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 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?
Ever since I had read about the stranding of the City of San Francisco in January 1952, I have wanted to visit the location and do a sketch.
In January of 2021, I did a sketch of the stranded super liner that was based on a historical photo. Since that time I had wondered if the stranding site was accessible or if it was on a part of the line that was far from roads or trails. In January 1952, the whole landscape was snowbound, paralyzing all transportation routes. After some research, I found out that the site was ridiculously accessible because Milepost 177 was a ten minute walk from where Highway 20 joins Highway 80.
As I pulled off Highway 20, I donned my snowboots, an east bound Union Pacific freight passed by with a consist mainly featuring tanker cars. Freight has the right of way over passage service, it is the bread and butter of the contemporary railroad business.
I wanted to find the exact location that the City of San Francisco became stranded: milepost 177, between Tunnels 35 and 36. But I also wanted to time my visit so I could see and photograph some trains at Yuba Pass. Well I just missed a freight train but my real prize was now running two minutes late and would depart Truckee at 9:39 AM.
This was the passenger service that replaced the City of San Francisco. It is one of the longest, and some would argue, most beautiful, routes on the Amtrak system. This is the California Zephyr. The hike up to Yuba Pass was extra special because on the following day, I would be boarding the eastbound California Zephyr, Train #6, to Denver, Colorado. Nine days later I would be returning on the westbound, Train #5. This was the train I was waiting for.
I hiked along the former grade of Track #1, the route is currently single tracked. The hike was relatively easy because it was along a railroad grade and the snow wasn’t too deep. It took me about ten minutes to reach Tunnel # 35. The current track goes through the tunnel but the former track goes around Smart Ridge. It was in this area that the City of San Francisco became stranded in 1952.
I looked at a few arial reference photos and picked my spot, in the shadow of the rocky ridge. I sketched in the ridge on the right and the trees in the background and far off the spine of a mountain range. For this I used Micron dark sepia pens.
I sketched for about 20 minutes and then I walked toward Tunnel #36 to find a good vantage point to photograph the Zephyr and I decided on standing near the eastern entrance of Tunnel #35 so I could photograph the train coming out of Tunnel #36. And then turn westward to capture the Zephyr as it disappeared into Tunnel # 35.
I had no idea when the train would be emerging from the tunnel but I filled my time being serenaded by the beautiful whistle of a mountain chickadee. This is the song of the western mountains. Spring was slowly arriving in the Sierras.
At 10:40, I saw the headlights of the westbound Zephyr.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
I have always loved train travel. The idea of a traveling community that passes through landscapes, towns, and cities in stasis. On this day, one of the biggest travel days of the calandar, I was in stasis in an important railway town on the transcontinental railway, Camp 20. Later to become Illinoistown and later renamed for the Speaker of the House, Schuyler Colfax by then Governor Leland Stanford.
The only statue in existence of Schuyler Colfax, later to be Vice President under Grant. Stanford named the town after him after a brief visit by Colfax. At the Southern Pacific Passenger Depot.
The east bound passanger train from Sacramento, worked it’s way up the valley into the station. The California Zephyr was running a little late. I walked over to my car and headed out towards Highway 174 to the Historical Viewpoint for Cape Horn. I waited and down below, the Zephyr passed and soon, on the distant hill, the train worked it’s way up the mountain and started up the grade towards the Cape Horn cut, high above the North Fork of the American River. The cars rounding the horn and disappearing from sight. I returned to the train depot to start working my Colfax sketch.
I was sitting on a bench at the restored Southern Pacific passenger depot platform as the westbound California Zephyr worked itself down from the heights of the Sierra Nevada, on it’s way to Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area. The train, now being headed by two underwhelming Amtrak diesels, paused long enough for passengers to embark and disembark, as relatives greeted or waved goodbye to those on the platform. And I was just in limbo, not on the train but wanting to be there, as the cars rocked gentle on the steel rails.
Eastbound California Zephyr rolling into Colfax station on it’s way to it’s final destination of Chicago. The old Southern Pacific passenger depot is on the left.
After my visit to the California State Railway Museum I headed to a lasting vestige of the Transcontinental Railway, an engineering feat called, “the eighth wonder of the world”. It was about 30 minutes north of Sacramento between Newcastle and Auburn. This was the 63 foot deep and 800 feet long man-made canyon known as Bloomer Cut.
Like the still present ruts of the Oregon Trail, this rail cut is still there. It was blazed in 1864 with blood, sweat, and black powder. The builders did not have the heavy machinery of modernity but hundreds of laborers with pick, shovel, and wheelbarrow. This is one of the few remnants of the Transcontinental Railway, a permanent scar in the earth that shows it extisted. I was reading the Stephen Ambrose book Nothing Like it in the World and now I was reading it in the landscape.
I sat on a small boulder next to the rail line just where the cut began and I got a sketch in before it started to rain. Two things that don’t go together are watercolor painting and rain.
In the middle of Bloomer Cut, looking out to the southern end towards Newcastle, Roseville and Sacramento.
After reading about one of the other incredible engineering feats on the western reaches of the Transcontinental Railway, a cut made around a rock face, high above the North Fork of the American River called Cape Horn, I desided to see if it still existed. A quick google search not only confirmed its existence but also that it was located near Colfax, a mere 30 minutes east from my mother’s house in Penn Valley. I simply could not pass up this sketching opportunity.
Camp 20, which was later renamed Colfax to honor a visit to the railroad by then Speaker of the House, Schuyler Colfax. The town was the staging area for the first real assault on conquering the heights of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Railway grades cannot exceed 2%, that is a rise of two feet over 100 feet of rail. This provided one of the major engineering challenges for laying track across the Sierras. Many tunnels were blasted through granite to reduce the climb and a roadbed had to be blasted into the side of the cliff at Cape Hope to make the ascent on the western slope of Sierra Nevada.
This incredible engineering feat would not have been possible without the thousands of Chinese laborers who worked on the line. The workers had to be lowered over the cliff in reed baskets where there would drill a hole in the rock by hand and then fill the hole with black power. When they lit the fuse they had a short time to be hauled back up out of harm’s way. They gave their sweat, blood, and lives to make the cut around Cape Horn. The Central Pacific did not keep records of Chinese fatalities so we will never know the true toll in lives sacrificed in order to make a railroad that spread from sea to shinning sea a reality.
A field sketch of Cape Horn from the viewpoint of Highway 174 near Colfax.
Cape Horn railway bed is still in use today. Eastbound California Zephyr just leaving Colfax headed to Chicago, Ill.