Have you ever woken up feeling that today was the day that you absolutely must go to Winnemucca?
It wasn’t quite so spur-of-the-moment but about a month ago I found out a major trackwork project in the vicinity of Donner Pass would force the Union Pacific to close the mainline entirely for five 24 hour periods between 12 August and 9 September 2008. As a result, Amtrak quietly made it known that on each of the five days that the line would be shut down it would operate the Emeryville (Oakland)-Chicago California Zephyr by way of the Feather River canyon.
If you know anything about trains in the West then you recognize just what a treat this promised to be. However for non-rail-crazy folks here’s the significance. Prior to Amtrak’s assuming the operation of long-distance passenger trains in May 1971, the Western Pacific (in conjunction with the Denver & Rio Grande and Burlington railroads) ran one of the most famous long-distance passenger trains in postwar history: the California Zephyr. (Above and to the left is a W.P. timetable from 27 April 1958.)
The original California Zephyr began in Oakland, stopped in Stockton, Sacramento, Marysville and Oroville before tackling the Sierras by way of the Feather River canyon. It stopped in Keddie and Portola and then passed out of the Sierras about where Hwy. 70 has its junction with U.S. 395. From there it went northeast some distance to the small towns of Herlong and Gerlach, Nev., and then continued in a mostly easterly direction toward Winnemucca, and on through Utah, Colorado and ultimately to Chicago.
Unfortunately this grand train didn’t survive until Amtrak day (1 May 1971). Its last run was on 22 March 1970. A truncated remnant of the train did operate after that date but only from Chicago to Ogden, Utah.
In 1983 Amtrak renamed it’s Oakland-Chicago train the California Zephyr but in California and Nevada it has always operated over the line used in pre-Amtrak days by the Southern Pacific’s name train in this market, the City of San Francisco. Once in a while, a special excursion train is operated over the Feather River canyon route by a tour operator that caters to railfans but to my knowledge Amtrak’s Zephyr never before detoured over the old Western Pacific route. (If anyone knows otherwise please let us know by commenting.) So the chance to ride through the canyon on a regularly scheduled passenger train at a very reasonable price was irresistible to me and to others.
Amtrak’s California Zephyr normally makes stops in Truckee, Reno and Sparks before reaching Winnemucca, Nev. around 7:00 p.m. But since the detouring Zephyr would not go through those cities, it would not have any passenger stops between Roseville and Winnemucca. It would make one stop only in Portola for the purpose of a crew change (engineer and conductors), who were shuttled in from Reno.
Consequently I had no choice, I was going to overnight in scintillating Winnemucca and then turn around and come back the very next day on the westbound (and not detouring) California Zephyr . I alerted my brother and a couple of friends to see if I might get a travel companion and, sure enough, my pal Martin joined me. He lives near Walnut Creek so he got on in Martinez while I boarded in Sacramento,
It was a terrific trip!
In general, the tracks are situated at a greater height in the Feather River canyon than is Highway 70 so you get a different and better perspective of the canyon from the window of a train than from a car. We had lunch in the diner while the train was in the lower part of the canyon and that was a real pleasure to eat our meal and overlook the Feather River.
Even after the most dramatic scenery is behind you, it still was a lovely ride through Plumas County’s forests and meadows from Keddie to Portola where we made our quick stop for a fresh crew. As you pass out of Sierra Valley to Hallelujah Jct. (where 70 and 395 meet) the train heads to the northeast. By now the sun was setting, which made for a splendid backdrop to dinner.
Both the normal route over Donner Pass that the California Zephyr plies and the Feather River canyon route are beautiful but I think in some ways the canyon route is superior.
The U.P. gets high marks for not putting our train “in the hole” (railroad parlance for being forced to wait on a siding while another train passes) as they sometimes do to Amtrak. In nearly all cases the freights waited for the passenger train.
Due to the detour, the train was late into Winnemucca – about 10:15 p.m. that night. We overnighted at a motel and then were up bright and early the next day to catch the westbound Zephyr about 7:45 a.m. Now this train was operating on the normal route but both freights and passenger trains were delayed in the Sierras due to the trackwork near Donner Pass.
The train arrived in Sacramento about 7:15 p.m. I’d covered a lot of ground in 36 hours but it was worth the investment in time and money.
Now there is a chance that the UP may need to close the Donner Pass route again for the same reason. If I find out about it I will let you know in the blog. By the way, if the train has another detour you also have the option of doing the trip I just made in reverse: outbound to Winnemucca the day before and then taking the westbound train through the canyon the following day.
Here are a few pictures I took along the way:
From the Sightseer Lounge car on the train:
The Keddie wye:
Sign noting the arrival of the transcontinental railroad in Winnemucca in 1868:
A 100+ year old Basque restaurant in Winnemucca near the station:
This crowd is larger than what you’d normally see boarding in Winnemucca. Nearly all of them were fellow rail enthusiasts who had been on the detoured train the day before: