and Chicago, and the first jet airplanes were
transforming American travel. They were moving us off the rails and into the sky.
The Zephyr's fate was being sealed even as it made that first incredible run to
Chicago; but you can still see it today. There in the Chicago Museum of Science and
Industry the Zephyr sits -- huge, gleaming, and as likely to take one's breath
away as it was in Denver, some four-score years before.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
M. Coel, A Silver Streak. American Inventions: A Chronicle of Achievements that Changed
the World (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1995) pp. 110-117.
As a matter of interest, the 1976 Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor movie Silver Streak was
set on a later train, but the title paid homage to the Zephyr's nickname as well as
to the 1934 movie The Silver Streak, which was about the Zephyr itself.
I took the photos below at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. The image in the
text above is taken from one of my cherished coffee cups.
The luxurious rear observation car of the Zephyr