California Zephyr "Zephyrettes"

The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy wanting to upgrade passenger service worked closely with the BUDD Company and in 1934 introduced its first streamlined train, the Zephyr. With its sparkling stainless steel construction the Burlington knew this type of streamlined train was the future of passenger railroading. In order to make these trains successful they would have to not only cater to the businessman but make the trains attractive and accommodating for families. To do this, it was felt, a woman's touch would be essential.

In introducing an overnight Zephyr between Chicago and Denver, it was decided to incorporate hostesses on the train and hire a group of young ladies for this service. The successful applicants would be college graduates and would be responsible for working throughout the train with the conductor being helpful and generally agreeable with the passengers. They would also make announcements, arrange for bridge games in the parlor car, send wires and take dinner reservations for the diner.

A Supervisor of Passenger Train Services would be completely responsible for the development of this new concept of having “Zephyrettes” on the trains. In their search to fill this position the Burlington found Velma McPeek. A Kansas girl, she attended Southwestern College and was graduated from the Winfield College of Music. She taught for a while but decided that was not the life for her. A course at the School of Domestic Arts and Sciences in Chicago gave her a start at managing a department store tea room before accepting her position with the Burlington. She was a member of the general committee of the three railroads which handled the planning and building of the California Zephyrs.

For California Zephyr service the Zephyrette’s had to be between 24 and 28 years of age, single, between five feet four inches and five feet eight inches in height, and of good character with pleasing personalities. Strenuous and irregular hours required good physical condition, and their education had to be the equivalent of a registered nurse, or include a college degree. These requirements were relaxed somewhat in later years. Selecting and supervising the Zephyrette’s came under the direction of the Burlington’s Supervisor of Passenger Train Services.

What would become familiar to all who rode the California Zephyr was the pleasant voice heard over the train's public address system beginning with the trains’ departure; "May I have your attention, please? Good morning (eastbound; good afternoon, westbound), this is your Zephyrette, Miss O'Grady. On behalf of the Western Pacific, Rio Grande and Burlington railroads, I welcome you aboard the California Zephyr. As I pass through the train, I hope you will stop me if you think I can be of service. We are anxious to do all we can to add to the comfort and enjoyment of your trip."

Following this introduction, she would describe briefly the features of the train. Among these being the exceptionally smooth and quiet riding due to heavy insulation and disc brakes, water softeners and circulating ice water, individually controlled radio reception in each bedroom and roomette, wire recorders providing music and entertainment when radio reception is not favorable, the train's other facilities available to passengers, the scenic attractions to be viewed during the day, and announcements that were to follow. As the train approached historic, interesting, or scenic spots along the way, she informed the passengers in advance so they could be prepared to see these points of interest. In addition to making these announcements, the Zephyrette also operated the train's radio and recorded music from the master control board located in the dining car.

Diversified duties would keep the Zephyrette in close contact with the travelers throughout the journey. Before greeting passengers at the check-in desk at Chicago or as they came down to the train at Oakland from the ferry, she had already inspected the train to see that everything under her jurisdiction was in order. Following her greeting announcement, she would go through the train with the conductor, thus establishing herself as a crew member. She was also trained by the Red Cross and ready to give approved first aid when necessary.

Zephyrettes would pass through the entire train about once every two hours. During this time postcards, letters and telegrams sent by passengers while en route were collected and sent by her from stopover points along the line, after which she would distribute similar messages received en route. She would also assist women with children if needed; children traveling alone; offer aid to elderly or disabled passengers; helped the train conductor in handling difficult passengers and those who may have been ill; and generally made herself agreeable. She would also handle requests for special attention, courtesies received from friends of passengers and, on detraining, would lend a hand to passengers who may have been in need of assistance, and would bid them good-bye with a pleasant smile. She also conducted herself with dignity and poise and avoided any familiarities and acceptance of invitations from passengers or employees of the railroads. The Zephyrette was not permitted to drink or smoke while in uniform, and she avoided spending time with passengers while they were drinking.

The Zephyrette's had a private room in the center of the train which also served as her headquarters, in the aft-end of the Dome-Buffet, which was right over the car's trucks. Just forward of her compartment were the sleeping accommodations for the waiters and chefs, which were three-high bunk beds. These accommodations for the crew were made so that when the chefs rose to prepare the day's food, they wouldn't have to walk through and disturb the sleeping coach passengers. Here she prepared her reports, set up her dinner reservation cards which were to be distributed to passengers reserving seats in the diner at the hours they chose, etc.

