A Silver Streak
The Zephyr brought new life to railroading in the thirties, introducing diesel power, lightweight construction, and streamlining
At 5:04:40 on Saturday morning, May 26, 1934, the first diesel-powered, stainless-steel, streamlined train pulled out of Union Station, Denver, on a dawn-to-dusk race for Chicago. Called the Zephyr, it had been delivered to the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad in Philadelphia just six weeks earlier and had traveled west in a series of short trips. To reach Chicago before sunset, it had to cover 1,015 miles nonstop in less than fourteen hours. No train in railroad history had run more than 775 miles nonstop, and the Burlington’s crack passenger train, the steam-powered Aristocrat, took twenty-seven hours from Denver to Chicago. Newspapers called the Zephyr’s race “chancy.”
Sleek and shiny in the early morning sun, the Zephyr looked like a rocket in a Buck Rogers cartoon. Its technology, as novel as its appearance, had been developed over the previous three years, the result of major breakthroughs both in metallurgy and in the design of the diesel engine. Such breakthroughs had seemed so unlikely as the thirties got under way that most railroad officials had assumed high-speed, diesel-powered trains were “decades and millions of dollars away.”
Four industrial leaders of the day had set out to develop and manufacture the revolutionary train. They were: Ralph Budd, president of the Burlington; Edward G. Budd, founder of the Philadelphia auto-body plant that bore his name (the two Budds were not related); Harold L. Hamilton, president of the Electro-Motive Corporation, a division of General Motors; and Charles Kettering, research vice-president of General Motors. With the nation in the grip of the Depression, these capitalists were betting that the Zephyr would win its race to Chicago, lure passengers back to the railroads, open new markets for stainless-steel and diesel engines, and reverse the downward slide their corporate profits had been taking since the Crash of 1929.
Shoring up profits at the Burlington took top priority for Ralph Budd, the man who ordered the Zephyr. Genial and soft-spoken, with wire-rimmed glasses, the fifty-two-year-old Budd had taken the helm of the Burlington in 1932 after an apprenticeship as the boy wonder of the railroad industry. Born on a farm in Iowa in 1879, he had raced through high school and college in six years, earning a civil engineering degree from Highland Park College in Des Moines. After a decade in the engineering departments of Midwestern railroads controlled by James J. Hill, Budd was tapped to be Hill’s assistant and chief engineer on the Great Northern Railroad. In 1919, at the age of forty, he succeeded Hill as the railroad’s president.
By the time Budd moved to the Burlington, the Depression had brought the nation’s trains almost to a standstill. Long lines of empty cars and coaches rusted in the railyards as annual freight revenues dipped to two billion dollars, half the amount of a decade earlier. The number of passengers on the Burlington alone declined from eighteen million annually to seven million.
The decline in passengers could not be laid wholly at the feet of the Depression, however. By 1930 Americans were driving twenty-four million motor vehicles over 920,000 miles of improved roads. While most Americans still preferred trains for cross-country trips, they drove their automobiles on shorter jaunts, putting the railroads in a bind. As Ralph Budd explained, railroads had to continue running trains on short routes to handle mail and baggage “whether or not anyone rides the trains.” At the same time, steam locomotives were becoming more and more expensive to operate. With fuel prices rising, they gobbled enormous quantities of coal and oil. Weighing 250 tons apiece and thundering down the track at sixty miles per hour, they destroyed both rails and themselves. The result: costly repairs and unproductive time in the shops.
In the mid-1920s, railroads tried to cut operating costs on short routes and lure back passengers with railcars—self-propelled single cars. By 1930 six hundred railcars were at work on the nation’s railroads, fifty-five of them on the Burlington. The majority were designed by Cleveland’s Electro-Motive Corporation, the engineering firm that Harold Hamilton had founded in 1922. Hamilton, a Californian, had started in the railroad business as a callboy on the Southern Pacific and moved up quickly to locomotive engineer. Still ambitious, he had hired a retired Berkeley professor to tutor him in mathematics. Eventually he became a motor-truck salesman, gaining experience that later allowed him to design railcars with features from both the automotive and railroad industries.
