Part 3 of 3 — Oakland to Chicago on the California Zephyr
Story by Steve Marshall, photos by Steve Marshall, Michele Marshall and Greg Marshall
© Steve Marshall
Day 9 (April 5)
Following a brief visit this morning by my friends Ethan Thorman and Tom Driscoll, we departed Emeryville on time on train #6, the California Zephyr. The beginning of this journey is very nice with lots of bridges and water views of the San Pablo Bay. There is a huge bridge at Benicia that was fun to cross and the area in general is pretty rural broken up by the occasional small town. We arrived in Sacramento and had about 15 minutes there so we stepped off the train and enjoyed the perfect weather. There was a young railfan there in a Southern Pacific shirt and we gave him a quick tour of NYC-3 that he enjoyed.
After departing Sacramento, we very soon were in Roseville, the home of the rotary snowplows. We caught just a glimpse of one. My understanding is they have not been used since 2011, although they apparently did do some testing in early March of this year.
As we climbed the West slope of the Sierra Nevada mountain chain, the scenery kept getting better and better. Around Colfax, another station stop, the tunnels began and you could begin to see the snow- capped mountains back to the east. There was lots of work going on up on the north track and we spent lots of time waving at the workers as we continued to climb.
The highlight for me was going through the snow sheds. We also met a very long double stack train in the Emigrant Gap area. The tracks up here look great – lots of concrete ties and really smooth riding. Most of the old Southern Pacific-era signals have been replaced and there are still a few of the old signal bridges remaining but I’m guessing not for long.
As we began to descend the Eastern slope of Donner Pass, we met anther train, this time a mixed freight working hard upgrade. By the time we cleared him, we were arriving in Truckee where had about 5 minutes to get off the train and stretch our legs. From Truckee it was a beautiful ride in to Reno along the Truckee River, full on this day with lots of water from the melting snow.
Reno was about a 15 minute long stop. Reno marks a very abrupt transition between the mountains to the west and the desert to the east. We gave a couple of interested individuals tours of NYC-3, including Glen Brewer of this blog. The rest of the day and evening was spent traversing this vast land of sand and mountains. Immediately before another wonderful dinner, we were treated to an incredible sunset up around Golconda, Nevada.
The last notable event of the day actually occurred shortly after midnight. My dad and I were the only ones still awake. We had left Elko and heard something on the radio about meeting a train at Silver Zone. I assumed the train we were meeting was Amtrak #5. As we pulled to a stop in the siding, we stepped out on to the rear platform and were greeted by a display of stars that was stunning. The skies were so clear, you could see the stars nearly from horizon to horizon. It has to be seen to be believed. We were in the proverbial middle of nowhere, very few ground lights outside of the signals on the railroad. Suddenly, we heard on the scanner something about a UP something West. That did not sound like Amtrak. As we gazed ahead down the side of our train, we began to see the glow of a headlight. We realized that this was not Amtrak! It turned out to be what I think was a grain load running at full throttle by us at about 10 MPH. Words really do not do justice to how impressive this was. We must have been at or near the top of the grade because by the time the rear of the train got by us, he was going more like 50 MPH. From a railfanning perspective, this was one of the highlights of the trip. Really the only way you could have witnessed what we did was by being on the rear platform when we were there.
Day 10 (April 6)
I woke up early today because I wanted to see as much of the Utah desert at first light as possible. I ended up getting up just past Helper, Utah. I rode the rear platform in to Green River, then showered and came back out for our passage through Ruby Canyon, which sits on the Utah/Colorado border. Ruby Canyon is a nice area that follows the Colorado River and even features a short tunnel.
Grand Junction was our next stop and it was a rather sobering sight as it featured a huge number of stored locomotives. The downturn in coal business along this route has really made itself known in Grand Junction. The yard was a ghost town and I saw no sign of any other trains.
As we approached Glenwood Springs, the desert completed its transition to mountains. Many people would probably consider the next 4 or 5 hours from here to Denver the best that Amtrak has to offer in terms of scenery. It would be hard to disagree with this. Many of the best sections of this route are inaccessible by any means other than rail or river. You go miles and miles with not a road in sight. To me that is what makes this section so much fun; you have to take the train or use a river outfitter to get back to the best areas. And today, despite the fact that the water had to be frigid, there were numerous rafters and fisherman out and about.
As we continued east, the snow-capped mountains got closer and I started to get my hopes up that we would end up seeing snow by the rail close and personal pretty soon. By the time we arrived in Granby, the snow was right beside the tracks and I marked our arrival in Fraser by jumping off and grabbing a snowball and bringing it inside to my niece. She had missed getting a snowball at Truckee the previous day so I decided to help her out with snow from another mountain chain today.
In addition to the snow, the temperature had dropped pretty dramatically but was still perfect for sitting on the rear platform. I had in my mind that immediately upon departing Fraser, I would sit on the rear platform all the way through the five mile long Moffat Tunnel. This resolve lasted about thirty seconds. There were five of us out side and suddenly we realized our mouths and eyes were literally filling up with dirt. We all made a mad dash for the door to get back inside but not before getting a huge dose of dirt. I had used some face cream earlier in the day and the dirt was sticking to the face cream giving me a particularly sooty look. It took warm water and soap and paper towel to get our faces clean.
