EMERYVILLE, Calif. -- The journey east on Amtrak's California Zephyr train is as good as the destination. Riding the rails from the San Francisco Bay Area to Reno, Nev., offers beautiful views and a tangible sense of history on the route over the Sierra Nevada mountain range that helped bring America together after the Civil War.
Marking 30 years of service this year, the Amtrak train leaves Emeryville, Calif., every morning. The Zephyr's ultimate destination, 51 hours later, is Chicago. Between Sacramento and Reno, a five-hour trip, it follows the same course as the historic Transcontinental Railroad, according to the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. The rail path through the mountains was a 19th century engineering feat that bolstered the nation's western expansion.
A 145 years after the Transcontinental Railroad's completion, train-loving children and picture-happy tourists pack the train's observation car to take in the Sierra Nevada and the mountain passage known as Donner Pass, which was once thought impossible to cross by locomotive.
Prior to federally subsidized Amtrak taking over the route in 1983, the California Zephyr was privately run by three train corporations. From 1949 to 1970, the so-called "Silver Lady" boasted five sightseeing cars topped by semicircular glass domes, with fine china and real silver in the dining cars. It also featured young hostesses in uniform, known as Zephyrettes, tasked with making the trip between Chicago and California more pleasant by doing everything from helping families with young children to announcing scenic spots along the way.
"Amtrak is nothing like the historic Zephyr," said Cathy von Ibsch, 63, who worked as a Zephyrette when the private service came to an end in 1970. "It (Amtrak) didn't have the same class or same feel. They modernized it."
The original train traveled a different eastward route through California and Nevada on its way to Salt Lake City called the Feather River Route, which did not offer views of the bays north of San Francisco. From Salt Lake City to Chicago, the routes of the original Zephyr and the modern Amtrak trains remain the same.
I recently rode the Amtrak train for the first time. My husband and I were enthusiastically led onto the platform by our 4-year-old son, a train fanatic. We boarded the train just after 9 a.m. in the small city of Emeryville, 11 miles east of San Francisco.
It's the Zephyr's departure point on the 236-mile journey to Reno. The train wasn't packed, which meant we could occupy a few extra seats, spread out and relax. This made for a much better experience than air travel (no airport security either), which is often crowded and uncomfortable. During the 2012 fiscal year, the Zephyr's ridership increased to 376,459 passengers as compared to 355,324 in 2011, according to data from Amtrak.
The first leg of the seven-hour journey to Reno took us along the water northeast of San Francisco.
We witnessed the morning light dancing off San Pablo Bay, a tidal estuary that extends north from the San Francisco Bay. Roughly an hour into the journey, while crossing the Benicia-Martinez bridge, we saw the so-called "mothball fleet" in Suisun Bay. There, dozens of World War II-era decommissioned warships are still afloat.
By midmorning, we were rolling across flat farmland and orchards. We arrived in Sacramento, the state capital, just after 11 a.m. There, volunteer docents from the California State Railway Museum -- who serve in pairs from Sacramento to Reno and back every day -- boarded. Later we heard their voices over the public address system, detailing the history of Donner Pass and the Transcontinental Railroad.
Donner Pass, the passage over the Sierra Nevada, received its name from the infamous group of pioneers from the Midwest who attempted to reach California during the winter of 1846-47. The pioneers were stranded on the eastern side of the pass, obstructed by snow. Of the 87 travelers, only 48 survived, with some resorting to cannibalism.
The construction of the Transcontinental Railroad over Donner Pass got under way after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act of 1862. It took six years and the labor of more than 12,000 Chinese workers who laid track eastward from Sacramento, according to the Harvard University Library Open Collections Program. The Central Pacific Railroad blasted 15 tunnels through the Sierra Nevada, and the Union Pacific Railroad laid rails heading west from Omaha, Neb. Finally in 1869, the 1,776 miles of track, one from the east and the other from the west, joined together in Promontory Summit, Utah, and the Transcontinental Railroad was born.
Riding through the tunnels toward Reno, it was hard not to imagine the backbreaking labor that went into creating them.
"Tunnels were pushed forward using hand drills to create the holes in which to load black powder (and later, nitroglycerin)," said Paul Hammond, director of the California State Railroad Museum. "Working in very hard granite still meant that progress was often measured in inches per day."
Lucky for us, in the 21st century, all we have to do is hop onboard and enjoy.