What the railroads needed, Budd concluded, was a fast, luxurious, ultramodern train.
Hamilton was the first person to put the internal-combustion engine in a railcar. The gasoline-fueled engine ran an electrical generator, which in turn produced electricity to drive traction motors and provide an electric transmission, thereby eliminating mechanical gears and making the railcar easy to operate.
Despite the railroads’ hopes for railcars, the traveling public still preferred automobiles. With 275-horsepower engines, railcars lumbered along at about forty miles per hour. By the late 1920s, the railcars had become about as costly to operate as steam-powered trains and weren’t any more popular.
As long as freight business increased during the 1920s, railroads absorbed the loss in passenger revenues. But when freight revenues fell with the Depression, railroads started casting about for ways to bring Americans back to the trains. As Ralph Budd observed, “People were still traveling in the Depression, but not by train.”
What the railroads needed, Budd concluded, was a new kind of train, an expanded railcar that was fast, convenient, ultramodern, and luxurious enough to fire the public imagination. To operate economically, it would have to be lightweight yet capable of hauling a maximum amount of “pay weight.” The Burlington had just the route for such a train: the 250-mile stretch between Kansas City and Lincoln, Nebraska. The route had been nearly deserted by passengers, yet a train made the round trip every day, carrying mail and baggage.
Just as Ralph Budd was reaching this conclusion, the Edward G. Budd Manufacturing Company began constructing a lightweight, stainless-steel railcar. With automobile-body orders down, the company president was counting on the railcar for new business. Born in Delaware in 1870, Edward Budd had started out as a machinist’s apprentice in 1887. Twenty-five years later he was president of his own auto-body manufacturing company. By 1932 the white-haired, white-mustachioed Budd was about to cap a long career with his greatest achievement, the Zephyr.
Not long before, the company’s research team, headed by Col. Earl J. W. Ragsdale, had introduced Shotwelding, the first successful method of welding stainless steel. Since its development by Krupp in 1914, the thin, lightweight alloy of low-carbon steel, 18 percent chromium and 8 percent nickel, had been used only for cutlery and surgical instruments; ordinary welding and riveting destroyed its two main properties—strength and resistance to corrosion. With Shotwelding, sections of stainless steel were electrically fused, creating rustproof joints stronger than the adjacent metal. Stainless steel could now be used as a major structural material.
In September 1932 Ralph Budd visited the Budd auto-body plant and took a ride in the new stainless-steel railcar, a ride he later called the first step in the creation of the Zephyr. Asked why a railroad president had turned to the automobile industry, he replied, “having taken our patrons from us, we may adopt some of [their] popular ideas to win them back.”
Convinced that the automobile company could build a lightweight, three-car train, Budd began looking for a high-speed, economical engine. For economy and thermal efficiency, he knew that nothing could beat the diesel, which burned crude, inexpensive petroleum and used from one-fifth to one-tenth as much fuel as an oil-burning steam locomotive. But he also knew that the diesel was heavy, slow, and erratic. Since 1898, when its inventor, the Munich professor Dr. Rudolf Diesel, had first successfully demonstrated the engine, railroads had tried with only limited success to adapt the diesel to locomotives.
Sluggish and massive—some weighed as much as three hundred pounds per horsepower—the early diesel locomotives used most of their power hauling themselves around. The diesel’s heavy metal construction was necessary to withstand high temperatures and pressures. In addition, the engine’s four cycles, in which the pistons took four separate strokes—fresh-air intake, compression, fuel ignition, and gas exhaust—demanded a maze of weighty pipes and pumps that turned diesel locomotives into metal-bound monsters.
Still, the diesel’s fuel economy continued to attract the railroad industry. At Cleveland’s Winton Engine Company, which built engines for Electro-Motive railcars, Carl Salisbury, the chief research engineer, hit upon the idea of a separate unit injector for each cylinder, thus eliminating the heavy plumbing of the diesel. Each unit injector would act as a pump, putting the fuel under fifteen thousand pounds of pressure before spraying it into the piston.
