Nebraska Zephyr train stops in Rockford

Switch engine of Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, parked on South Main Street tracks. (Photo by Brian Landis)

By Susan Johnson
Copy Editor

A historic train passed through Rockford Tuesday, July 19, as the Nebraska Zephyr continued its journey from the Illinois Railway Museum in Union to the Quad Cities for Train Festival 2011. Though not well publicized, the event drew a number of Rockfordians who came out to see the train. Among them was Brian Landis, co-author of Rockford Area Railroads, who  took some photos of  the train and shared some information with us.

This unique passenger train rumbled its way west on the Union Pacific line, through Union, Marengo, Garden Prairie, Belvidere, Cherry Valley and Rockford, where it crossed Seventh Street. Its destination was Schweibert Riverfront Park in Rock Island, joining other steam and diesel locomotives on display at the Train Festival July 21-24.

The train was known as the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad’s Nebraska Zephyr. It was built in 1942 in LaGrange, Ill., in the Electro-Motive Division and labeled EMD #9911-A. The cars it pulled were older than the locomotive; built in 1936, they were usually joined to a Zephyr that ran between Chicago and Minneapolis, called the Twin Cities Zephyr.

Michael Schafer, main author of Rockford Area Railroads, explained that this fascinating piece of mobile machinery was actually three trains linked together.

Behind the first locomotive, the #9911-A, was a Chicago Northwestern #411 F7A diesel locomotive, a yellow engine that pulled a commuter train. It was built in 1949 and had the number EMD #8569. Third in line was the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy switch engine #9255, which reversed the train on the way from Rockford to Davis Junction because the track arrangement in Rockford made it necessary. From Davis Junction, the train would then head to Savanna. Landis noted it was late arriving in Rockford because it was detained in Belvidere by a special presentation from the mayor.

Zephyr pulling Chicago Northwestern No. 411 diesel locomotive, crossing Winnebago Street, heading west. (Photo by Brian Landis)

Schafer explained how the switch engine was detached from the first train, then was coupled onto the end of the Zephyr #9255. “They needed a locomotive to pull it backward down to Davis Junction. It had to be pulled down [because] it couldn’t safely be backed all the way,” he said.

Some of the Zephyrs that traversed the country were the California, the Denver, the Texas and Twin Cities zephyrs. There was even a Mark Twain Zephyr. The Nebraska Zephyr, like other Zephyrs constructed by the company, had five compartments. “There was a power baggage car, two coaches, a dining car and a parlor observation car,” said Schafer. The Nebraska Zephyr was the train used in the filming of A League of Their Own, the story of the Rockford Peaches, filmed at the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, Ill.

Train sets — how they functioned

“In 1947, when they built the new dome cars for the Twin Cities Zephyrs, they took the original 1936 Zephyr and made it into the Nebraska Zephyr,” Schafer recalled. “All they did was change the name on the side of the car. It ran between Chicago and Lincoln, Neb., from 1947 until about 1968. There were actually two sets. The complete set of cars for the Nebraska Zephyr is the power baggage car (where the locomotive is, with a generator), and a passenger car. There were two of these trains built.

“The train set [is linked] to all the cars attached to the train. You can disconnect cars and attach them to different cars. With the Nebraska Zephyr, it had a power baggage lounge car. In front of that car is a generator separated from the passenger section. It supplies electricity for the entire train once the cars are all connected,” said Schafer. “There is a section for the passengers’ baggage. The third part of the car is the lounge, where passengers can eat and drink. The second car is a coach, and the third car is a coach. The fourth car has a diner, and the fifth car is a parlor observation car, with individual swivel seating. There were two of these trains built in 1936. The other train was sold to Saudi Arabia about 1968 or ’69.

“One of these trains had the cars named after Greek goddesses, and the other, they were named after Greek gods. The Nebraska Zephyr is the goddess train. When they ran in Nebraska, they had to have both train sets. You had to have a train leaving Chicago for Lincoln in the morning, and also in the morning, one had to leave Lincoln for Chicago. They met each other halfway and passed en route. That was the only way you could provide daily service, by having train service on both tracks.

“That 9911 locomotive was built in 1942, but that was built to run a train called the Texas Zephyr between Denver and Dallas. That locomotive almost never was running on the Nebraska Zephyr, back in those days. It didn’t run on the Nebraska Zephyr until the Illinois Railway Museum got the 9911 and the Nebraska train set. The two had almost never run together.”

The train passed through Rockford again, coming back, Tuesday, July 26.

From the Aug. 10-16, 2011, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!