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California Zephyr

The California Zephyr being lifted into place in Maricopa in 2001. Photo courtesy of Maricopa Historical Society

The Maricopa Historical Society is seeking public input to help determine the fate of one of their recently acquired icons – the California Zephyr railcar.

At their meeting on June 5 the historical society presented a history of the Zephyr, following it from its birth in 1949 through its service on the Burlington Northern route from Chicago to Los Angeles, its retirement in 1970, its temporary homes in Texas and Los Angeles, its short acting carrier in films such as “Pearl Harbor” and ultimately its arrival in Maricopa in 2001.

After the detailed presentation, however, discussion turned toward the icon’s future.

“Do we consider restoration, or do we go the museum route,” Maricopa Historical Society President Paul Shirk posited to the group.

Most in attendance agreed that a museum was the best option, though some suggested that a partial restoration of the railcars upper deck would be nice to give visitors a glimpse into the Zephyr’s glory days.

There are many steps to take before the Zephyr can become an operational museum, the most important of which will be the installation of air conditioning.

Other items on the to-do list include updates to the interior and exterior of the car, all of which the historical society hopes will be facilitated by the formation of a “Zephyr Guild” comprised of craftsmen, artisans and technicians who will help maintain the site.

A permanent home for the Zephyr was also discussed. Though mostly unaffected by the eventual construction of the State Route 347 overpass, its current location near the Amtrak station is questioned by some who doubt if it’s the appropriate location.

At this point, however, no alternative location has been proposed.

The historical society recently took ownership of the railcar after purchasing it from Pinal County for $1. For the past few years, the society was allowed access to host tours and open houses in the railcar.

Maricopa Historical Society board members (from left) Paul Shirk, Dorothy Charles, Brenda Campbell, Denny Hoeh and Joan Garrett show off the California Zephyr car, which will be on public display Feb. 27.

For those who have never had the chance to look inside the California Zephyr train car, the next opportunity is Feb. 27.

The Maricopa Historical Society hosts its annual seminar in two parts that day. Part 1 is from 9 a.m. to noon at City Hall. Speakers will present “Maricopa: A City on the Move,” with information about the influence of railroads in the city.

The open house at the Zephyr will be from 1 to 4 p.m.

Paul Shirk, president of the MHS, said the Zephyr is interesting to rail history buffs because it is so uncommon today.

“There were two [in Arizona] that were scrapped,” he said. “There is one in northern California that is operating, and the San Diego Railroad Club just bought one that they’re going to redo. They shipped it from Alaska. They went that far to find one. So it’s a real rare piece.”

The Zephyr, which sits on a short strip of track next to the Amtrak station in Maricopa, is owned by Pinal County. It was used in the filming of the movie Pearl Harbor before it was transported to Maricopa.

Shirk will be one of the speakers at the city hall seminar. Scheduled presenters are Alice Duckworth, collections manager at the Arizona State Library, a representative from the Saguaro Central Railroad Preservation Society, and MHS Vice President Denny Hoeh, who will talk about the local history of trains.

“Maricopa has had four names and three locations, and it all had to do with the railroad,” Hoeh said.

Shirk said the seminar will also offer articles and books addressing the impact of the railroad on Arizona.

“An awful lot of historians say one of the factors that really brought the territorial capital to Phoenix was that Phoenix was connected to Maricopa, which was part of the transcontinental railroad,” Hoeh said. “At that time, when Prescott wanted to send something by rail to Tucson, they had to send to L.A., put it on another train and then have it end up in Tucson.”

Shirk said the seminar is not just about the past. Explaining the development of the railroad is also explaining Maricopa’s future relationship with Phoenix. The impact of the railroad on the city was the impetus for millions of dollars being committed to Maricopa for an overpass.

“The Historical Society is trying to help people get a sense of history or legacy within the town,” Hoeh said. “To give people a better feel for the community, and that it’s not just a transitional place where you can move until you find a different place to move to.”

The railroad was an important part of the Maricopa Historical Society from its founding. The MHS is an off-shoot of the Friends of the Maricopa Public Library. One of its first events in 2011 was opening the Zephyr rail car to the public, according to Treasurer Brenda Campbell. It is opened twice a year.

Though not a self-described history buff, Campbell came to the MHS through the Friends and was quickly fascinated by historian Pat Brock’s book “Reflections of a Desert Town.”

“That book not only talked about the history, the three locations and the four names, but it talked about the early days of Maricopa and the people who made it and the organizations,” said Campbell, who came on board to help with organizational paperwork like writing bylaws.

Dorothy Charles, also on the board of directors, loves history and research and joined the society when it was a year old. She documents items donated to the MHS and acquiring and protecting more historical items. “It was very exciting to be in on the ground floor, but a lot more work than I was realizing at the time,” she said.

Fellow director Joan Garrett came to Maricopa six years ago from a town steeped in history in Michigan and also was recruited by Brock to join the society.

“I said, ‘I don’t know anything about the history of Maricopa,’” Garrett said. “And she said, ‘What better way to do it?’”

“We keep learning stuff all the time,” Shirk said. “It’s a living history lesson for me.”

Historical Society board members on board the Zephyr, which will be open to the public Feb. 27. Photo by Raquel Hendrickson
Historical Society board members on board the Zephyr, which will be open to the public Feb. 27. Photo by Raquel Hendrickson

If You Go
What: Maricopa: A City on the Move
Who: Maricopa Historical Society
Day: Feb. 27
Time/Location:    9 a.m.-noon at Maricopa City Hall
1-4 p.m. at Zephyr car next to Amtrak Station
How Much: Free
Info: MHS50.com

This story appeared in the February issue of InMaricopa News.

The Maricopa Historical Society announced the Nov. 14 historic tour of Maricopa’s California Zephyr from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. at the Amtrak station.

There will be a short presentation and dedication at 10 a.m. prior to a ribbon cutting opening the Zephyr car to the public.

In September, Boy Scout  Austin Long organized a thorough cleaning of the car as part of his Eagle Scout project. The cleaning included floors, paneling and windows on the inside.  A week later the group returned to polish the outside of the car.

Over 20 individuals, including local scouts, helped in the effort to maintain one of Maricopa’s most iconic sites.

The California Zephyr’s Silver Horizon dome car is located at the corner of State Route 347 and Maricopa-Casa Grande Highway.

The Silver Horizon was part of the famous California Zephyr domes and streamliners that charmed the American people for more than 20 years. The dome car was built for the California Zephyr passenger line, which operated from 1949 until 1970.

Before moving to Maricopa the car was used in a scene from the movie Pearl Harbor starring Ben Affleck,  which was released in 2001.

The car was moved to Maricopa in 2000 and used as a ticket office for the Amtrak station.  The ticket office was later moved to a larger space, but the Zephyr has remained as the landmark for Maricopa station.

Visitors can tour the lower coach and upper observation deck, as well as a display of artifacts from Maricopa’s rich history.

Featured at the event will be photographs from the City of Maricopa’s 2015 Shutter Shot contest, which shows 24 hours of snapshots of Maricopa on the day of the 12th anniversary of the city’s incorporation.

Maricopa Historical Society 2016 calendars and “Images of America: Maricopa” will be on sale.

The Maricopa Historical Society is dedicated to informing and inspiring all people to make history a part of their lives by presenting exhibits, programs and publications that bring  history alive; collecting materials that tell the story of the Maricopa area and its people; educating  people of all ages; and creating a sense of identity and community.

For more information, email contact@mhs50.com.