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Private Rail Cars Birch Grove and The Observatory to AAPRCO 2008

"Rails to Sails"

Riding The Cincinnati Railway Company's Private Railcars to the AAPRCO Convention

Traveling from Chicago, Illinois, to San Pedro, California,  September 16 - 19, 2008.

Photos and Story by Carl Morrison,


You can imagine my excitement, as a Field Reporter for, when I learned that I'd be riding for the first time in Private Rail Cars from Chicago to San Pedro, CA, for the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners (AAPRCO) 31st Annual Convention.  This multi-part web report begins with a description of the Cincinnati Railway Company's Private Rail Cars that I would be enjoying for a 2,000+ mile trip across the USA in September, 2008.  Following that, this report focuses on the Ride To California, followed by the AAPRCO Convention's Activities, Meetings, and Excursions. 

Comments, additions, and corrections are welcomed.


Birch Grove


CAPACITY: Day or Night 22



Dome-Sleeper Lounge

CAPACITY: Day 35, Night 6




    The car was built by the Budd Company in 1950 as six double bedroom/ten roomette sleeping car 9020 for service on the Southern Pacific's Los Angeles-New Orleans "Sunset Limited".  Acquired by Amtrak in 1971 and renumbered 2696.  It was converted to Heritage 10-6 with handicapped roomette in 1980.  Renumbered to 2451 and Birch Grove.  Retired in 1995 and sold to current owner Brian Collins.  The Car was upgraded in 2002-2003 and is based in Cincinnati, Ohio.
--From the Rails to the Sails, APPRCO [sic] 2008 Convention Booklet.

(Golden text in this report is from websites and books as noted.)




    Budd-built in 1954 as dome-coach-lounge 558 for Northern Pacific's Chicago-Seattle North Coast Limited.  It became Amtrak 9485 in 1971, and 9406 in 1983.  It was acquired in 1995 by Rail Adventures, and mechanically upgraded in 1996.  Addition of galley, lounge and one master bedroom completed during 1998.  Two master bedrooms were added in 1999.  Car was previously named Vista Dome but was renamed recently Observatory.  The car is owned by Tom McOwen and based in Cincinnati, Ohio.
--From the Rails to the Sails, APPRCO [sic] 2008 Convention Booklet.

Another  Chapter  in Writing the Rails*  by Carl Morrison,

As September's Full Moon streamed into my bedroom picture window on the Private Railcar Birch Grove, I wondered how this Iowa moonlit night might have looked differently when this 1950 Birch Grove car was new.  Since only tree silhouettes passed in the moonlight and corn tassels stretched like ocean swells over the gently rolling fields, I concluded that this scene would have been exactly the same as the view from a passenger train at night 58 years ago.

What is different, as we travel westward this night, is the comfort level of Yours Truly.  My roomette on the Birch Grove still has the same fixtures, although restored,  but the chrome ashtray is not used these days, so in the past there would have been the constant smell of cigarette smoke within the car.  The mattress is thicker than current Amtrak mattresses, but probably the same as in this car's heyday.  The ride, however, is the difference...much smoother today than the clackety-clack of rail seams now replaced with ribbon rails.  Also, the speed is greater with modern diesels pulling us, as we travel miles and miles at 79, sometimes 90, mph.  And, I doubt that many people use the used razor blade slot by my sink these days.

(Double click any photo to see a double-sized copy; Click BACK in your browser to return to this page.)

Birch Grove roomette hallway
Birch Grove roomette
Birch Grove roomette

A foregone conclusion among rail travelers is that the best way to see, and photograph, America The Beautiful is by rail car with open vestibules.  However, one other consideration that I had never experienced, is riding in a true dome car.  These features, open vestibules and a 360-degree-view dome rail car is what you get when riding the Cincinnati Railway Company's The Observatory.  Riding in The Observatory private rail car also has the advantage of having a low number of accompanying guests so that you can take all your meals and spend every travelling minute in the dome if you like.


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Getting to the Departure Point -

Trains, Planes, and Automobiles all within 24 hours.

Chef Bill was the man in charge onboard the Birch Grove and The Observatory.  I first contacted him the night I arrived by plane in Chicago.  I learned later that The Cardinal, on the back of which the private cars were to be attached in Cincinnati, was late arriving because of Hurricane Ike flooding.  There were three passengers who boarded in Cincinnati.  At 3:15 in the afternoon the power went out in the city.  The passengers boarded in Norwood at McChouglla Yard, eight miles north of Cincinnati Union Terminal.  At 1 a.m. there still was no power in the city.  The train was made up and at 6:30 a.m.  the consist proceeded to Indianapolis, arriving about noon, nearly six hours late.  The train was nulled in Indianapolis and Amtrak passengers were bussed to Chicago.  Private car passengers wondered about their fate.  However, The Cardinal deadheaded to Chicago with the private cars. 

