Part Two – Southbound to Frisco
My railroad adventure in the summer of 1969 was going very well indeed. I’d taken two weeks off from my Operator’s job on the New Haven, left NYC for Montreal, then the Canadian National Super Continental across Canada to Vancouver.
The trains were everything I had hoped transcontinental streamliners would be; clean, punctual, well-traveled with interesting people having a great time enjoying the vast expanses and stunning scenery that only train travel allowed you to fully appreciate.
Now it was time to head south from Vancouver, to Seattle, Portland, and on to San Francisco to meet my Air Force and railfan buddy who was returning from Vietnam for a month’s R&R. The west coast corridor between Vancouver and Portland had regular service with convenient schedules operated by several different railroads. In these pre-Amtrak years, most lines were struggling with the financial burden of ICC mandated passenger services that were losing business to air travel and Interstate highways. Train-off petitions kept the lawyers busy, but the operating departments, to their credit, tried to maintain a high level of service, since passenger trains were often the only contact between the public and the railroads. There was still a lot of pride in their important work.
Walking from the Vancouver station to catch my southbound, I was pleasantly surprised to find my train had an observation car! The engines and cars were part of a pool arrangement, so we had a Northern Pacific engine paired with Great Northern power and coaches from both roads mixed and matched. Naturally, OBS would be the place to ride!
Looking back toward the station, visible as we depart (on time), it was nice to see new concrete canopies being built. Someone still thought investing in railroad stations and infrastructure might help keep at least some of the declining ridership. Following us right after we departed, the Sperry Rail Service car would continue to examine every inch of rail to identify any anomalies quickly.
South along Puget Sound offered fabulous views of the water and tidal flats, with identical train-sets heading northbound.
I took my new Pentax H1A, headed for the dutch doors, and was lucky to catch this semaphore signal dropping from clear after the engine had tripped the circuit. Look at the signal case! Everything painted and fresh as a daisy!
If passenger railroads were in decline, there was little evidence of that on the trip down to Seattle.
From Seattle down to Portland, Union Pacific provided a first class service, with multiple dome cars, a full diner and great scenery.
Once in Seattle, I checked my luggage and headed for the yard office, where I introduced myself to the yardmaster, showed him my union card and New Haven pass, and told him about my trip.
He was most welcoming and directed me to the locations he thought I would be interested in, with the usual cautions: pay attention, look both ways before crossing any track, and step over, never on, the rails. I thanked him for his advice, and told him I would return the favor if he ever visited my New Haven Tower in Stamford, Connecticut.
I felt like a kid in a candy store! Back home, we had lots of trains, but frankly they all looked pretty much alike. EP-5 electrics, FL-9 diesels, and dozens of local Electric MU’s providing local service to Grand Central Terminal.
But here! Northern Pacific, Spokane, Portland & Seattle, Great Northern, Union Pacific, and Southern Pacific, all perfectly posed for my photographic pleasure. All these F units! Unusual and exotic passenger cars! All over the place!
A few rolls of Kodachrome 64 later and train time for my SP train to San Francisco was approaching.
Once aboard and with my possessions in the roomette, I spent the remaining daylight hours hanging out the dutch doors, savoring the ride through the mountains until darkness, with the only break being for dinner in the diner.
The next morning I was up at daybreak to watch sunny California racing past.
Before long we were approaching Oakland where I transferred to a bus into San Francisco.
This was my second visit to San Francisco, my first being sixteen years before at age eight in 1953, when my Dad was sent there from New York for a three month business assignment. We made the trip from home in NY by train; Lake Shore Limited to Chicago, then California Zephyr to Oakland, and finally the Southern Pacific ferry across the Bay to our apartment. This was heady stuff for an impressionable third grader. Unfortunately, in 1953, I didn’t have a camera, but for my second visit to San Francisco, I did!
In 1969, the new BART system was under construction, and Market Street was torn up, but still open for surface trolleys, so we rode to the end of the line to dip a toe in the Pacific Ocean, and walk around Golden Gate Park, then back to Powell Street and the iconic cable cars all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf.
After a full day of riding up and down the hills of San Francisco, it was time for a delicious dinner in Chinatown, a good night’s rest, and up to catch the bus over to the Western Pacific terminal in Oakland.
From there, our double bedroom compartment in the Observation Car of the California Zephyr would allow me to recreate my 1953 trip on this wonderful train during the final months before the discontinuance application was approved.
It’s been fifty years since this trip, and much has changed. But it feels like yesterday.
Bob Hughes – Photographs and text Copyright 2019
Join Bob next month for the conclusion of his cross-country trip aboard the eastbound California Zephyr. (Part One is here.)