While Salisbury went to work on the unit injector, Charles Kettering, one of the great inventive geniuses of the twentieth century, was also looking at ways to make the diesel more efficient. Born in rural Ohio in 1876, Kettering had armed himself with both mechanical and electrical engineering degrees from Ohio State University before setting out on an engineering career that spanned half a century. Among his inventions were the automobile self-starter, leaded (ethyl) gasoline, balancing machines, and variable-speed transmissions. By 1928 the middle-aged Kettering had turned his attention to a two-cycle diesel, generally dismissed by other engineers as impractical. Kettering believed the intake and exhaust strokes could be combined in the ignition, or power, stroke, making the diesel fast and smooth.
When Kettering heard about Salisbury’s unit injector, he ordered a Winton diesel engine, complete with the injector, for his yacht, the Olive K. He then spent as much time as possible on Lake Michigan, not relaxing but tinkering with the diesel engine. Kettering’s method was to throw away the books and let the diesel tell him how it wanted to work. “The trouble with the diesel,” Kettering later explained, “is that everyone tried to make it like a steam engine. If folks had made the diesel the way it wanted to be made, they might have gotten somewhere.”
In 1930 Kettering’s two-cycle engine seemed promising enough for General Motors to buy both the Winton Engine Company and the Electro-Motive Corporation, giving the automobile company a diesel-engine plant and a staff of railroad designers. With orders falling off for new automobiles, GM hoped an efficient, high-speed diesel engine would open up new markets. The U.S. Navy, interested in using a lightweight diesel engine for submarines, cooperated on research that continued over the next two years. Kettering headed the project.
Toward the end of 1932 Ralph Budd got word from Hamilton that General Motors was building a pair of two-cycle diesel engines. The new engines were slated to power the GM exhibit—an actual Chevrolet assembly line—at the Century of Progress Exposition, due to open in Chicago the following May. Budd lost no time in calling on Kettering at his Detroit laboratories to inquire about putting a diesel engine in the new Burlington train. “We wouldn’t dare sell you this thing,” Kettering told him. “We don’t even know if it will run.”
When the exhibition opened, Budd and other Burlington officials were on hand to see if the diesel engines would run. The new engines were constructed of Cromansil, a new, strong yet lightweight steel alloy of chromium, manganese, and silicon developed by Lukenweld, Inc., of Pennsylvania. With Cromansil and the two-cycle design, the diesel had finally shed its excess weight. The eight-cylinder engines developed between seventy-five and eighty horsepower per cylinder yet weighed only twenty-two pounds per horsepower. As Electro-Motive’s historian, Franklin M. Reck, put it, “To engineers who understand their significance, these innovations were nothing short of sensational.”
Still, not all the bugs had been worked out. As soon as the exposition closed each night, two engineers went to work repairing and overhauling the engines. So experimental were the engines that General Motors wanted no attention whatsoever called to them. Visitors strolled by the Chevrolet assembly line unaware that the diesels fenced off to one side represented the most advanced technology at the exposition. But Ralph Budd grasped their significance. “Immediately I was set afire,” he said later, “because I knew that the diesel was something completely revolutionary, and better—so much better—than anything we had ever had.”
Budd saw the new Cromansil diesel engines and “immediately was set afire.”
On June 17, 1933, Budd ordered a three-car, stainless-steel train from the Budd Manufacturing Company. And even though the new diesel had not been tested in railroad locomotives, he ordered a General Motors Model 201A diesel engine with 600 hp, capable of 110 mph. The order prompted Kettering to call Budd “a very nervy railroad president,” but Budd disagreed. “I knew that if General Motors was willing to put the engine in a train, the national spotlight would be on the corporation,” he said. “They’d simply have to stay with it until it was satisfactory. Actually, I wasn’t taking a chance at all.”
That summer the Budd automobile plant geared up to produce its first train. Paul Cret, a Philadelphia architect, headed the design team, which included the Chicago architect John Holabird and Budd employees Earl Ragsdale and Walter and Albert Dean. Burlington historians credit the young Albert Dean, who had graduated from MIT only two years earlier, as the main designer.