When I called, after arriving in Chicago Monday night,  Chef Bill said they were not yet in Chicago, and that they had been delayed.  I already had made plans to stay Monday night with friends in Huntley, northwest of Chicago. 

Tuesday morning, rail friend, Bob Williams, and I took the Metra from Big Timber Station, downtown and called Chef Bill again from the station.  He said they were in Inspection at that moment, and suggested I just stay at the terminal and board when they backed in on the back of the California Zephyr .

Metra at Big Timber Station, September 16, 2008.

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With about three hours in downtown Chicago before the California Zephyr was scheduled to depart, my friend Bob and I had breakfast at the terminal's food court, then took the water taxi from near Union Station to Michigan St. and walked to Millenium Park where we took photos of 'The Bean.'

Downtown Chicago:  Chicago River Taxi to Michigan Avenue and a walk to Millenium Park and Union Station.

Rail Fan, Bob, in Chicago Union Station's Metropolitan Lounge

Chicago Water Taxi Boarding stop near Union Station


"L" trains passed overhead on this bridge, the cars traveled on the lower level.

This bridge has cars over, trains under.


Condominiums with parking on the lower level of the towers.  Movies with cars flying out of the garage into the river have been filmed here.




Nearly finished Trump Tower

Billy Goat Tavern made famous on Saturday Night Live.





Many famous wall stones were built into and labeled in the Tribune Building.
Relief sculptures on bridge towers.

The Chicago Cubs' magic number as of this date.

Chicago Architecture Tour boats carry guests down the Chicago River into Lake Michigan.
Fountain and columnade in the northwest corner of Millenium Park
Yours Truly with self portrait in "The Bean."

Millenium Park



The Bean
Flash photo up under the bean.



Unique photographic tower and reflecting pool.  The faces change and frequently pucker and spout water.

Chicago "L" Train


California Zephyr and Southwest Chief Routes from Chicago to Galesburg, Illinois

I learned that both the California Zephyr and Southwest Chief follow the same route from Chicago to Galesburg, Illinois.  Some stations differ for each train during this section, but similar stops are Naperville, Princeton, and Galesburg, Illinois.

This being the first time I ever boarded a private rail car in an Amtrak Station, I simply asked the Amtrak person in the coach lounge where I should wait to board my private car.  She directed me to an unoccupied section of the waiting area next to the exit door to the California Zephyr.  Soon I saw a fellow in an apron come from the private cars to get other guests with luggage and I asked if he was Chef Bill.  He said that he was Steve, from The Caritas, but that I should just bring my luggage and follow him to the Birch Grove car that I was to board.  When I walked out of the Amtrak waiting area, in Chicago Station, four private cars were ready for departure behind Amtrak the California Zephyr:  The Caritas (from Minneapolis, MN), the Birch Grove, The Observatory, and the Chapel Hill all three of which had come from Cincinnati, OH, behind The Cardinal.


The Caritas

Birch Grove - Cincinatti Railway


Chapel Hill - Cincinnati Railway

Chapel Hill - Cincinnati Railway
Chapel Hill - Cincinnati Railway


The Observatory - Cincinnati Railway

Our Head End Power to Oakland, California

California Zephyr in Chicago, ready to depart.


The Birch Grove


Roomette #6 made up for daytime running.
Mirror, Luggage Rack, Medicine Cabinet.

Hallway on the Roomette end of the car is down the center of the car.
Hallway on the Bedroom-with-Bath end of the car is down the side of the car with exterior windows on the right.


The Observatory

Looking toward the back of the car, in the Lounge.

Looking from the entry door, toward the stairs to the dome.

Closer to the stairway to the dome in the center of the car showing the TV and bar.

All onboard meals and drinks are included in the trip price (right).

Some electrical plugs are available in the dome, so you can compute without missing any scenery.

The number of onboard guests is small enough that all guests can spend all onboard time in the dome if they wish, including all meals.


Guests enjoying drinks before dinner in the Lounge below the Dome.  Their table is one of two at the end of the lounge in the photo at the right.

Photos From the Train

The California Zephyr follows the same route as the Southwest Chief from Chicago to Galesburg, Illinois.  The following sights are available from either train.

Chicago's skyline.

Naperville, IL, Metra commuter train.
Naperville, IL, Metra commuter train.


Recent record rainfalls caused standing water  along our route.

Switch engines along the route in Illinois.

Mendota, Illinois.
Publishing home of Private Varnish magazine, included with membership in AAPRCO.
A small restaurant in Princeton, IL, photographed by Dutch Myers at

Princeton, Illinois, Station

Two private car owners solve problems during a 10-minute stop in Illinois.

California Zephyr's Unique Route

After leaving Chicago at 2:00 pm, we had daylight then dusk until Ottumwa, Iowa. 

