Grand Genealogy Journey: Aboard the California Zephyr

California Zephyr

The California Zephyr arrives at Galesburg, Illinois

Amtrak’s California Zephyr runs between Emeryville, California (near Oakland), and Chicago, Illinois. The present Zephyr is the latest incarnation of a venerable train that began service in 1949, as the Golden Age of Trains was about to begin its decline.

The route of the Zephyr is one of the longest operated by Amtrak. The original Zephyr operated on the tracks and stock of three different companies, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, the Denver & Rio Grande Western, and the Western Pacific. The present day route varies a bit from the original, but it still remains one of the most scenic passenger rail routes in America.

Our virtual journey will take us from Sacramento to Salt Lake City aboard the Zephyr. The train leaves from Emeryville, 75 miles southwest of Sacramento, each morning at 9:50 am and arrives at the historic Sacramento Valley Station two hours later. It will have made stops in Martinez and Davis. Also boarding the train with us in Sacramento are several volunteer docents from the California State Railroad Museum will narrate and comment on the portion of the trip between Sacramento and Reno. This five hour trek over the Sierra Nevada is one of the most scenic parts of the Zephyr’s route.

We’re basically following the route that Theodore Judah had laid out for the Central Pacific railroad. It winds through the northern portion of California’s Gold Country in Placer and Nevada counties. A little over an hour from Sacramento, the train stops at Colfax. a picturesque town of about 1,500, settled originally in the Gold Rush days.  The Railroad Museum docents point out that during the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, President Grant dispatched Vice President Schulyer Colfax to view the progress of the construction.  The people of the small mining community that had once been known as Alder Grove were so impressed that the Vice President of the United States had come to their town, they named the town after him!  And indeed, next to the Amtrak station, which contains a number of interesting shops, is a statue of Schulyer Colfax.    He was popular in California, having been in Congress (from Indiana) when California was admitted to the Union.  Colfax was a strong abolitionist, which also contributed to his popularity in free California.

After Colfax, the train continues up through the mountains toward the 7,000-ft.+ summit near Mount Judah (yes, Theodore again!). Then, the train begins to descend on the eastern slope through the Stanford Curve,  a back-switch with a terrific view of the Truckee river basin.

Schuyler Colfax, Vice President of the United States, 1869-1873

The next stop after Colfax is Truckee, California.  Truckee is also a picturesque Sierra village, though about ten times the size of Colfax.  Truckee is along side the Truckee river, which is Lake Tahoe’s sole outlet. Surrounding the area is the Truckee unit of the Tahoe National Forest.  West of Truckee, and visible from the Zephyr is Donner Lake, a beautiful freshwater  fishery and recreational area.  But the beauty is mitigated in some degree by the knowledge that the pass through the mountains here was the final resting place of many of  the “Donner Party” who met their demise in the winter of 1846-47. The Donner camp area is now both a National Historic Landmark and a California state park.

Donner Lake on eastern Sierra slope

At this point, it’s all  downhill for the Zephyr.   As we cross into Nevada, the docents point out the site of the first American train robbery. It occurred in 1870 at Verdi, Nevada. Today, Verdi is known for its largest hotel, Boomtown, where travelers still may be “robbed.”

The train makes three stops in Nevada: Reno, Winnemucca, and Elko–towns whose histories are intertwined with that of the Transcontinental Railroad.  It is said that railroad magnate Charles Crocker actually chose the names of Reno and Elko.

Elko County Courthouse

Winnemucca was named for Chief Winnemuca and his daughter, Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, Paiute Indian leaders in Oregon and Nevada.  Theirs is an interesting and complex story that cannot be done justice here. However, for an introduction to their story, see the profile at

Chief Winnemucca

Once we pass through Elko, it’s just a hop and a skip to Utah!

Gold Rush and Nevada Genealogical Resources

Next, as the Grand Genealogy Jouurney continues: Utah and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Photo Credits:

1. California Zephyr: Courtesy of (; photo at

2. Schuyler Colfax: Library of Congress

3. Donner Lake: California Department of Parks and Recreation (photo here)

4. Elko County Courthouse: U.S. Dept of Agriculture (photo at

5. Chief Winnemucca: Courtesy Burns Paiute Tribal Council (photo here)


2 Responses to “Grand Genealogy Journey: Aboard the California Zephyr”

  • I rode on the CA Zephyr in the 1960s, coming out from Chicago to California for my first visit (before moving here about 10 years later). I loved the VistaDome and spent most of my trip up in that car. What a memory! Thanks for bringing it back.

  • Sheri Fenley says:

    I sure wish I was on the trip with you!

    I have one teenie-tiny item that I beg difference on – The 1st American Train Robbery.

    The first recorded train robbery in the United States happens May 5, 1865 in North Bend, Ohio when armed robbers tore up tracks to derail an Ohio & Mississippi train that had departed from Cincinnati. While part of the gang of thieves took money and jewelry from almost 100 passengers, the other blew open and emptied the safes located on rail cars of the Adams Express Company.

    See – The Cincinatti Daily Inquirer May 8, 1865 page 2

    See Especially – Shades of the Departed Magazine, April 2010, “The Year Was 1865″, pp. 14-21

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