To ensure hundred-mile-per-hour speeds, the team borrowed the concept of streamlining, developed by airplane designers who had discovered that bullet-shaped fuselages gained speed by cutting through head winds. The results of wind-tunnel tests conducted on miniature train models at MlT showed that with equal size and weight, a conventional train traveled 75 mph, while a streamliner reached 100 mph. Streamlining’s advantages dictated the train’s shape, with a sloped front, a rounded roof, lower fluted sides, flush windows and doors, and flat sheathing along the lower edge.
Next, the designers jettisoned all unnecessary weight. Cars were articulated, which meant that the ends of adjacent cars rode on the same truck. Instead of thirty-six wheels, the usual number for three cars, there were sixteen. Brakes, manufactured by Westinghouse, went directly on the trucks, eliminating heavy metal brake riggings.
But it was the almost paper-thin stainless steel, manufactured by United States Steel, that made the train a featherweight compared with conventional ones. The frame was constructed of hollow U-shaped beams, with walls just 0.012 inch thick. Additional pieces of stainless steel were welded at points of stress so that, as Edward Budd explained, each beam had exactly the “right amount of metal to stand the strain to which the section is subjected, and no more.” The side and roof frames carried their weights like a bridge, resting on the end trucks instead of sitting on the underframe. Completed, the frame weighed 20 ounces per linear foot, yet had a tensile strength of 150,000 pounds per square inch.
On the lower sides went fluted sections of stainless steel, 0.02 inch thick, or about as thick as five sheets of paper stacked together. The thickest sheets—seven-sixteenths of an inch- covered the roof and slanted nose. Panels between the safety-glass windows were constructed of quarter-inch-thick Armorply, plywood sheathed with copper on the inside and stainless steel on the outside. Stainless steel acted as a natural insulator, and since stainless steel was rustproof, no paint was needed. Polished by wind, rain, and dust, the train would become more beautiful with age.
Up front behind the driver’s compartment sat the Winton-built Cromansil engine, on a chassis also constructed of Cromansil. Designed with rounded contours to avoid stress on angles or squared joints, the chassis was welded together, marking the first time welding was used on a railway engine bed. Weighing only three tons, the chassis supported thirty tons of the engine and the front motor truck.
Behind the engine was the rest of the power plant, designed and assembled by Electro-Motive. The main generator, built by General Electric, transformed the engine’s mechanical energy into electrical energy for the traction motors. It also provided the electrical transmission and supplied the electricity for two General Electric air compressors on the brakes. An auxiliary generator supplied current for the battery, train lights, and air conditioning.
From the slanted nose to the rear solarium the new train stretched 196 feet and weighed 200,000 pounds, one-eighth as much as the hefty Aristocrat. With its low center of gravity it could hug the track and sweep around curves without swaying. Rubber pads placed around the bogies absorbed vibrations and noise.
The train’s interior received just as much design attention as the engine and running gear. After the engine compartment came the railway post office, while the baggage and express compartment took up the first section of the second car. Next came the modern electric grill and the smoker’s lounge, with beige carpeting and soft leather seats for twenty passengers. The third car contained forty upholstered reclining chairs and luxurious carpeting and curtains in shades of pearl gray. At the end was the window-wrapped solarium with chairs for twelve.
With the train under construction, Ralph Budd began searching for an appropriate name. Reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales one evening, he came upon Zephyrus, the god of the west wind, and immediately called other Burlington officials to announce he had found a name. June Provines, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, greeted the news with astonishment. She had never imagined, she said, that railroad presidents spent their evenings reading Chaucer.
The Zephyr rolled out of the plant on April 7, 1934, a mere nine and a half months after Budd had placed the order. Two days later it made a 24.8-mile trial run from Philadelphia to Perkiomen Junction, reaching a top speed of 104 mph. At its formal dedication on April 18, broadcast nationwide over NBC radio from Philadelphia, Ralph Budd called the Zephyr a symbol of progress; Edward Budd referred to it simply as the “apple of my eye.”
