I really wish I could sleep on a train. Once we entered Utah, the Zephyr picked up speed and the train starts rocking and jolting even more.
It allowed me a little time to explore the AMTRAK stop at Salt Lake City. You would think that a city with a rich history that SLC would have an equally impressive station as Denver’s Union Station. The truth is that the City of Saints has not one impressive train station but two.
The current AMTRAK station is really a double wide trailer. But beyond the station, you can see the red neon sign of the former Rio Grande Station. The Union Pacific also had a separate station a short distance from the Rio Grande. While both buildings still exist, they are no longer passenger stations. The Rio Grande folded in 1987 and the UP no longer carries passengers.
I was looking forward to the stretch break at Reno because it provided enough of a break to get a sketch in (featured sketch). I sketched the Zephyr pointing west towards California as a east bound fright passes on the next track.
The California Zephyr Train # 5 was early coming into Denver’s Union Station. And we departed from the Mile High City, right on schedule.
We climbing up into the Tunnel District, so named because the Zephyr passes through 28 tunnels. The king of all tunnels in this stretch, if not any stretch in North America, has to be the Moffat Tunnel. The tunnel is 6.2 miles long and crosses under the Continental Divide meaning that once we come out of the west portal of the tunnel, the waters will be flowing to the west coast and behind us, the water flows east. At 9,239 ft, the tunnel is the highest point anywhere on the AMTRAK system.
On the western side of the Moffat Tunnel is the stop of Fraser-Winter Park. The next stop on the western route is the small Colorado mountain town of Granby. The conductor told us the little story of Marin Heemeyer and his Killdozer.
Heeymeyer was from South Dakota but moved to Colorado where he became a popular member of the community and one of the best welders in the area. He opened a successful muffler business in Granby. Over the following years Heemeyer feuded with the city and others over zoning, building permits, sewage lines, and entry roads to his business. Over that time many in the community crossed Heeymeyer, which was a big mistake because Marv can really hold a grunge.
He bought a Komatsu D355A bulldozer and he sold his business and property and then rented a building on his former property from the new owners where he secretly modified the bulldozer. For over a year he worked on his bulldozer by fortifying it with steel and concrete creating an indestructible machine of destruction. On June 4, 2004 at about 3:00 PM Heemeyer put his plan into action.
During the two hours and seven minute bulldozer rampage, Heeymeyer destroyed 13 buildings (including the city hall, police station, the former mayor’s house, and newspaper offices). The killdozer caused seven million dollars of damage. The police where helpless to stop the bulldozer and the rampage only ended when the killdozer got stuck while destroying Gambles hardware store and Heeymeyer ended his own life.
The California Zephyr Train number 6 pulled into Colfax Station running about 30 minutes late.
I was boarding the Zephyr with my mom and her husband Steve and we were heading to Denver, Colorado. We would be spending the night and eating three meals a day on the Zephyr. This is AMTRAK’s longest daily route and it is a village on rails.
I did a few pre-trip sketches. The first is of the predicted consist of our train. A consist is the make up of the train, for instance: two locomotives, a baggage car, three sleeper cars, a diner car etc. I anticipated two locomotives and eight cars. Turns out I guessed right. I sketched them in and I would label them later during our first stretch break in Reno, Nevada. The second was the baggage cart outside Colfax Station, which I did the day before we boarded the Zephyr.
I was familiar with sketching from the California Zephyr from my previous trip last April. You have to sketch fast, taking in passing information creating an overall composite or impression. The brush pen was the perfect tool for Zephyr sketching.
One of my favorite Zephyr sketches was done in Room A (Mom and Steve’s room) during happy hour. We where somewhere east of Reno.
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!
On Thursday morning, about 10:30 AM, I found myself on the platform of Roseville. I was waiting for the eastbound California Zephyr number 6. I planned to chase her all the way over Donner Pass down into Truckee, the last Zephyr stop in California. The journey was roughly 84 miles.
In this stretch, the California Zephyr stops at three locations: Roseville, Colfax, and Truckee. All three of these towns were created by the Transcontinental Railroad and they because important servicing sections for the Central Pacific and later Southern Pacific Railroads. Roseville is still an important division point where Union Pacific (the current owners) keep the snow removal fleet, including the rotary plowers, to keep Donner Pass open during periods of snowfall.
It shouldn’t be to hard to keep up with the Zephyr, because it’s average speed is 55 mph and it rarely reaches that as she climbs the western flank of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The speed limit on Highway 80, the interstate that parallels much of the railroad, has a speed limit of 65 mph.