According to remarks made by many passengers, one of the nicest things about the famous train was its hostess, that ever-smiling and efficient young lady who rode the streamliner on its transcontinental run between Oakland and Chicago, the ambassador for the railroads, the Zephyrette.

Neatly dressed in a dark blue uniform, consisting of a two-piece suit with Zephyr pin, white blouse with CZ monogram, military cap and top coat, the Zephyrette was instantly identified by passengers as they were greeted aboard the train. Over the years the uniforms were updated to reflect the changing times and apparel.

The Zephyrettes, although employees of the Western Pacific, were hired in Chicago by the Burlington’s Supervisor of Passenger Train Services with their home terminal being San Francisco. With the trip taking 2½ days east on #18, a night layover in Chicago, 2½ days back on #17, then 2½ days off back home in San Francisco, six of the Zephyrettes would be on the road at any given time. For that reason 10 to 11 ladies were employed in that service, each one typically making three round trips a month.

The original Zephyrette’s, hired prior to the trains inauguration completed training in Chicago including courses in railroading, baby-sitting and general charm. Those entering service later did not attend formal training but received on-the-job training while traveling with an experienced senior Zephyrette.

Zephyrette Helen Schwartz had one of the more memorable trips on the CZ while traveling eastbound through Ruby Canyon when on March 1, 1955 the first birth to take place aboard the California Zephyr occurred in car CZ-11. Mr. and Mrs. Peter Zars of Alameda, California had boarded the train at Oakland on February 28th for the trip east planning on the expectant mother giving birth in Hayden, Colorado with the assistance of her childhood family physician in the tiny hospital her father had helped build. Although the train was on time as it crossed the state line Peter Reed Alexander Zars was ahead of schedule. Pullman Conductor R. E. Donovan when apprised of the situation wired ahead at Helper, Utah requesting a doctor meet the train at Grand Junction, Colorado. The train then made an unscheduled stop at Thompson, Utah at which time an ambulance was requested to also be in place at Grand Junction. Babies have their own schedule and with the assistance of Conductor Donovan, Pullman Porter Roosevelt Williams, Zephyrette Helen Schwartz and passengers Mrs. Henry Adams and Mrs. George Stout young Peter was loudly proclaiming his excitement at picking the California Zephyr as his place of birth at 11:20 pm. At Grand Junction mother and son left the train met there by a doctor and ambulance destined for a local hospital. Peter would again travel on the Zephyr when the three railroads hosted his family and Berkwood School classmates aboard the train in celebration of his seventh birthday. After enjoying cake and ice cream in the diner he was presented with a scale model of the Zephyr and given a tour of the whole train including the locomotives.

The following is a song based on the birth of Peter Zars on the eastbound California Zephyr on March 1st, 1955.

Song lyrics by Christopher Smith June 1, 2007
Christopher Smith, Small Time Productions
* PO Box 2712
* San Anselmo, CA
* 94979-2712
* (415) 454-0139
* deadhorsetrampoline@comcast.net
* Christopher Smith Music

California Zephyr

She boarded the train waddled down the aisle
Patted her belly flashed a nervous smile
Going home to have her baby on the California Zephyr
So everybody made her feel at home
Gave her the best seat in the Vistadome
"Ain't the Feather River pretty on the California Zephyr?"

They were ridin' in style in the mornin'
Who wouldn't want to be born in
That big-time, streamline, flashin' in the sunshine, California Zephyr

Outside of Elko baby gave a poke
Crossed into Utah when her water broke
And it was Salt Lake City on the California Zephyr
They found a sleeper and they laid her down
"Try not to push until we get to town"
But she was way ahead of schedule on the California Zephyr

They were ridin' in style in the mornin'
Who wouldn't want to be born in
That big-time, streamline, flashin' in the sunshine, California Zephyr

The passengers were placing bets
The Zephyrettes all held their breath
The Pullman porter gave the order
Cut the cord, Welcome aboard

Conductor James was steady as a rock
Forever after they would call him Doc
He said, "This one rides free on the California Zephyr"

Seven years later in the dining car
Cute kid named Peter was a shining star
He blew out seven pretty candles on the California Zephyr

They were ridin' in style in the mornin'
Who wouldn't want to be born in
That big-time, streamline, flashin' in the sunshine, California Zephyr

Copyright © 1996 - 2017 by Frank Brehm. All Rights Reserved.