A head end view of the CB&Q's streamlined Denver Zephyr trainset in 1936.

(Photo: CB&Q publicity photo, Public domain, W. Lenheim Collection) This image is for sale - click image for more information.

Denver Zephyr drumhead


The Denver Zephyr was a streamlined passenger train operated by the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad between Chicago, Illinois, and Denver, Colorado. In peak years it ran to Colorado Springs. It operated from 1936 to 1973. The Denver Zephyr continued operating after the Burlington Northern Railroad merger in 1970. BN conveyed the train to Amtrak in 1971; Amtrak merged it with the Denver–Oakland City of San Francisco to form the San Francisco Zephyr and dropped the "Denver" name in 1973.

The first Denver Zephyrs

The first Zephyr service to Denver began May 31, 1936, with the trainsets of the Pioneer Zephyr and the Mark Twain Zephyr, trains 9900 and 9903. This new service was known as the Advance Denver Zephyr (see postcard photo below) and operated on a 16-hour schedule. The trains did not have sleepers, but introduced hostesses called "Zephyrettes".

In the meantime, after the success of the 3-car and 4-car Pioneer Zephyr, Twin Zephyrs, and Mark Twain Zephyrs, the Burlington had ordered two pairs of longer stainless steel streamliners from the Budd Company. One pair was fully articulated 6-car trainsets used to replace the 3-car Twin Cities Zephyrs. The other pair were 10-car trainsets, partly articulated, which became the Chicago-Denver Denver Zephyr. Accommodations on these trains included coaches, sections, single and double rooms, and dining and lounge facilities. The observation cars carried parlor seats for local travel.

On October 23, 1936, one of the new ten-car trainsets made a special run nonstop Chicago to Denver in an effort to break the 1934 record of the Pioneer Zephyr between the two cities. The train went from Chicago to Denver in 12 hours, 12 minutes, and 27 seconds, at start-to-stop average of 83.89 miles per hour (135.01 km/h) and reached 116 miles per hour (187 km/h) between Akron and Brush in Colorado. Distance was given as 1,017.22 miles (1,637.06 km) via Plattsmouth direct to Lincoln, Nebraska, bypassing Omaha on the regular route of the train. The new trainsets went into regular service 16 days later, November 8, 1936, replacing the trainsets used on the route since May.

Power for the new trainsets came from the General Motors' Electro-Motive Division. Each was led by a twin-engine forerunner to the E series featuring two Winton V-12 201-A diesels of 900 horsepower (670 kW) each, articulated to a booster with one V-16 of 1,200 horsepower (890 kW) for a total rating of 3000. These were bodied by Budd in shot-welded stainless steel, and designated 9906A/B "Silver King and Silver Queen" and 9907A/B "Silver Knight/Silver Princess".

The train ran 1,034 miles (1,664 km) between Denver and Chicago overnight in 16 to 16½ hours. Within two years a dinette coach and an all-room sleeper were added.

The trainsets were refurbished in the winter of 1948–49 and operated in DZ service until October 1956 when they were reassigned to the Denver–Fort Worth/Dallas Texas Zephyr route on Burlington subsidiaries Colorado and Southern and Fort Worth and Denver Railways.

The second Denver Zephyr

Around 1953 Union Pacific began reequipping its competing City of Denver. In addition, the Burlington, Denver and Rio Grande Western, and Western Pacific Railroads had replaced their heavyweight Chicago-Oakland Exposition Flyer with a new streamlined California Zephyr carrying Vista-domes in 1949. Both of these trains took passengers from the DZ, but ridership remained respectable. But the train's consist — semi-articulated with a unique braking, steam connection system that was incompatible with other standard equipment — meant that cars could not be added to the train proper, but had to be added ahead of the baggage car or as a separate section. These cars needed their own food service, compromising the economics of adding the additional cars. The Burlington decided in 1955 to reequip the train with more conventional non-articulated equipment. Thus was conceived the last complete streamlined train to be built for a private railroad in the United States.

The new stainless steel train, also built by the Budd Company, offered all room sleeping accommodations and, in addition to a full diner, offered a Vista-dome coffee shop car called the Chuckwagon. Parlor seats continued to be available in the observation car. Because of the popularity of the Denver-Chicago segment of the Vista-dome California Zephyr, the new train also carried Vista-Domes. In addition, a new all room sleeping accommodation, the Slumbercoach, offered private sleeping facilities, with in-room washstand and toilet, to passengers at coach fares plus a small surcharge. These cars were revolutionary in their use of fiberglass room modules. Each train carried two and they always were sold out, even up to the beginning of Amtrak. By 1959 Slumbercoaches would appear on the trains of four other railroads, although three would later give them up. Between 1959 and late 1964, CB&Q's four cars and Northern Pacific Railway’s four cars were pooled in Denver Zephyr / North Coast Limited service. The pool required tight scheduling and good timekeeping and was discontinued when NP acquired eight additional Slumbercoaches second-hand. Even though only 18 of these revolutionary cars were built new, they remained popular, even after operation of rail passenger service was assumed by Amtrak, and carried passengers until the mid-1990s, when age and changes in passenger car requirements forced their retirement.