The eastbound number 6 pulled into Roseville on time. The train started it’s journey at 9:10 AM at Emeryville. I was excited to see that on point was an old “friend”, the General Electric P42DC locomotive, number 74. This was the locomotive that brought me from Denver, Colorado to Colfax, California, a few weeks ago. I had gotten to know her when I sketched her profile during a “fresh-air” smoking stop in Reno, Nevada. Her road number was also the year that my younger brother was born, 1974.
The number 6 filled the long platform at Roseville and I did a quick sketch of the eight car consist (featured sketch). The Zephyr was stopped at Roseville for about six minutes, which was enough time to capture the scene. With a quick retort from 74’s horn, the Zephyr started out of Roseville to slowly begin her assent of the Sierra Nevadas. I headed off to my car. The chase was on!
I made it to the Zephyr’s next scheduled stop, Colfax, with time to spare. I had time to have a quick bite to eat. I wanted to photograph the train from a different angle so I chose the bridge that takes Highway 174 over the two mainline tracks, just north of the historic Colfax passenger depot.
From the bridge I could see the “downtown” and look south down the mainline. Just north of the platform is a grade crossing where I detrained, two weeks before and my mother hugged me tight in the middle of Grass Valley Street, the Zephyr blocking off auto traffic.
My next encounter with Number 74 was at Yuba Pass, just off Highway 80. At this point I am really up in the Sierras. While the sky was clear I had to don a jacket as I waited for the California Zephyr to catch up to my location at Yuba Pass.
To the south of my location, the rails curved around a bend and to my north, the line disappears into tunnel number 35, the location of the stranding of the City of San Francisco in January 1952. Now was the time of the waiting game, I had no way to gauge when the Zephyr would pass by.
I then heard a far off locomotive horn. It was difficult to locate and place the location of the train. Less than two minutes later I could hear the rumble of a diesel locomotive, climbing up the line. The Zephyr was approaching.
What appeared around the curve was not the Zephyr but a Union Pacific freight train with a consist of hopper cars. The train was headed up by three GE locomotives.
Freight trains now rule the rails in the United States with AMTRAK passenger service following in their wake. Freight certainly pays the bills and moving commerce across the the county has the right of rail, meaning that passenger service such as the California Zephyr are frequently behind schedule. On my journey on train number 6, we where two hours late when we finally arrived at Denver’s Union Station. The cause, we were behind Union Pacific freight trains in Nevada and Utah.
About 25 minutes later, train number 6 followed the UP freight heading east toward Donner Pass. I got and horn toot and a wave from the engineer!
I headed back to my car and returned to Highway 80 as both train and car climbed up towards Donner Pass. In about 20 minutes I pulled off the Highway at Historic Highway 40 (Donner Pass Road). On this road I passed the South Bay Ski Club’s lodge, where my parents met. I stopped at the grade crossing at Soda Springs. In front of me was the Soda Springs ski resort and further to the southeast is the resort Sugar Bowl, one of my favorite ski mountains in the Tahoe area. Both resorts where closed for the season.
Stopped before the grade crossing was the freight train with the hopper consist waiting on mainline track 1. UP Number 8095 sounded her horn, triggering the crossing arms to lower. Any motorist wanting to cross the tracks would now have to wait a while for the freight to pass.
About 20 minutes later the Zephyr passed through the grade crossing, I got another wave from the engineer. At this point I think he was starting to recognize this Zephyr stalker!
I headed back to Highway 80 and climbed up and over Donner Summit and started my decent to Truckee. I looked over across Donner Lake to the far mountainside and I could see I was level with the UP freight. If I could beat it to Truckee I would be able to see both trains pass through Truckee. One would pass through Truckee while the other would stop to drop off and pick up passengers.
I had time to find a parking spot on Truckee’s main street, Donner Pass Road, pay for parking, and cross the three sets of tracks to position myself for the best light for photos. About 15 minutes after my wait, the Union Pacific freight blazed through Truckee.
Next the California Zephyr arrived. It stopped for a few minutes and with a short blast from the horn, the engineer released the brakes and throttled up the locomotive. With a last wave and a thumbs-up from the engineer, the Zephyr headed out of Truckee and California.
My brother spent almost half of his life in the Central Valley college town, Davis, California. He attended the University of California at Davis (UCD), worked in it’s public and private schools, got married, and raised his three children in “The City of All Things Right and Relevant!”
For Mother’s Day we where meeting my mother and sister-in-law in Davis so I arrived a little early to I sketch the historic train station and do a little railfanning.
Most towns start with a train station and Davisville, as Davis was then known, got their passenger depot in 1868. The original station burned down and the current station was built by Southern Pacific Railroad in 1913. The station is built in a Mission revival style. The University Farm, which later became UCD, opened five years before the current building was finished. At the time, the University wanted a befitting station to the town and the university stop. And they certainly got one!
