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Part 8: Denver to Florida by Rail

Rocky Mountain Exploration:
Part 8: Denver to Florida by Rail

By Jack M. Turner
Photos by John C. Turner

    After a pleasant night visiting with friends in Fort Collins we drove to the eastern outskirts of Denver and dropped Christine at Denver International Airport for her flight home to Florida.  With several hours until our Amtrak train left downtown Denver, John and I enjoyed a day of sightseeing.  Our first destination, Rocky Mountain National Park, provided beautiful vistas of the towering Rockies as the park road rounded many curves and climbed to approximately 12,000 feet elevation.  After accomplishing this feat, we turned back to allow time for one final railroad activity before boarding our train in the evening.  Driving to the park’s west entrance and returning to Denver via Granby would have been too time consuming for the allotted time; however, having made the drive through the entire park several years ago, we felt satisfied by this abbreviated visit.

The Rockies near Estes Park, CO

Rocky Mountain National Park

Scenic overlook in Rocky Mountain National Park

A glacier in Rocky Mountain National Park

    Our next stop was the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden and we decided to take a back route from Estes Park to Golden bypassing Boulder.  After a twisting drive through the mountains we were surprised when the highway suddenly came upon a well maintained railway.  When we saw a sign reading “Plainview” we realized we had stumbled across the former Denver & Rio Grande Western route which would host our California Zephyr later in the afternoon before we boarded in Denver.  We met the DRGW again near Arvada just north of Golden.
   The Colorado Railroad Museum possesses an interesting collection of locomotives including Burlington (CB&Q) steam engine # 5629 , D&RGW narrow gauge steam locomotives # 346, # 318, and # 683 and D&RGW F9 diesel 5771 along with Leadville & Southern narrow gauge steam engine # 191 and Manitou & Pikes Peak cog engine # 1.  Galloping Goose # 7 and sisters # 2 and # 6 are other prized pieces of the collection.  The gem of the passenger car collection is former Santa Fe sleeper observation car “Navajo” which was assigned to the famed Super Chief.  Union Pacific diner 4801 and coach 5442, a D&RGW combine car, and railway post office cars belonging to the Rio Grande and the Colorado & Southern are other notable pieces on display.  Several wooden box cars, wooden livestock cars, and wooden cabooses round out the equipment housed at the museum.  Another highlight is the original vista dome car monument that stood beside the railway in Glenwood Canyon until highway construction forced its removal.  Several other interesting displays and a well stocked gift shop are found inside the museum building.  The Colorado Railroad Museum is located in Denver’s western suburbs and can easily be accessed by automobile.

Rio Grande # 683 greets visitors to the Colorado State Railroad Museum

Another classic steam locomotive

Santa Fe observation car “Navajo” from the original Super Chief

Side view of the “Navajo”

Super Chief drumhead on the rear of “Navajo”

A well preserved box car

Rio Grande F unit # 5771

Rio Grande F unit 5771 is shown awaiting departure from Salt Lake City on the Rio Grande Zephyr in June 1976.  The author's college friend Eric Harms poses here with the engine which today is preserved at the Colorado State Railroad Museum.

One of many rabbits residing at the railroad museum

Dome car monument relocated from Glenwood Canyon

Colorado & Southern US Mail/Railway Express Agency car

Florence & Cripple Creek box car # 588

D&RGW wooden livestock car

Galloping Goose # 6

    Following our visit to the museum we reversed the process from two weeks earlier as we returned our rented minivan to the Avis location on Broadway then were delivered by their friendly shuttle driver to the Amtrak station.  With Denver Union Station under renovation, Amtrak presently uses a temporary station a few blocks to the north.  We found the facility to be quite adequate with enough seating for the large crowd awaiting the California Zephyr.  The only drawback was the station’s location which required crossing a street to reach the train platform.  This proved to be a shorter walk than what we had experienced in the past at Union Station though it would have been inconvenient in the event of inclement weather.
   We settled into Bedroom E in sleeper 32053, the middle of three sleeping cars on the eastbound California Zephyr and were happy to find everything in good working order in our car.  Our car attendant had pulled dinner reservations for passengers boarding in Denver and as the train departed at 7:56pm we made our way two cars forward to the dining car.  We were seated with a very pleasant couple, Barney and Jane, from Denver with whom we shared most enjoyable conversation as the CZ left the Mile High City behind.  We had to send compliments to the chef as our steaks were delicious and perfectly cooked which set the tone for a nice overnight journey.

    The comfortably cool sleeper facilitated a good night’s sleep and we hated to have to rise at 7:30am in order to eat breakfast in the dining car.  For some reason the diner crew had established serving times as 6:30-8:30am, a bit early when one considers that it felt an hour earlier due to our passage from the Mountain to Central time zone.  When we reached the diner we discovered a waiting list was being taken necessitating a short wait in the adjacent lounge car.  Fortunately, our names were called soon and we were seated by 8:00.  Following breakfast we retreated to our bedroom to resume our shuteye until about 10:45.  We were awake for the crossing of the mighty Mississippi River at Burlington, Iowa.  As we sailed through Monmouth, Illinois at 11:33am we were back in the diner as lunch was served only on an abbreviated basis.  Though it was not very long since breakfast, we decided to eat a light meal since dinner time would be late on our next train.

Amtrak Cascades F40 cab car at Galesburg, IL

CB&Q 4-6-4 # 3006 displayed beside the Galesburg Amtrak station

    Soon the California Zephyr made its march through Chicago’s western suburbs passing through Aurora, Clarendon Hills, Western Springs, Brookfield, and other villages with a cacophony of names.  Arrival at Chicago Union Station came 4 minutes early at 2:46pm.  After storing our luggage in the check room at the first class Metropolitan Lounge we made our way to the station ticket window to check a couple pieces of luggage to our destination, Jacksonville, FL.  We had carried this aboard at Denver in case the CZ had been notably late as we didn’t want to be separated from our checked bags in the event we had to be rerouted home.  Fortunately our connection was not in jeopardy and we were actually left with a fairly lengthy layover since a few weeks before our trip Amtrak announced a temporary later schedule for train # 30.  We decided to spend the layover time in the Metropolitan Lounge as we had toured Chicago on the outbound trip.  This turned out to be a wise decision as before long thunderstorms rumbled into the city with no effect on us.

    Sleeping car passengers were boarded at 6:15pm for the Capitol Limited and once again we had Bedroom E, this time in car 32026.  Dinner reservations had been taken in the Metropolitan Lounge and we had obtained the 6:30 time slot.  The dining car crew was about one-half hour late in seating guests but fine conversation again with Barney and Jane, our tablemates from the prior night, made up for the delay.  About 10 minutes later the Capitol Limited emerged from Union Station’s train shed into a torrential downpour augmented by flashes of lightning.  Turning east near the state line, we noted whitecaps on nearby Lake Michigan and the ghostly appearance of the steel mills in Gary, Indiana.

P42 # 156 wears Amtrak’s Phase I paint scheme

    The South Shore commuter line that we rode a couple years earlier soon appeared on the south as did the minor league baseball stadium in downtown Gary.  About 45 minutes later the Capitol Limited made its scheduled stop in South Bend followed by stops in Elkhart and Waterloo.  We arrived in Toledo, Ohio accompanied by heavy rain and lightning at 12:32am and decided it was time to turn in for the night.  During the station stop the head end power cut off briefly and when it returned, the bedroom lights blinked on.  This and the inability to silence morning announcements were two results of recent car refurbishment that are negatives in our opinion.  Sleep came easily after we departed Toledo at 12:45am and we snoozed wonderfully thanks to a comfortably cool bedroom and a smooth ride. 

    We awoke at 8:00am and within 45 minutes were enjoying a nice breakfast in the diner where we shared a table with Charles and Elaine from Alexandria, VA.  The scenery during breakfast was mostly misty mountains and a flowing river just outside our window.  Having traversed this route many times in recent years, we decided to rest some more after returning to our room as three weeks on the road had taken its toll.  We noted the stop at Cumberland at 11:43am and an hour later returned to the diner for the abbreviated lunch scheduled for the dining car crew’s convenience.  The weather had cleared and we ate lightly since we weren’t overly hungry.  We had planned to get a take-out dessert to enjoy during our layover in Washington, however, none was offered and our server said there were no more desserts left.  The reason became obvious when I noted a paper plate covered with tin-foil at a table occupied by a dining car crewmember.  Barely poking out was a piece of the delicious pie served at dinner the prior night.  Apparently this was being kept for crew consumption rather than the intended passengers.

    Harpers Ferry, a National Historic Site due to its role in the Civil War, came at 2:00pm and many tourists watched the train as it stopped at the station then headed across the Potomac River and into the tunnel leading from West Virginia into Maryland.  Ten minutes later we spotted some MARC commuter train equipment at Brunswick, MD as well as the turntable used to turn locomotives.  In another 10 minutes we passed through Point-of-Rocks Tunnel then diverged from the old Baltimore & Ohio mainline to Baltimore at the gothic style Point-of-Rocks train station.  After pausing at Rockville we rolled through Washington’s northern suburbs and came to a stop at Union Station at 3:13pm.

Cumberland, MD station

Harpers Ferry, WV

View to the north on the Potomac River bridge at Harpers Ferry

Looking south at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers at Harpers Ferry.
The tunnel ahead leads from West Virginia into Maryland.  Virginia lies across the river.

Looking north from the Potomac bridge

    Washington Union Station is perfectly located for sightseeing as it is within walking distance of the US Capitol and many major museums.  Having toured these sights many times through the years, we decided to enjoy some of the shops and eateries inside the grand station and relax in the first class Club Acela lounge.  The spacious lounge has an abundance of comfortable sofas and chairs, free Internet access, and televisions tuned to cable news as well as complimentary soft drinks and light snacks.  Between browsing at some of the stores and eating establishments and hanging out in the Club Acela, the hours passed quickly.  At 7:00pm train # 97 arrived from New York and sleeping car passengers were escorted to the platform.

