Author Gary Dolzall relates the story of North America’s first diesel streamliner.
Words by Gary Dolzall
The sleek little diesel streamliner’s name came from the Greek god of the West Wind – Zephyrus – and as it dashed across America’s granger plains from Denver, playing the role of a whirlwind on a dawn-to-dusk, 1,015-mile, non-stop race to Chicago’s Century of Progress Exhibition, surely the diminutive train convinced many that it, too, was divine.
The new train was Chicago, Burlington & Quincy No. 9900 – the Burlington Zephyr. The date was May 26, 1934. Railroad history was both being made and forever changed.
The genesis of CB&Q (Burlington Route) 9900 began in the late 1920s, as America’s railroads – faced with a population’s growing love affair with the likes of Henry Ford’s Model A – searched for ways to keep passengers off the roads and on the rails. Soon, too, would come the Great Depression, further eroding rail passenger travel. Stylish (and sometimes not so stylish) “streamlined” trains emerged as one of the railroads’ marketing strategies, and early efforts put fanciful sheet metal on steam locomotives and resulted in trains such as the Chicago Great Western’s Bluebird, a little three-car McKean gas-electric introduced in 1929 as a “Premier De Luxe Motor Train.”
By 1933, several of railroading’s heavyweights were ready to advance the streamliner concept in a dramatic way. Union Pacific – with Pullman providing construction and an emerging company named Electro-Motive providing engine power – introduced Union Pacific M-10000, a three-car, 126-passenger aluminum wisp of a train that was delivered in February 1934. The M-10000 was originally envisioned as being diesel powered, but the intended Winton powerplant was not yet ready and so UP chose to have a distillate engine installed, in no small part to allow M-10000 to hit the rails before the arrival of another diesel-powered newcomer that was being developed for the Burlington Route.
That other newcomer, of course, was Burlington 9900. Through a quirk of timing and fate, the Zephyr rather than UP M-10000 would thus earn the title of the “first diesel streamliner,” and with it, a revered place in railroad history.
The Zephyr was born of the genius and will of Ralph Budd, president of the CB&Q, and of the Budd Company, then headed by Edward G. Budd (same last name, no relation).
CB&Q 9900 – a power car that would also carry mail; a combine coach that could accommodate baggage and included a little buffet-grill and coach seating for 20; and an observation car that held 40 coach seats and a lounge with seating for 12 passengers – would be constructed of shot-welded, fluted stainless steel. EMC’s Winton 201A 8-cyclinder, 600-horsepower diesel would provide the power.
Designed by Budd Company’s Walter Dean and with its sleek “shovel-nosed” exterior penned by his brother, aeronautical engineer Albert Gardner Dean (and wind-tunnel tested by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), CB&Q 9900 was constructed at the Budd Company’s Red Lion (Pennsylvania) plant and made its first test run – a 25-mile test hop on the nearby Reading – on April 9, 1934. Little more than a week later, the silver streamliner was formally christened Burlington Zephyr.
Ralph Budd’s Burlington Route was both innovative and a master of promotion – and CB&Q 9900 was proof-positive of each. To make its debut, it was planned that the diminutive streamliner would make a non-stop, 1,000+ mile run from Denver to Chicago, where it would become a central exhibit at Chicago’s 1934 Century of Progress. This planned introduction of CB&Q 9900 was nothing if not bold – it would require the Denver-Chicago run to be completed in 14 hours or less when standard Burlington trains were taking more like 26 hours. And it would mean the largely untried diesel streamliner would have to perform up to the task amid much publicity.
In the wee morning hours of May 26, 1934, things were not going well. A broken traction motor armature had been discovered on the 9900 and frantic repairs were underway to try to make the scheduled 4 a.m. Denver departure. The departure was, in fact, delayed by the repairs, and 9900 pulled away from Denver an hour and 5 minutes late. The planned 14-hour run now needed to be done in 13 hours.
On board the Zephyr that morn was a who’s who of American railroad history: Burlington president Ralph Budd, Budd Company president E. G. Budd, and Electro-Motive founder H. L. Hamilton, among others. Also on board, in the baggage compartment and as a gift from the Rocky Mountain News, was a little burro named Zeph. When Ralph Budd was asked if it was okay that a donkey ride his historic run, he rather famously responded, “Why not? One more jackass on this trip won’t make any difference.”
As CB&Q 9900 raced for Chicago, one fateful twist straight from a movie script occurred: The door of the Zephyr’s electrical cabinet slammed shut, cutting a starter cable. The 9900’s diesel powerplant sputtered and died; the train began to silently coast. Frantically, those on board tried to find wire to splice the torn cable, but none could be found. As 9900 coasted along at barely 15 mph, EMC assistant chief engineer Roy Baer picked up the shredded cable ends and jammed the two parts together. His hands were burned, but the Winton engine restarted and the trip was saved.
And what a trip it was. The Zephyr did indeed make its Chicago debut on time, completing its dawn-to-dusk, 1,015-mile run in 13 hours, 4 minutes, and 58 seconds, snapping a Western Union timing tape stretched across the railroad at Chicago’s Halsted Street. CB&Q 9900 had averaged 77.61 mph for the entire trip and hit a top speed of 112.5 mph between Yuma and Wray, Colorado.
Burlington Route 9900 would be viewed by nearly one million people at the exhibition, would go on a barnstorming tour, would be the “star” of the 1934 film “Silver Streak,” and would go on to serve the CB&Q until retired from revenue service in 1960. Following the debut of 9900, Burlington would build more and ever larger Zephyrs and, as the first of its breed, historic 9900 came to widely be known as the Pioneer Zephyr. Fittingly, CB&Q 9900 was donated in May 1960 to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, where it can be seen today.
The accomplishments of CB&Q 9900 on that day in May 1934 were widely reported and admired. But one can only wonder how many of those who witnessed the Zephyr from trackside realized that something even more monumental was following, unseen, behind the little whirlwind, the coming of American railroading’s diesel era. – Gary Dolzall
One of the most famous faces and road numbers in all of railroad history belongs to Burlington (CB&Q) 9900 – the original Zephyr. North America’s first diesel streamliner, the diminutive train did much to usher in the diesel era. Photograph by Paul Dolzall
Blurry but renowned is this famous aerial photo of CB&Q 9900, captured as it raced from Denver toward Chicago’s Century of Progress Exhibition on its legendary dawn-to-dusk, 1,015-mile, 13-hour non-stop run of May 26, 1934. Photograph: CB&Q
Two timeless trademarks of the Zephyr. Its fluted stainless-steel sides and its famous number – 9900 – are revealed in a close-up of the streamliner preserved at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. Photograph by Paul Dolzall
Snug and simple, to say the least, was the operating cab of the 9900. For the engineer, forward visibility was superb, grade crossing protection less so. Photograph by Paul Dolzall
From the mail compartment of the 9900, one could peer into its cramped engine room, where a Winton 8-cylinder inline model 201A diesel powerplant supplied the diminutive train with 600 horsepower (above and below). Photographs by Paul Dolzall
Burlington 9900 was the first of a growing line of diesel-powered Zephyrs to follow. Sister CB&Q 9902 was built in 1935 and on a July 1936 day, the sleek diesel is departing Chicago Union Station covering the schedule of the Twin Cities Zephyr bound for Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota. Photograph: Dolzall collection.
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