Ottumwa, IA, is a detraining point from the California Zephyr for the Depot Inn & Suites ( and future Silver Rails Resort ( in LaPlata, MO.  The folks from the Depot Inn & Suites had a booth at the AAPRCO 2008 convention in San Pedro, CA, shown in a later page of this report.

Guests spent time in the dome and lower level of  The Observatory chatting and taking photographs.

It soon became evident that I was among a big happy, train-loving family who had been on several such trips together, many of those trips being AAPRCO Convention trips in prior years.    And, the couples and singles had traveled by private railcar  with other owners all over North America.  

We enjoyed conversation, mostly about railroads,  through the afternoon until about 6:00 p.m. when we were called to the  dome and all who were on this trip were seated  for dinner at one seating. 

Brian and Vicky Collins, Birch Grove owners, were seated at the front of the dome and Brian welcomed us all, as he or Chef Bill always does at the first evening meal on his trips, as we slowly made our way through Burlington, IA.  In fact, we shot pictures of the Mississippi River in late afternoon light as we enjoyed Chef Bill's excellent dinner.

Calvin and 'Rena Gerhard listen to Brian' welcome speech.


Connie Serves Bruce, Ken, and Richard as we cross the Mississippi River.
Bruce Holberg and Ken Burkman
Ken and the Mississippi River.

Mike and Donna Harris
Delicious dinner this evening was baked tomato, shrimp, filet mignon, and potatoes.  In addition to appetizer, salad, dessert and beverage of your choice.

Cincinnati Railway Company's Tours and Excursions

After dinner, in the lounge section of The Observatory car,  Brian outlined in great detail all the trips he takes each year. 

A Signature Trip, he  is Trainmaster for, is his Petoskey, Michigan trip.  It starts in Chicago and heads north to Petoskey, Michigan, near Mackinaw Island.  It is like a 'mini AAPRCO' of 12 private cars and 150 people using the Blue Water Line and Great Lake Central Line.   It is a slower trip (35-40 mph as opposed to this cross-country dash to California behind the California Zephyr we are now on to AAPRCO 2008.)  The PetoskeyTrip stops in small towns and is arranged at the same time as Old Fashioned Festivals  and Polish Festivals in towns where  they are tied up each night.  Tour of Mackinaw Island provides time to sightsee and shop on this island without automobiles.  A Summer Home Picnic on the water is even part of the trip.  On the return trip, they stop in different small towns on the way back to Chicago.  This trip is the first week of August.

Other popular trips are:   The Washington, DC, Cherry Blossom Festival in April,  where midwest Senators have dinner on the train with you; Kentucky Derby Trip in May;  AAPRCO Convention each year;  Light Up Chicago Excursion - Romantic Getaway;  and

New Years Eve in New York City on the Birch Grove and Oliver Hazard Perry with layover in Albany. They travel down the Hudson River, New Year's Eve inside Times Square with dinner at Frankie and Johnny's, Acela Lounge after the  festivities and a 110 mph ride down to Washington, DC, with a walk through the museums without people on New Year's Day and the Cardinal back to Cincinnati.


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Breakfast and Railing to Denver.

Up about 6 am, I found good facilities in the toilet and shower/dressing room in the Birch Grove.  Breakfast is served in The Observatory's Dome when you arrive from your sleeping accommodations. Even if you arrive before breakfast, the staff is there to welcome you with your favorite breakfast beverages.

 After breakfast, with the sun at our backs, we travelled westward across the Colorado plains toward Denver.

After breakfast in the Dome, heading to Denver.  It's flat as a pancake out here, but a gradual grade to Denver leaves you at one mile elevation, thus the "Mile High City" monaker for Denver.

At Denver our four private cars were set off the trainset in sight of the station and Amtrak proceeded to the station for passengers.  Soon they were back, picked us up, and we headed up the eastern face of the Rocky Mountains, through it's many tunnels and curves.

Denver Stock Yard was cattleless since the time of cattle cars is long gone.
Friends pointed out a trolley to Calvin Gerhard, a trolley restorer, who was on the trip to AAPRCO.
Railyard and Denver Skyline
Birch Grove, left, turns into Denver

Richard Buckman, Shelbina, MO, world rail traveller, watches the activity in Denver.

Denver Station

Colorado Rockies Stadium.  It is said that there is a row of seats marked as the one-mile elevation.

Chef Bill (right) ready to prepare more gourmet delights.
Private Train Chef, Chef Bill Hoeffer
859-816-5962, PO Box 17636
Covington Kentucky, 41017

*Sub-Title of this report taken from:  Writing the Rails, Train Adventures by the World's Best-Loved Writers, edited by Edward C. Goodman, ISBN 1-57912-2051

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Author, Carl, in The Observatory.