Shops in Washington Union Station

    Bedroom B in Viewliner sleeper 62004 “Beach View” was ready for us and we were happy that the sofa seating faced forward.  Typically, Viewliner sleepers are pointed the proper direction so that the accessible bedroom and Bedroom B seating faces forward.  Such cannot be predicted on Superliners.  We noted that we rode the “Beach View” a few years earlier on the Cardinal while the other two sleepers “Prairie View” and “Sylvan View” had to date eluded our list of sleepers ridden.  Unfortunately the names have been removed from the exterior of most Amtrak sleepers in the past three or four years which gives them a little less individuality.  Luckily the names remain on the car end doors and appear in lists we carry with us on our rail trips.

The electric engine has pulled the southbound Silver Meteor into Washington

The Silver Meteor’s coaches board at Washington

Heritage diner # 8558

Viewliner sleeper 62004 “Beach View”

    Upon boarding, our pleasant car attendant informed us that the dining car would be ready for us as soon as the train departed and he was true to his word.  However, a major delay in bringing the locomotives from Ivy City Yard set departure back significantly.  At least someone was thinking as the electric engine that brought the train in from New York remained attached to the train to provide head end power until the diesel engines were ready to move into position.  This time we would have three P42 engines, the middle one being # 156 decked out in the commemorative Phase I paint job that celebrated Amtrak’s 40th anniversary in 2011.  The 156 had been the third unit on our Capitol Limited from Chicago though we wished it had been the lead engine at least once.

    We finally got underway at 8:09pm and the diner crew was indeed ready for all sleeper passengers who boarded at Washington.  The wait was worth it as our flat iron steak with mushroom gravy, baked potato, and mixed vegetables were perfectly cooked and very tasty.  In railroad tradition we topped the meal off with apple pie a la mode as the Silver Meteor glided along the former Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac mainline between Quantico and Fredericksburg, Virginia.

    Passage through Ashland brought back the usual memories of my semester at Randolph-Macon College in 1972 as well as views of the quaint town’s stately homes and attractive downtown storefronts.  I wondered whether there might be an RMC student standing in the darkness to view the silver streamliner streaking southward as I had so often done 40 years earlier.  Eleven minutes later we slipped into Richmond’s Amtrak station off Staples Mill Road, a far less dramatic entrance than the approach to beautiful Broad Street Station years earlier.  Fifteen minutes after departing Richmond we passed high above the James River as the rocky fall line was barely discernible with the aid of a few distant city lights. Emerging from the woodlands that shelter houses south of the river, we passed the US Army storage depot that fascinated me as a kid peering from the window of the Seaboard Coast Line’s Silver Star.  A few minutes later we pulled to a stop in Petersburg where a small crowd waited patiently for the 28 minute late train.

    After crossing the Appomattox River we turned in for the night though the stop in Rocky Mount, NC woke us briefly.  My sleep was again interrupted at about 2:00am and I sensed we had been standing still for 10 or 15 minutes.  Looking out both sides of the sleeper revealed that we were stopped in a wooded area on what appeared to be single track.  Thoughts of all the things that could have gone wrong filled my mind and, as the stop dragged on past the 40 minute mark, I dug through our suitcase and located my railroad scanner.  The airwaves were strangely quiet for several minutes before the engineer and conductor broke the silence to discuss a disabled freight train ahead of us.  It had suffered a broken knuckle which, in turn, resulted in a railroad traffic jam.  Finally at 2:43am our counterpart, train # 98, eased past on a second track that had been invisible in the deep darkness.  A few minutes later we resumed our southbound journey after a delay of approximately one hour.
     We managed to sleep through the major stops in Florence and Charleston, SC then woke as we pulled out of tiny Yemassee at 7:35am.  We were now 99 minutes late and we realized we would not be on-time into Jacksonville.  The delay allowed us time to sleep in and we enjoyed the rare “rest first” tone of our entire homeward trip from Denver.  As the Silver Meteor arrived in Savannah, Georgia we gave in to the need to rise so there would be time for breakfast before Jacksonville.  The dining car was busy but we were served by the time the next stop, Jesup, came at 9:35am.  A good crowd waved from the rail fan pavilion in Folkston while a children’s birthday party crowded the lawn at the old depot on the opposite side of the tracks.  A couple of minutes later train # 97 crossed the St. Marys River and entered Florida then passed through Callahan where the Baldwin Cutoff diverges.  Our final destination, Jacksonville, came at 10:53am, exactly 90 minutes behind schedule.  As we waited for our checked baggage we watched the lead engine, # 193, cut off and prepare to turn to the evening’s train # 98.  Our dear friend Billy Parker, long one of Amtrak’s finest employees, was there to greet us.  Before long John and I were rolling off the final miles home in a rented minivan, reflecting on a trip that had gone about as smoothly as we could have asked hoped for.

Rocky Mountain National Park
Colorado Railroad Museum

Click Here for a Slide Show of all Images used in this Report.

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