Three passenger trains stop at Davis: the Capital Corridor, AMTRAK’s Coast Starlight, and the California Zephyr.
I sat on the north side of the station and sketched it’s Mission Revival stylings. The station is island by three sets of tracks which at the time was an important stop on the Cal-P line. While I was sketching the station, I was very familiar with it’s curved lines, arches, and tile roof because I had sketched all of California’s Spanish Mission and a few Southern Pacific Mission Revival stations (Burlingame Station comes to mind). Davis Station and the Davis Tower are the only examples of Mission Revival in the city of Davis.
There were a few clues that a train was coming down the line at Davis Station. The first was that the signal light was green, meeting that whatever train was heading down the line had the “high ball”, in other words, the train had the right of passage. The other clue was that people began to arrive at the station with their flowers in pots or plastic; it was Mother’s Day after all.
At 10:40 AM, a westbound Union Pacific freight train sped through the curve at Davis Station on track 1, the engineer giving me a thumbs up as the train rumbled through. At 10:50 AM, on track 2, the eastbound Capital Corridor train #724, pulled into Davis to take on passengers on her way to California’s capital: Sacramento.
The westbound Train # 731 was right on time and pulled into Davis at 11:10 AM. This Capital Corridor passenger train was heading to San Jose.
On point was locomotive 2004. I looked down at the front truck, containing the leading axels of the locomotive and stenciled, in yellow, where the two letters “GP”. In an odd bit of coincidence, I has replaced the initials “SP” on the Davis Station with my brother’s initials, “GP”, as an honor to his memory.
My return journey was a beautiful but a somber one.
I spent much of my time in my roomette with short trips to the dining and observation car.
Taking the train back gave me the chance to reflect on the almost 47 years of my brother’s life. I lost myself in the landscapes and continued to sketch during our brief “Sketch Breaks”. Sketching provided the focus and “in the moment” experience my soul needed. Sketcher therapy I suppose.
One other activity that kept my mind busy was train birding. I created a list of all the birds seen from the train, without binoculars. I tallied 43 species as well as six mammals including elk and bighorn sheep. A highlight was having an adult bald eagle keeping pace with the Zephyr while we followed the Colorado River in Utah.
In Reno, the Zephyr pauses for a little longer than most stops because there is a crew change. This is when the engineer is replaced by a fresh one. During this time I sketched the profile of the locomotive on point, a General Electric P42DC, built in April of 1997. In an uncanny instance of coincidence, the locomotive number is 74, my brother was born in 1974. This seems to be the perfect locomotive to lead me back home to my mother.
In Truckee, I called my mom to let her know that California Zephyr Number 5 was running on time. This was going to be the first time I had seen my mom since learning if my brother’s passing. I suppose that I could have booked a last minute fight from the Mile High City to be there much sooner but the pace, the landscape, and the rocking lullaby of the Zephyr seemed to be the right choice for taking me back to California.
At this point I was on the route of the first Transcontinental Railroad. And I would need the strength of those who built it to face the reality, once I stepped off the Zephyr at one of the Central Pacific’s rail camps that was later renamed Colfax.
The anticipation mounted as we ascended down the western flank of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, each mile bringing me closer to my mother.
In past train journeys, one of my favorites scenes is when a train pulls into a station and looking out the window, I see someone alight from the train, search the platform for that familiar face, and then the embrace. I don’t always know the relationship contained in that embrace but it is a story on that reunion of love, in the the stage of the train depot.
What would the observer on the second story of the Superlunar have thought of the man departing the train and embracing someone, clearly his mother, in the middle of the street in Colfax?
Sketching from a moving train takes practice. I figured I had sketched from a moving boat racing up the Cristalino River in Brazil, how hard could this be?
It always helps to have an expansive view, perhaps of a mountain range in the distance that moves slowly, while the foreground blurs by. In any case you have to work fast and create a quick image from different snap shots from the journey.
It helps to have a few tricks in your sketcher’s toolbox. You have to capture things quickly, using a bit of short hand when trying to get the “essence” of the scene. This means leaving a whole lot of information out. You have to only include what is the most important. Good thing the average speed of the California Zephyr is only 55 miles an hour, the maximum speed limit when I got my driver’s permit. The reason for the slow speed is because the Zephyr is on a freight route. These rails are not built for high speed. The trade off is that sketching from the second story of a Superliner car is a bit easier.
Below are a few Zephyr sketches from Colfax to Denver.
Moffat Tunnel was first opened in 1928 at an altitude of 9,200 feet. At 6.2 miles long, it is the fourth longest railroad tunnel in North America. About 15 trains a day pass through Moffat Tunnel which is about 50 miles west of Denver.
“Trains seems to rattle out stories, as though the motion of the track acts to shake up thoughts and loosen tongues. There’s a world outside the window and a whole separate world within.” ~Ticket the Ride, Tom Chessyre (My California Zephyr book)
For a while now I have wanted to ride the California Zephyr, one of AMTRAK’s most scenic routes.
Last Spring, I had to cancel my train journey but this Spring Break I booked an abbreviated trip, not departing from Emeryville but Colfax and detraining in Denver instead of Chicago.
I chose Colfax because it is a 35 minute drive from my mother’s house in Penn Valley. The train was running two minutes late. When I would finish the journey to Denver, the number 6 was running two hours late. Freight trains are given priory over passage service like the California Zephyr.
Four other people boarded at Colfax, two middle aged women looked like they were headed to Reno. The two other travelers were a bit older and appeared to be heading further down the line. They are all traveling in coach. I never saw them again.
Colfax is not one of the “Fresh Air- Smoke Break” stops (oxymoron I know), so the Zephyr stops only long enough to pick up or drop off passengers.
Number six pulls into Colfax. The platform is too short for the two locomotives with the eight car consist. I am on the first car behind the locomotives, sleeper car 32048 and roomette number 003. This will be my address for the next 30 hours or so. Once I have boarded, the train slowly pulls forward so the Reno travelers can board the coach car, at the end of the train.
There is something wonderful about stepping off the platform and into another moving world. The California Zephyr is a self-contained world with everything you could possibly need: food, drink, a bathroom, and a bed (not to mention the amazing views).
The locomotive throttled up and headed east out of Colfax and my car attendant showed me to my roomette (featured sketch). I set my bag down and I headed to the opposite side of the train to see the first of many views: Cape Horn. If there is one problem with the Zephyr is that there are great views on both sides of the train and unless your sitting in the observation car, your roomette faces only one side of the train.
I book a late lunch in the dining car with the dining car attendant, John. I head to the observation car and wait for my name to be called. Here I do my first sketch abroad the Zephyr. Over the course of the journey I do many more.
John, also known as Big John, seems to have worked for Amtrak for a while. He reminds everyone that they are short staffed for this leg of the journey. This is because many of the Amtrak workers have been furloughed because of Corvid-19. At one point, one of the engineers helps out with lunch service. Don’t worry. Some engineers are on board and there was someone at the controls as we headed over the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
I enjoyed talking train talk with the engineer, now promoted to dining car assistant. He tells me a little about the locomotive and we discuss the recently restore Big Boy 4014, that largest steam locomotive in operation.
After lunch I head back to my roomette and do some more scenic sketches.
Last spring break I booked a roomette on the California Zephyr, a 2,438 mile journey from Emeryville, Ca to Chicago, Il. This route passes through such cities as Sacramento, Truckee, Reno, Salt Lake City, Denver, Omaha, and Chicago. It is one of the most scenic routes on the AMTRAK network.
Last spring I was going to travel the entire route but then Covid 19 happened and I had to cancel the trip. I knew that this rail dream was deferred and at first chance I would rebook this trip because I have always wanted to travel by rail through the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains.
The opportunity came in spring break of 2021. Instead of traveling the whole route, I booked a round trip with a roomette from Colfax, Ca (near my mom’s house) to Denver, Co. This stretch includes the most scenic parts of the route and Denver provides it’s own destinations.
On this trip, I plan to do many quick sketches of train views along the route. At California Arts Supply in San Mateo, I got a custom Ronquad which is a 4 by 6 piece of card stock that would be a template for framing each sketch. I used my Ronquad on the featured sketch.
But why Denver and not Chicago? Both cities provide great sketching opportunities but Denver has an edge over Chicago: life birds! I had a few ABA lifers on my list: scaled quail, dusky grouse, American three-toed woodpecker, brown-capped and black rosy-finch, sharp-tail grouse, and the much sought after white-tailed ptarmigan. And while Chicago offers lots of architecture sketching opportunities, Denver has that too but also beautiful landscapes.
The Zephyr stops at the historic Union Station in downtown Denver and I booked a “Pullman” room in the hotel at the station, the Crawford Hotel. I admit this is a bit a splurge but I love the idea of stepping off the train in the evening, after a two day trip, and walking a short distance to my room in Union Station. It seems a throwback to a different era. An era when more people travelled by rail, when the airline industry was in it’s infancy.
As I do before any trip, I do a few sketches to build knowledge and excitement. The featured sketch is from the AMTRAK website for the California Zephyr. This location looks to be somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. I also like to do a map of my future journey. In this case, Train 6, from Colfax to Denver with all the stops in between.