The second Denver Zephyr began operation at the end of October 1956 and soon eclipsed its competitor, the Union Pacific Railroad's City of Denver. As the train now had conventional equipment it could be expanded with other cars of Burlington streamlined passenger car fleet as well as leased cars. During the summer months trains of 20 or more cars were not uncommon and during that and holiday seasons, the train often split into two sections.


Service type: Inter-city rail
Status: Discontinued
Locale: Midwestern United States / Western United States
First service: 1936
Last service: 1973
Successor: San Francisco Zephyr
Former operators: Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, Burlington Northern Railroad, Amtrak
Route Termini: Chicago, Illinois / Colorado Springs, Colorado
Distance traveled: 1,109 miles (1,785 km)
Train numbers: 1 (westbound), 10 (eastbound)
On-board services
Seating arrangements: Reclining seat coaches
Sleeping arrangements: Roomettes and double bedrooms
Catering facilities: Dining car
Observation facilities: Vista dome observation lounge (1961)

CB&Q Route 

0 - Chicago
38 mi / 61 km - Aurora
83 mi / 134 km - Mendota
104 mi / 167 km - Princeton
131 mi / 211 km - Kewanee
163 mi / 262 km - Galesburg
179 mi - 288 km - Monmouth
206 mi / 332 km - Burlington
233 mi / 375 km - Mount Pleasant
280 mi / 451 km - Ottumwa
360 mi / 579 km - Osceola
393 mi / 632 km - Creston
496 mi / 798 km - Omaha
551 mi / 887 km - Lincoln
648 mi / 1043 km - Hastings
702 mi / 1130 km - Holdrege
779 mi / 1254 km - McCook
922 mi / 1484 km - Akron
956 mi / 1539 km - Fort Morgan
1034 mi / 1664 km - Denver Union Station - connections with City of San Francisco to Oakland

Route in 1960

0 - Colorado Springs

75 mi / 121 km - Denver


330 mi / 531 km - McCook

558 km / 347 mi - Lincoln

613 mi / 987 km - Omaha


908 mi / 1461 km - Burlington


across Mississippi River

1114 mi / 1793 km - Chicago

With the 1956 re-equipping the train also began to serve Colorado Springs. Sandwiched between the diner and the Chuckwagon, the section consisted of a coach, a Slumbercoach, and a sleeper. These cars ran on the Denver and Rio Grande Railway's Royal Gorge passenger train between Denver and Colorado Springs.

Initially, the Chuckwagon operated with the section on to Colorado Springs, but, by the mid-1960s, to allow a longer service time between runs, the car ran only to Denver and a dome coach was substituted for the Chicago-Colorado Springs coach. On January 1, 1967, the Colorado Springs section was replaced by a bus connection.

Though the number of cars were reduced during the off-season, the train ran mostly intact until September 7, 1968, when the Chuckwagon became seasonal and the observation car, with its flat end and rear-diaphragm, became a midtrain lounge during the off season. The train name was retained by Amtrak in May 1971.

One consist of Denver Zephyr cars was sold to the Saudi Railways Organization, where it operated and subsequently went into storage in a yard in Eastern Saudi Arabia.

The Denver Zephyr's "Silver Flash" observation car.

(Photo: CB&Q Publicity Photo, Everett L. DeGolyer Jr. Collection, SMU Central University Libraries, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo of the dining car of the Denver Zephyr in October of 1940. The two diners were named Silver Service and Silver Grill. (Chicago Burlington and Quincy Railroad, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Photo of the lounge car of the Denver Zephyr, October 1940. The two lounge cars were named Silver Bar and Silver Lining. (Chicago Burlington and Quincy Railroad, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons) 

Postcard depiction of the Burlington's Denver Zephyr pulled by the Silver King locomotive. (E.C. Kropp Company, Milwaukee, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Promotional postcard for what would be named the Denver Zephyr. For some reason, Burlington appears to have scheduled the train before a formal name was chosen as this describes it as the "Advance Zephyr". The train is also described as having no sleeping cars--being coach only--"for the present". Pullman cars were listed as being part of the first consist of the train when it began in 1936. This appears to be a very early promotional piece for the train.  (Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad (Burlington), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


The Zephyr under Amtrak

Amtrak took over in 1971 and decided to run the Denver Zephyr daily between Chicago and Denver. The Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway declined to join Amtrak, so the tri-weekly Union Pacific/Southern Pacific City of San Francisco was diverted from Cheyenne into Denver for combination with the Zephyr to Chicago. During the summer of 1971 the City and the Zephyr ran as separate sections (on the same schedule) between Denver and Chicago; after that summer the two trains were combined on the days the City ran. Amtrak renamed the City of San Francisco the San Francisco Zephyr on June 11, 1972. The Denver Zephyr name disappeared altogether on October 26, 1973. For several years afterward the San Francisco Zephyr carried Chicago–Denver cars.


The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy's Original Denver Zephyr passenger train in 1936.

(Image: Everett L. DeGolyer Jr. Collection, SMU Central University Libraries, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons)


A Denver Zephyr postcard.

(CB&Q, Public Domain, W. Lenheim Collection. Click image for more information.)