Colfax, California is on the original Transcontinental Railroad. At Colfax, the climb of the western flank of the Sierra Nevada Mountains begins in earnest. The town started as a railroad construction camp and then was renamed by Governor Stanford to honor Vice President Schuyler Colfax who visited to check the progress on the western side of the Transcontinental Railroad.
What is special about Colfax is that it is one of the few places on the California Zephyr’s 51 hour and 20 minute route where trains 5 (westbound) and 6 (eastbound), pass within minutes of each other. That is, if the Zephyr is running on time, which is not too often. In California, the AMTRAK passenger service runs on Union Pacific rail and freight always has right of way. It pays the bills after all.
Both Zephyrs where scheduled to be at Colfax within a few minutes of each other at about 12:30 PM. At about 12:15, people with their suitcases began to arrive at the platform. I love the romance of train travel. The farewells at the station as one prepares for a rail journey, often to see far off friends and family over the Christmas Holiday.
12:30 came and went and no Zephyr.
Both Trains 5 and 6 were late. This is AMTRAK after all, a passenger service not known for it’s punctuality. The Chicago-bound, Train #6 was running about 30 minutes late. It had left Emeryville in the morning at 7:21 AM.
Train #6 pulled into Colfax station at 12:59 PM. I had positioned myself on the east side of the grade crossing at Grass Valley Street. The Zephyr had an eight car consist with a baggage car and seven passenger cars and was pulled by two locomotives. The train was too long for the station platform so when the Zephyr stops at the station, it stops traffic on Grass Valley Street. I had no way of knowing which car would be stopped at the grade crossing. It lent a bit of improvisation and serendipity to the sketch. And I would only have a short time to sketch the scene because the Zephyr would be in the station for about three minutes as passenger boarded or disembarked.
The train slowed to a stop and the baggage car came into sketch-view. I would be sketching this car. Great, there are less windows on the baggage car! I quickly sketched in the form of the car and then worked inward to add details. I had all the information I needed in about two minutes of sketch-time (you do lose sense of time when sketching). I would later add a few more details and paint.
Train number 6 headed out of Colfax toward Cape Hope and the summit of the Sierra Nevada Mountains at Donner Pass and then on to Reno, Salt Lake City, Denver, and eventually Chicago. I checked the status of the westbound train train number 5. It was running an hour and a half late. In about 10 minutes I found out the reason why.
Coming down from the summit was a UP freight wearing a dusting of snow on it’s pilot as it headed down towards the Bay Area. The five locomotives (four on point and another at the end) where hauling a long container consist that keeps a lot of trucks off our highways. The Zephyr was running behind this train which explains why it was running an hour and a half late.
I didn’t wait for the westbound Zephyr, I had already gotten my sketch in the book!