Following this adventure, we soon exited the tunnel and began threading our way through the numerous other, shorter tunnels down to Denver. This is a spectacular ride and we enjoyed the open platform as Denver slowly came in to view. As we pulled in to Denver Union Station, I realized that we had gone from Helper Utah to Denver Colorado and only met one other train, our westbound counterpart. Such is the state of affairs on the Moffat Route in 2016.
Coming in to the refurbished Denver Union Station involves a back-up move. Between waiting on a signal and the backup move itself, we were nearly an hour late arriving at the station. We were not too late, however, to enjoy a quick walk over to the station’s main building. What a great job they have done here. The station is beautiful and it is being used for both Amtrak and the new Denver light rail system. After spending about 45 minutes in Denver, it was off again for points east, which involved an overnight run across the plains of Eastern Colorado and Nebraska. A nice dinner punctuated by some pretty rough track brought an end to another perfect day aboard NYC-3.
Day 11 (April 7)
I had trouble waking up today. The rough track of the overnight hours had really cut in on my sleep and even when I was sleeping, I was not sleeping well. But, I did not have the option of not getting up as there was a surprise scheduled for today. My mom and dad’s friends, Dave and Martha Milhouse, had the day before ridden from Princeton, Illinois to Ottumwa, Iowa, where they spent the night. The plan was for them to ride with us from Ottumwa back to their car in Princeton. We were still running nearly an hour late from our delay in Denver and I kept in touch with them and let them know where we were. We finally arrived in Ottumwa and, much to my mom and dad’s surprise, boarded our special guests. Having them with us for a few hours today was appropriate as they have shared several Amtrak adventures together over the years.
David especially enjoyed the rear platform view of the crossing of the Mississippi River at Burlington, Iowa. We also passed several coal empties on their way back to the Wyoming coal mines. It was a cool morning that was a little chilly on the rear platform at speed but we did not let that stop us from being out there quite a bit today. We finally rolled in to Princeton and they ended up being the only people getting off at this station. They thanked us for the first class ride and we were off for the final leg of the trip in to Chicago.
As we neared Chicago, the ride began to be bittersweet for me. I had spent so much time planning and anticipating this trip and now it was on the verge of being over. So I spent as much time as possible on the rear platform as we came in to the western suburbs of Chicago savoring every mile. My nephew Luke rode a lot of the final miles with me and we passed numerous freight and passenger trains to his delight. We even passed the BNSF passenger train near Naperville.
Instead of pulling straight in to Union Station, we backed around the wye just south of Union Station and backed in under the train shed. That meant that we ended the trip much as we began, with NYC-3 right against the bumper at the end of the track. It was a fitting way to end the trip.
We detrained here and headed for Michigan Avenue as we had some more shopping to do plus a dinner date at La Scarola to celebrate my daughter, Kate’s, birthday. Even though it was cold, it was dry and we were able to once again enjoy walking around Chicago. We walked and used the subway to get around the rest of the day.
Following the dinner, it was time to head back to NYC-3 for one final night. We hailed our taxis and came back in to the Amtrak Coach Yard where we found NYC-3 back away from the river by several tracks. The positive was we were not carrying any luggage so the little extra walk was not a problem. Sleep came immediately as it had been another very busy day and evening.
Day 12 (April 8)
This morning we were scheduled to be picked up to leave Chicago for home at 11 AM. So the morning was spent packing and helping to make sure that NYC-3 was cleaned up for the next guests, who would be departing for the ride back to the East Coast that evening.
We ended up arriving home at about 4 PM Eastern Time after driving through a combination of snow, ice and rain most of the way. To say we were exhausted is an understatement. I nearly fell asleep several times during the ride back home.
For me, this was the culmination of years of planning and anticipating. The trip went extremely well and despite the many things that can go wrong on a cross-country train trip, we were very fortunate to have encountered almost no issues at all. The nice thing about the trip is there was something in it for everyone. There was scenery, there was railfanning, there were wonderful restaurants, there was great shopping and maybe most important of all, NYC-3 provided the perfect place for everyone to just be together and see the country.
Lovett Smith and his train car were the perfect hosts. If you think you have an interest in someday traveling the country in a private railroad car, I would suggest you speak to Lovett. He and his website, www.nyc-3.com, are a great resource and starting point. For a large group like ours, the price was surprisingly competitive with any other luxury travel option. A suggestion is to start with a 2 or 3 day long trip and if that suits you, do a longer trip as we did.
Thanks for reading my account of the trip. I hope you enjoyed it and the photos and that you are inspired to explore our great country, whether it be by private railroad car or any other way that suits you.
- Private cars for hire
Mansions on Rails: The Folklore of The Private Railway Car, 1959, by Lucius Beebe