The first day after the dedication twenty-four thousand Philadelphians stood in line to visit the Zephyr. Over the next three weeks the Zephyr traveled to thirty Eastern cities, drawing crowds wherever it went. By the end of its first tour more than half a million people had walked through the new train.
But Ralph Budd wanted something more dramatic to introduce the Zephyr to Americans. In Chicago the Century of Progress Exposition was about to begin its second season, on May 26. Among the attractions was the “Wings of a Century” pageant, with scenes depicting the progress of American transportation from the Indian travels to the modern steam locomotive. Budd decided to have the Zephyr leave Denver at dawn, race nonstop to Chicago, and pull up on the pageant’s stage at dusk for a grand finale that would officially reopen the exposition. Almost everyone else connected with the Zephyr, including Kettering and Hamilton, had misgivings. The train had made only short trips, yet Budd was proposing 1,015 miles nonstop at 100-mph speeds. Stalled on the Nebraska prairie, it would be a national laughingstock.
Nonetheless, Budd ordered the Zephyr to Denver. It arrived at Union Station on Thursday, May 24, amid newspaper reports that “a silver train has flashed into the silver state.” Again the crowds came, with fifty thousand touring the train in two days.
Requests to ride the Zephyr to Chicago poured in from celebrities, movie stars, and politicians across the country. But the eighty-five tickets (thirteen extra seats were set up in the baggage compartment) went to reporters and officials from the Burlington, General Motors, and the Budd company. The only other passenger was a burro named Zeph, a gift to the pageant from the Rocky Mountain News to represent early transportation in Colorado. When Budd was asked whether Zeph could ride the train, he replied: “Why not? One more jackass on this trip won’t make any difference.”
Early Friday evening the Zephyr went into the shops for final inspection. To their horror mechanics discovered a cracked motor armature bearing. When no replacement bearing could be found in Denver, calls went out to railroads across the country. After several frantic hours the Burlington got word that the Union Pacific had located a substitute bearing in Omaha. The Burlington general manager there picked it up and boarded an airplane for Cheyenne, where a chartered airplane waited to whisk the bearing to Denver. At best it would arrive at about midnight, but installation could take hours.
That evening, with the Zephyr up on jacks, its nose pointed in the air, Budd went on NBC radio. If the Zephyr’s race was to be canceled, now was the time. Instead, Budd told the nation, “Tomorrow at dawn we’ll be on our way.” He then invited everybody between Denver and Chicago to “come out and watch the Zephyr whiz by.”
Mechanics worked through the night installing the substitute bearing. When dawn broke on Saturday, the Zephyr was ready to go, only one hour behind its original departure time. In the driver’s compartment were the three men who would take two-hour turns at the controls: E. F. Weber, the Burlington superintendent of automotive equipment; J. S. Ford, an assistant master mechanic; and Ernie Kuehn, a Winton engineer. Three Burlington mechanics also rode in the cab.
To break in the new bearing, the Zephyr glided onto the plains at 50 miles per hour, with Kuehn, six feet tall and 230 pounds, sprawled facedown on the cab floor, ready to detect the first whiff of burning metal. Gradually the Zephyr began to gain speed, reaching 80 miles per hour.
It was still gathering speed when a door slammed on a wire, setting up a short circuit that burned out the engine starter cable. Smelling burning rubber, the driver turned off the engine and then could not restart it. As the Zephyr slowed to 40 miles per hour, everyone in the cab searched frantically for wire to splice the cable. At 15 mph Ralph Budd, ashen-faced, came out of his seat in the solarium and ran to the front, shouting, “Don’t let her stop.”
Another Electro-Motive engineer, Roy Baer, grabbed the ends of the wire and jammed them together. Electricity leaped across, burning Baer’s hands, but he held on until the engine roared into life. The Zephyr had not stopped.
Now it opened up, racing across eastern Colorado at 90 miles per hour. It crossed Nebraska in four and a half hours and streaked through Iowa in three and a half hours. In one 19-mile Stretch it cruised along at more than 100 miles per hour. Then it covered 3 miles at its top speed, 112.5 mph. It outdistanced the automobiles that tried to keep pace, and twice it even outdistanced airplanes.
