Silver Streak Pioneer Zephyr

Get ready to travel back in time to May 26, 1934, when you step aboard the Pioneer Zephyr for a record breaking "ride" from Denver to Chicago. This slick, stainless steel, diesel-powered railroad train, built by the Budd Company in 1934 for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad (CB&Q), was created to advertise the speed and glamour of passenger rail service in the United States.

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It took just 13 hours and five minutes traveling at a speed of 112.5 mph for the Zephyr to set a new speed record, making it the first successful streamliner on American railroads. The historic dawn-to-dusk dash even inspired a 1934 film and the train's nickname, "The Silver Streak." Today, the Zephyr lives at the Museum of Science and Industry, where families are invited to take a simulated, guided "ride" on this symbol of transportation innovation.

In the early 1930s, the U.S. was in the depths of the Great Depression and freight and passenger train transportation had reached a standstill. Rail services hadn't changed much since the mid-19th century, and passengers just didn't have money for luxuries such as travel.

Enter Chicago-based Ralph Budd, president of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, who was tasked with reinventing the rails and reigniting interest in rail travel. In 1932, Ralph Budd met Edward Budd, an automotive steel pioneer who shared the same last name (but wasn't related) and happened to be demonstrating his new prototype rail motorcar built of stainless steel. Stainless steel was lighter, stronger and its silver slicker; a stainless steel railcar could carry more for less. The former Budd was sold.

Next, Ralph Budd had to come up with a snazzy name to snare the public. Budd had been reading "The Canterbury Tales," a story that begins with pilgrims setting out on a journey, inspired by the budding springtime and by Zephyrus, the gentle and nurturing west wind. And so the Zephyr was born. The first Zephyr was completed on April 9, 1934. 

The Zephyr made its public debut with a nonstop, record-breaking run from Denver to Chicago. The Dawn to Dusk Dash was painstakingly planned - trains on the Zephyr's route were diverted, every single spike and bolt along the tracks checked and double checked.

Speed signs were installed along the route to warn the Zephyr's crew of dangerous curves ahead and every road crossing was overseen by a flagman. Local police officers, members of the American Legion and even the Boy Scouts of America were called in to protect stations along the route.

"I guess there were more than a million people who turned out along the route to see us go by," shared J.S. Ford, one of the Zephyr's pilots and assistant master mechanic. "It seemed like the entire population was lined up at every town, city and village to cheer us along. Even the farmers in the fields got a big kick out of it."

Only a lucky few were able to ride the train on its initial run, including news reporters and some high ranking Burlington employees and members of the public who were able to secure one of the 72 coveted seats. Ralph Budd and Edward G. Budd were both on board to see their dreams realized. The train prepared a small, birdcage-sized space to host a "Rocky Mountain Canary," only to be surprised with a burro that Ralph Budd welcomed with a "Why not? One more jackass on this trip won't make a difference." Zeph, the burro contributed by the Rocky Mountain News, was thus the official train mascot.

With its 8-cylinder, 600-horsepower (447 kW), 8-201-A model Winton engine, the train zipped out of Denver at 7:04 a.m. Central Daylight Time and darted to Chicago, arriving at 8:09 p.m., one hour and 55 minutes faster than anticipated. It took the Zephyr just 13 hours and five minutes at an average speed of 77 mph, a trip that usually took about 25 hours. The shiny silver bullet came close to the world land speed record of 130.6 mph when it reached a speed of 112.5 mph on the non-stop 1,015 mile route.

In 1960, on the 26th anniversary of its initial run, the original Pioneer Zephyr train (car numbers 9900, 505 and 570) was donated to Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. Today you can hop aboard for a 20-minute guided "ride" back in time. Kids and adults are encouraged to ask questions as they make the pretend lightning speed journey. Outside the train, on the shelter's floor level, you'll be invited to interact with displays on the technology and history of the Pioneer Zephyr. There are science interactives such as demonstrations on diesel-electric transmissions, compression ignition, center of gravity and streamlining. For more information, visit msichicago.org/whats-here/exhibits/pioneer-zephyr/

Photo by J.B. Spector/Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago