The majestic, silver car with domed roof evokes memories of the glory days of luxury train service — the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s — when it whisked passengers cross-country like the gentle melodic breeze for which it is named, the Zephyr.

It has been years now since anyone has ridden into town on a rail aboard the Zephyr. Since being decommissioned more than 35 years ago, the Maricopa landmark has had a bit part in a major motion picture, been altered to serve as a train depot and ticket station, been an awkward, tattered attraction and more recently sat forlorn awaiting transformation on land donated to the city by John and Mary Lou Smith near Maricopa’s former swimming pool, next to the city’s new museum.

Now a septuagenarian, the Zephyr is about to get new life showing off Maricopa’s railroad history.

Early next year, restoration will be complete and it will open to the public as a museum.
Paul Shirk, president of the Maricopa Historical Society, estimates a late January debut.
“We’ll have special guests for that,” Shirk said. “We’ll have a porter’s son who rode on that car, a Zephyrette who worked on that car. Wonderful stories.”

The railcar was not in wonderful condition when it became property of the Historical Society, though.

Crews recently replaced its windows. They’ve removed ceiling panels to rewire the car and install ductwork for a new air-conditioning system. Soon, new carpeting and woodwork will be installed.

“It’s been a long time since anything has been done to the inside of that car,” Shirk said.

Volunteers spruce up the car, which opens as a museum in early 2023. [file]
The Historical Society plans displays that can be rotated, a research library and special events at the Zephyr. A partial restoration of its upper deck will give visitors a glimpse into its glory days.

Then-Pinal County Supervisor Anthony Smith, then-Mayor Christian Price, City Manager Rick Horst and their staffs, determined to preserve the historical car, were instrumental in getting the Zephyr moved in January 2019 from its former home as the rail station to its new home, making way for the State Route 347 overpass.

A rich, colorful past
The California Zephyr Silver Horizon — which has come to be known interchangeably as the Zephyr, which was the train’s name, and the Silver Horizon, which was the car’s name — was built of 18-8 stainless steel in 1948 by the Budd Company. It was one of seven rear sleeper-observation cars that for 21 years ran on the California Zephyr route from San Francisco to Chicago, operated jointly by three railroads: Chicago, Burlington & Quincy; Denver & Rio Grande Western and Western Pacific.

When the original California Zephyr route ceased operation in 1970, Amtrak bought the car, along with all the similar stainless-steel passenger cars, and used it until 1985. Amtrak ran the Maricopa railcar on its Texas Chief line from Chicago to Texas and on its Sunset Limited from New Orleans to Los Angeles — through Phoenix.

“The railroad said ‘We want a special car on our Sunset Limited,’ so they occasionally put the Silver Horizon on the end of the Sunset Limited,” Shirk said.

After the car was decommissioned in 1985, it spent its retirement years with several owners, making moves back and forth across the country to temporary homes in Texas and Los Angeles, before its arrival in Maricopa.

The Zephyr is hoisted by cranes onto a trailer for the short move to its new home. [file]
The railcar was showcased in the movie “Pearl Harbor.”

Pinal County bought the Silver Horizon in 1999 for use as the Maricopa Amtrak ticket depot. It was dedicated on Oct. 16, 2001, on a short stretch of track next to the station.

Six years later, Union Pacific wanted the Zephyr moved. It took 14 years for that to happen.

Jacque Schell, then-office manager of the Maricopa Community Chamber of Commerce, had visions of it being a visitor center and Chamber office. She launched a “Save Our Train” campaign and opened an account at Bank of America for donations to keep the Zephyr in Maricopa.

Pinal County, which owned the car and leased the right-of-way land from Union Pacific, was swayed and kept it in Maricopa, which has had four names and three locations — all having to do with the railroad.

For five years through 2016, the Zephyr was open only a couple of days a year for public tours by the Historical Society through an agreement with the county.

In September 2015, Austin Long’s Eagle Scout project coordinated dozens of volunteers to clean the exterior and help make it ready for tours during cool weather. The Zephyr typically wasn’t cleaned, repaired or opened in the summer because the platform was “like a microwave” and visitors couldn’t be brought through the scorching car.

In 2017, Pinal County sold the Zephyr to the Maricopa Historical Society for $1.

In January 2019, cranes finally hoisted the 85-foot, 158,900-pound railcar onto a truck, which transported it to its current home near the Maricopa Unified School District administration building, where cranes lifted and placed it onto newly installed rails.

Electrical and air conditioning components had to be redone and extensive renovations were needed inside.

The Zephyr is hoisted by cranes onto a trailer for the short move to its new home. [file]
For “Pearl Harbor,” producers painted the Zephyr before it was transported to Maricopa. That paint is now being removed and refreshed by Historical Society member Ron Angwood to restore the classic stainless-steel look. Shirk pointed out that the effort was exhaustive, but paid off.

“When we went in, we had to completely rewire everything, which meant we had to take all the ceiling panels down from 1948,” Shirk said.

“The electric work is done, and it works great. We’re excited. We’re on pace to have everything finished after the first of the year. It’s going to be something special that we think the public is really going to love.”