January 1, 2012

Westward ho!


---- — In Part One, I left the Plattsburgh train station and headed south on Amtrak's The Adirondack, then west on the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago.

There, I saw Wrigley Field and the Museum of Science and Industry, then spent an afternoon touring Frank Lloyd Wright homes in nearby Oak Park. Come Monday, my wife and I hopped a subway to Union Station and continued the journey to Calilfornia.

The California Zephyr, the train that most closely replicates the route of the original Transcontinental Railroad, left precisely on time at 2 p.m. We took a diagonal course southwestward toward Omaha. Urban skyline gave way to suburbs and then the agrarian heartland. Instead of skyscrapers, grain elevators dominated trackside, with tilled fields stretching far into the distance. Crossing the Mississippi River, we left Illinois for Iowa.

Towns straddled the track, often just a block or two on each side. Names emblazoned on depots or water towers identified Mendota, Lockridge, Ottumwa and others. We ate dinner (pork chops, baked chicken, apple torte) with a couple from England in the midst of a three-week rail tour of the United States. A beautiful red and purple sunset accompanied the meal. Streetlights, blinking red traffic signals, and back-lit sky delineated cities during night travel.

Around 10:30 p.m., we crossed the Missouri River into Nebraska. In Omaha, a hotel van picked us up at the train station, and we prepared to fit all we could into our 24-hour stop.

In the midst of the havoc wreaked by the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln delivered a mandate for a railroad connecting America's Atlantic and Pacific coasts. He chose a route beginning in Council Bluffs, Iowa, across the river from Omaha. The Union Pacific Railroad was granted the franchise to build west, while the Central Pacific began in California and headed east.

The Union Pacific Museum in Council Bluffs is housed in an architecturally stunning 1904 Carnegie Library. Artifacts inside included furnishings from President Lincoln's private rail car — a plush trundle bed, reclining chair (think early Barcalounger) and silver serving pieces. There's also one of the three golden spikes pounded into the ground at Promontory Point, Utah, where the rail routes met on May 9, 1869.

Interesting facts abounded. The width of standard gauge railroads — 4 feet, 8½ inches — matched the wheelspan of chariots from the Roman age. In 1910, no place in Iowa was more than five miles from a railroad depot. Coming of the railroad necessitated institution of standardized time zones in 1883.

What lingers longest, however, is a sense of the enormity of the venture. Abraham Lincoln sought a transcontinental railroad as "a means of holding the Pacific coast to the union." After he gave the go-ahead for track from Council Bluffs to California, surveyors worked two years to select an optimal route. Vintage photos document challenges faced by engineers, financiers and, most of all, thousands of men working by hand to bring the project to fruition.

After blasting for tunnels, rubble was removed "one wheelbarrow at a time." Wood trestles, like Dale Creek Bridge, 126 feet above the water, defy belief. Timelines, dioramas and audio stations brought the story to life. Virtual-reality projections gave a sense of Moffat Tunnel and Feather River.

Back over in Omaha, the 1931 Union Station has become the Durham Museum. The great hall is an art deco masterpiece, enlivened by life-size figures of typical users of the station — GIs leaving for military service, women buying tickets, men checking schedules. Six 13-foot chandeliers hang from the ceiling. At a vintage ice cream parlor, soda jerks actually scoop ice cream to make milk shakes.

Plenty of Omaha history is on display. Exhibits span time from Native American earth lodges, through Lewis and Clark and the Mormon migration, to the invention of TV dinners by the Swanson company. We could browse the original Buffett family grocery store. Their meat would have been sourced locally. Omaha's stockyards, once the nation's largest purveyor of meat, closed in 1999 after a 115-year run.

There's a sampling of rolling stock from the rail industry. Most memorable was the 1924 Pullman Cornhusker Club Car. Small but elegant bedrooms, and a dining room that would have satisfied a Vanderbilt, led my wife to exclaim "this is how to travel."

Omaha offers much more. The city is home to Father Flanagan's Boys Town, the renowned Henry Doorly Zoo and the birthplaces of such native sons as Malcolm X and Gerald Ford. The stockyards may be gone, but steaks still reign supreme. For dinner we chose Piccolo Pete's, locally touted as Warren Buffett's favorite restaurant. The atmosphere was casual — wait staff paraded out birthday cakes for two parties — and the ribeye was quite good.

By 11 p.m. we were back at the railroad station catching the California Zephyr again. A steward brought us to our room on the Bombardier-built sleeper car. Smaller than my chamber on the eastern segment of my trip and lacking a toilet and sink, it barely had room for standing once the bunk beds were in place. After our busy day in Omaha, sleep came easily.

