California Zephyr, Colfax

“The only way of catching a train I have ever discovered is to miss the train before.” ~G. K. Chesterton

The romance of the rails on a long distance journey has always been calling me. Being rocked to sleep to the rhythm of the rails and meeting strangers on a train, drew me to want to go on an American rail odyssey. On my Spring Break, I booked a ticket on the California Zephyr, from Emeryville in California to Chicago, Illinois. This is Amtrak’s longest daily route. The route covers 2,438 miles and makes 33 stops.

Then the pandemic was upon us and I cancelled by railway journey and sheltered in place for my two week break in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The lure of the rails became the lonesome far-off whistle of a Johnny Cash song (sans Folsom Prison of course).

During early July, I visited my mother near Grass Valley in the Gold Country. She lives 40 minutes away from one of the 33 stops on the California Zephyr Route. So I decided to go make the drive to Colfax.

Colfax is on the route of the Central Pacific side of the Transcontinental Railway and it was, at one time, a railway camp called Camp 10. The camp was later called Illinoistown but was again renamed after the Speaker of the House, Schulyer Colfax by Leland Stanford, when Colfax came to see the progress on the railroad. Colfax later served as the 17th Vice President during Ulysses S. Grant’s first term.

The town of Colfax (population 1,800) bears an important meeting point of the east and westbound Zephyrs. The westbound train (Number 5) arrives at Colfax at 11:48 AM. The train’s final destination is Emeryville in the San Francisco Bay Area. The eastbound train (Number 6) arrives less than 30 minutes later at 12:21 PM. Train number 6’s finally destination is Chicago, the journey will end about 50 hours later, if the the Zephyr is running on time.

Looking westward down the rails of the transcontinental mainline. The historic Southern Pacific Colfax depot can be seen on the left.

I arrived at Colfax Depot at 11:20. Train number 5 was running on time so I found a view point next to the line and sketched in the perspective, the railway crossing sign, and the background trees. Now all I needed was the California Zephyr to pull in for her portrait and do a quick sketch with my brush pen before she departed. I figured I had about five minutes.

Westbound California Zephyr arrives at Colfax headed by two General Electric P42DC diesel-electic locomotives.

The westbound Zephyr was running a little early, which was pretty incredible because the train’s origin was Chicago. The train rolled to a stop and two passengers disembarked and I was able to get a loose brush pen sketch in before the train made it’s way down the gentle slope of the western side Sierra Nevada Mountains towards Sacramento, the original terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad.

The eastbound train was running about 20 minutes late. So I crossed the tracks and found a new vantage point right next to the rail crossing guard. The Chicago bound Number 6 pulled into Colfax and I have a short time to sketch the Zephyr. A woman passenger had decided to crossed the tracks, always a bad idea with an approaching train, and she became cut off as the Zephyr blocked the road and sidewalks to load and unload passengers. I’m not sure if she caught her train.

While I longed to catch the train I missed back in April, it was good to see, if not sketch, this iconic American railway route, the California Zephyr.

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