Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Celebrating the California Zephyr in Galesburg

Amtrak employees and travelers step off the California Zephyr in Galesburg on Tuesday, March 19, 2024. The Chicago to California route is celebrating the 75th anniversary of its inaugural run on March 20, 1949.
Jane Carlson
Tri States Public Radio
Amtrak employees and supporters gathered at the Galesburg Amtrak station on Tuesday, March 19, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the route's inaugural run.

The California Zephyr is Amtrak’s longest daily route, covering 2,500 miles from Chicago to the plains through the Rocky Mountains to the coast.

The iconic route is celebrating the 75th anniversary of its inaugural run on March 20, 1949.

After leaving Chicago every day at 2 p.m., the westbound California Zephyr stops in Naperville, Princeton, and then Galesburg, before heading into Iowa and beyond.

“Galesburg now has the benefit of four trains inbound and four trains outbound every day, which is more than they can say in Houston,” said Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari.

That includes the California Zephyr, Southwest Chief, Illinois Zephyr, and Carl Sandburg routes.

Magliari was part of a crew that stepped off the train Tuesday afternoon in Galesburg with a large cake to celebrate the California Zephyr’s anniversary.

“Imagine it’s 1949, it’s the end of World War II. And the railroads are going to make a big effort to get people back on trains,” Magliari said. “Because a lot of people riding trains in World War II were people riding them because they had to. They were troop trains.”

Long before the California Zephyr was an Amtrak route, three railroads worked together to create the trip from Chicago to the coast on stainless steel, diesel-powered trains.

The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroad took passengers from Chicago to Denver. The Rio Grande took them from Denver to Salt Lake City -- and the Western Pacific from Salt Lake City to Oakland.

“It was agreed that the name would evoke thoughts of speed and strength in order to be the last word in modern rail travel. The name Zephyrus leapt from the pages of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales,” Tom Whitt, president of the Burlington Route Historical Society, told the crowd gathered at Galesburg’s Amtrak station.

The three railroads operated the California Zephyr route from 1949 to 1971. Then there was a hiatus until Amtrak picked up the route in 1983.

But Whitt said not that much has changed. He said in 1949, the westbound California Zephyr trip included 30 stops over 2,520 miles -- and it took 50 hours and 20 minutes with 11 cars.

“Currently the California Zephyr trip includes 35 stops in 2,438 miles, and takes 51 hours and 20 minutes with 6 to 8 cars,” Whitt said.

Julie King, executive director of the National Railroad Hall of Fame, said Galesburg appreciates having more Amtrak service than communities 10 times its size.

“We love the accessibility that the train gives us,” King said.

While the California Zephyr does not stop in Macomb, Mayor Mike Inman was on hand for the celebration in Galesburg.

“I couldn’t be more proud to be an Amtrak-served community,” Inman said. “We celebrated 50 years of our route when Amtrak celebrated their 50th.”

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Jane Carlson is TSPR's regional reporter.