The next morning began with views of the plains, plus a few peaks in the distance. We rolled into Denver. Coors Field, home of baseball's Colorado Rockies, and Union Station comprised the foreground as we approached the "Mile-High City."

Then began the persistent ascent into the Rocky Mountains. Views became more open, allowing glimpses of windmills, cattle grazing along grassy slopes and even a gliding hawk. Track traversed rocky crags. Soon we saw the head of our train entering Moffat Tunnel, at 6.2 miles the longest of our ride (of course, once inside, we saw nothing for several minutes).

Near Granby we passed grazing llamas, then a surprising number of solar panels atop homes. Landscape included sculpted rock reminiscent of badlands. Rugged cliffs, rocky slots and roaring streams provided opportunity to ponder the challenges of building track through the West.

Views became especially beautiful as we wound our way to Glenwood Springs. Red rock formations were striking. The Colorado River rushed alongside us, and we spotted a few kayakers and whitewater rafters. Two levels of interstate highway just across the river proved that impressive engineering didn't end with the railroad era.

Through the windows I spotted irrigation wheels on large fields, uplifted stone ridges whose layers rose at 45 degree angles, and vineyards and peach trees adding counterpoint to the panorama. At the ornate brick Grand Junction terminal (it's for sale!), we stretched a bit and got ice cream at the gift shop.

The Colorado River on our left became tranquil. Red cliffs on both sides foreshadowed our passage through Utah's Ruby Canyon. Views along here were among the best of the trip. Formations of red sandstone were set off by contrasting tan ridges. Erosion atop cliffs offered rugged images. Far to the left rose snow-capped, blue-tinged peaks. After dinner, I returned to the observation car and gazed at the scenery until darkness fell.

We awoke next day to Nevada's Great Basin Desert — flat land, plenty of sagebrush and not much more. After breakfast and a shower, we moved to the observation car for close-up views of snow-capped peaks. Soon the train reached Reno, and the beginning of the Sierras. Narrators from the California Park Service boarded here and provided information on notable features.

Our route now followed the frigid dark blue waters of the Truckee River. New vistas accompanied every turn. Wooden flumes near Verdi feed a hydroelectric facility. Spire-like hoodoos provide evidence of wind and water erosion. Nearby Boca, site of an 1866 railroad construction camp, recorded California's coldest temperature (45 degrees below zero!) in 1937. Downtown Truckee looks a bit like a Western movie set. Faded paint on one corner building advertised "Hotel Rex — steam heat — $1 a night."

Entering Cold Stream Valley, we spotted a tunnel high on our right that we would soon enter. First, we traversed Stanford Curve, sharp enough that I could see most of our train from the window. Immediately upon leaving the tunnel, we had a commanding view of Donner Lake. The site of an infamous pioneer encampment, it's a pristine oblong body of water ringed by evergreens.

We had gained considerable altitude, and deep snow filled our surroundings. The train passed through a snow shed. At one time, up to 37 miles of wooden shed protected the rails from avalanches in this area, where up to 35 feet of snow falls each winter. It took us four minutes to clear two-mile-long Tunnel #41 en route to the highest point (6,939 feet) on our route.

Next up was Soda Springs, site of a ski resort. The 1926 lodge hovered on a ridge to our right. Two more short tunnels, and we were at Cisco. Once home to 7,000 people, only remnants of the village survive.

The forest was comprised of pine and spruce, with lodgepole pine at higher elevations. Western white pine was once a prized source of lumber for home construction. Deer browse the white fir; quaking aspen also serves as food for wildlife. Mountain hemlocks shrink to deformed shrubs as the elevation rises.

I paid attention to bridges and trestles, trying not to calculate how long falls would be to solid ground. At Yuba Gap, we learned about a westbound train stopped by a blizzard in 1952. State and federal assistance was required to evacuate 200 passengers and 30 railroad employees who were stranded for four days.

Near Emigrant Gap, early homesteaders had to lower wagons by rope to continue into Bear Valley. Blue Canyon got its name from the blue haze atop its lumber mills. Only a handful of hardy souls live here, where population once topped 3,000. This also marks the steepest rail grade in the Sierras, an impressive 2.42 percent.

Our descent continued, past American River Canyon on our left, then to Dutch Flat and Gold Run, in California gold country. Up next came Colfax, an early railroad town and a major fruit-shipping center. Conductors told us to prepare for arrival at Sacramento. There we'll pick up the final installment of the story.

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