Zephyr: Tracking a Dream Across America
by Carlos A. Schwantes, University of Washington Press, 360 pages
by Henry Kisor, Times Books, 384 pages
Both authors are roughly of an age, and they both fell in love with trains as children in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Schwantes listened to his grandfather’s tales of a youth spent on the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, and Kisor would wait on a late afternoon at the depot of a small New Jersey town for an “almighty rumble: a big black Ten-Wheeler bringing my father home from Manhattan on the Erie railroad.” These memories might as well have been tattooed; such experiences are hard to dig out of the skin, as the awe of the child becomes the passion of the man.
Schwantes, as his title indicates, has picked the great railroads that carried, for better or worse, civilization to the Pacific Northwest in the form of settlers and tourists. The railroads, dozens of them, grew cities, and they grew an American passion for the wilderness. They “not only decided what travelers saw of the Pacific Northwest by where they located their tracks and stations,” Schwantes writes, “but also determined when they saw it. They usually arranged the schedules of premier passenger trains to cross flatlands by night and mountains by day, thereby reinforcing a common prejudice that plains were boring and mountains picturesque.”
With their brilliant senses of promotion—one railroad official is quoted as saying that “the West is purely a railroad enterprise. We started it in our publicity department”—it is not surprising that the same publicity departments made sure that photographers and advertising artists were on hand to document their miracle every inch of the way. Schwantes fills his book with magnificent photos and reproduces a wide selection of posters and brochures in color. They, perhaps even more than the absorbing text, are worth the price of admission to this journey.
Zephyr , Henry Kisor’s detailed account of several trips aboard one of Amtrak’s most popular Western trains, is in no way derailed by his own sense of the romance of train travel. History is present here as he tells of the old California Zephyr, running between Chicago and Oakland, just as it does now, the stations it served, the dining-room menus, the glass-domed observation cars, the castes that separated the members of the crew, and the “on-board factotum,” the Zephyrette, who made everyone feel secure and cared for. But we are not lost in the mists of time here; Kisor mostly focuses on the present rail experience, its pleasures and drawbacks. The difficult passengers, the mechanical failures that result from running the trains too hard on too tight a budget, the plastic cutlery, and the late arrivals are commonplace; all this the Amtrak passenger knows. But we know less of the backstage life of an Amtrak production, and a successful trip (it does happen) is like a stage play, as Kisor describes it, in its split-second timing, its diverting scenery, and its talented crew and cast. Kisor gives us wonderful portraits of the conductors and crew chiefs, the porters and the chefs, especially one John Davis, a cook with a mission: He simply wants to be the best. With his secret sauces, his spices and herbs paid for from his own pocket, and his sense of what’s right (“A good chef wants his lettuce torn, never cut”), he doubtless is.