More than a million people came out to see the Zephyr. In some towns the entire population was at the railroad track. Highways and roads were clogged with automobiles and trucks. Cars parked two deep lined the track for eight miles outside Galesburg, Illinois. Farmers stopped their tractors in the fields and tossed their hats in the air, cheering.
Every Burlington employee on the route took part in the Zephyr’s run. Days before, section men had combed the track, making sure the rails were in good condition. The mechanical department had prepared detailed maps indicating the maximum speed at each section. Markers had gone up warning the drivers when to slow. Mail crane arms and water spouts had been wired down to keep them out of the way. Orders went out for other trains to wait in the sidings. Thousands of local policemen, Boy Scouts, and American Legion members stood guard at the 1,689 grade crossings.
Reporters riding the train dropped stories into eleven special chutes along the route, giving the nation frequent updates on the trip. At the exposition, news of the Zephyr’s progress flashed across a large board while loudspeakers blared the Zephyr’s location every thirty minutes.
At 4:55 P.M. the Zephyr roared through Princeton, Illinois, at 90 mph and passed the Aristocrat, which had left Denver twenty-four hours earlier. It dashed across the flat Illinois farmlands and into Chicago at 96 miles per hour, breaking the official tape at the Halsted Street Station at 7:09 P.M. Continuing along Illinois Central track to the exposition grounds at the lakefront, it pulled onto the two-hundred-foot-long stage at the amphitheater and stopped. The crowd went wild. Ten thousand spectators poured out of their seats and onto the stage, cheering and shouting, while boats on Lake Michigan blew their whistles and horns.
The Zephyr had set a host of records, including the world’s record for the longest and fastest nonstop railroad run. It had crossed 1,015.4 miles—one-third of the continent—in thirteen hours, four minutes, and fifty-eight seconds, at an average speed of 77.61 miles per hour. It had consumed 418 gallons of diesel fuel at four cents per gallon for a total cost of $16.72. The Aristocrat, on the other hand, used 85 tons of coal at $3 a ton, or $255.
The train set a host of records, including the longest, fastest nonstop run ever.
That summer two million Americans toured the Zephyr as it traveled to 222 cities across the Midwest and West. Millions more watched it flash across the nation’s movie screens as the star of the RKO film The Silver Streak. To Depression-weary Americans the train became a symbol of hope. As one passenger later remembered, the Zephyr “lifted our spirits.… it pointed the way for better things to come.”
On November 11, 1934, the Zephyr began its regular run between Kansas City and Lincoln. Tickets sold out days in advance for every trip. By month’s end traffic on portions of the route had increased more than 100 percent over the previous November, and the Burlington ordered a fourth car. The next year General Motors replaced the diesel engine with another, slightly more refined one. The first engine went to the Smithsonian Institution.
Exceeding even the hopes of the four industrialists who had believed in it, the Zephyr did more than bring passengers back to the railroads. Its two-cycle diesel engine and lightweight metals revolutionized American railroading and put an end to the era of the steam locomotive. Before 1934 was out, eight major railroads ordered high-speed diesel-powered trains. In the mid-1940s diesel locomotives began outselling steam locomotives, and by the mid-1950s steam locomotives were no longer being manufactured in the United States. By 1961 the nation’s 28,500 diesels were hauling twice the tonnage that 50,000 steam locomotives had carried in 1934, and at half the cost.
When other Zephyrs came on the Burlington roster, the first one received a new name: the Pioneer Zephyr. It worked almost every day for twenty-five years on Burlington routes, hauling more than one million passengers over 3,200,000 miles. When Americans again began deserting the railroads—this time for jetliners—it was still the last word in railroad transportation.
On May 26, 1959, the twenty-fifth anniversary of its historic race, the Pioneer Zephyr was retired. The following year it went to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. Named a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark, it remains on permanent exhibit, still shiny and beautiful, still drawing the crowds, and still capable of racing a thousand miles from dawn to dusk, nonstop.
Margaret Coel became interested in the Zephyr while writing Goin’ Railroading: A Century on the Colorado High Iron (Boulder, Colo.: Pruett Publishing, 1985).