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By Ted and Sylvia Blishak   October 1, 2010

Silver Solarium
The streamlined carriages give the rear of the Amtrak train a streamlined touch.

Oakland Rail Yards, California: It's after midnight. Chris Skow, Rail Tours Manager at Trains and Travel International is crawling around on his hands and knees checking switches. Although Skow is more comfortable conducting rail-related trips with unusual itineraries, troubleshooting is part of the job, too. Train & Travel's "Domes Down the Valley" round trip from Oakland to Bakersfield is scheduled to begin just a few hours from now at 7:30 am. Seventy-one passengers are now asleep at nearby hotels, dreaming of the deluxe private-car experience they will soon be enjoying.

But there's a problem. Pre-Amtrak California Zephyr streamlined Vista-Dome cars Silver Solarium and Silver Lariat are, at this moment, trapped on a stub-end track in the Oakland yards. A freight-car derailment between their location and their exit point caused track and switch damage, making it impossible for a scheduled switch engine to come in to pull the two domes from storage and move them to the main line to couple onto the train they are supposed to travel behind.

  Silver Solarium   Silver Solarium  
Passengers on the private cars are separated from the rest of the Amtrak train with their own dining area and menus.
Fine wines in crystal goblets, fresh flowers, white linen, and gourmet dining herald the grand old days of railroading.

Skow is now facing the prospect of either finding some other way to get the two cars out, or telling the paid-up passengers that there will be no trip. So he and Burt Hermey, one of the owners of the Silver Lariat, think of a solution—a complicated one that involves a wake-up phone call to a sleepy railroad official. They explain their idea to the official. It involves the movement of a string of freight cars followed by a series of careful back-and-forth moves by a switch engine through a crossover from an adjacent track.

"Would you be able to authorize that right now?" Skow asks.

He can, and the feat is accomplished by 3:30am. The "Domes Down the Valley" trip can now take place.

  Silver Solarium at Jack London station in Oakland   Solarium car on the Amtrak Zepher  
The sun rises in what looks like a scene from the past at Oakland's Jack London Square
The sun rises in what looks like a scene from the past at Oakland's Jack London Square

As passengers climb aboard the classic stainless-steel dome cars at Amtrak's Jack London Square Station in Oakland, everything is elegantly organized. We didn't have the slightest hint about the drama that had just ended.

Our railfan nephew, Greg Blishak, and his wife Tonia joined us. Greg had suggested dressing for the era when the original CZ was in its heyday - the 1950s. Following trips to the attic and thrift shops to find a longish full skirt reminiscent of the poodle skirts popular at the time, a string of pearls, a going-to-church hat for Sylvia and a fedora and skinny necktie for Ted, we also sported "I Like Ike" buttons, which created a sensation on board.

Amtrak's 7:30 am San Joaquin was waiting as our two first-class domes were coupled onto the longer train. Soon we were gliding along the edge of San Francisco Bay.

  Silver Solarium lobby, Sylvia Blishak   Silver Solarium, Ted Blishak   Silver Solarium  
  Sylvia in her 1950s going-to-church hat and gloves sports an I-Like-Ike button Ted Blishak sleepily awaits a cup of coffee in the Silver Lariat dome. The Silver Solarium's bar is presided over by Cliff McDaniels.  

Ted had purchased tickets for the same drawing room he'd occupied on this very same Silver Solarium on a 1967 trip. The four of us were comfortable in high style with a long sofa, a table, and two easy chairs. We were just a few steps away from a bar stocked with high-end brands such as Jose Cuervo and Glenlivit, with a very personable bar-tender, Cliff McDaniels, a 32-year veteran of service on both private cars and Amtrak.

We climbed stairs with art-deco curved, internally illuminated Lucite handrails and found a booth in the dome where we enjoyed top-notch service with a breakfast of pumpkin coffee cake, selected premium sausages, coffee, and fresh fruit.

Trains & Travel does not own these private cars, but leases them. Today, all the car's owners are aboard. The Silver Solarium belongs to Roy J. Wullich II, a former CPA. His business card reads: President of Rail Journeys West, Inc., Luxury Private Rail Travel. The Silver Lariat has belonged, since l958, to Burt Herney, President, California Zephyr Railcar Charters, and his partner, Al Bishop. Burt is a veteran of the accounts payable office at a department store chain. Al is a retired electrical engineer who enjoys digging into the electrical systems on private cars.

Built in 1948, the cars often run excursions in tandem and can be combined with a sleeper car, the Silver Rapids, for overnight journeys.

  Silver Lariat mural   Vintage dome RR car inside  
  Mural inside the Silver Lariat attests to its name Attached to the rear of an Amtrak train, the vintage dome provides a pleasant view.  

Wullich purchased Silver Solarium in 2002. "The decor," he claims, "was Family RV style." He has restored the car to its elegant, low-key authenticity, including the chairs in the downstairs round-end lounge. The chairs had been separated from the car. He somehow tracked them down, repatriated and re-upholstered them. "This car was in need of repair to the generator, trucks, wiring, carpets, and upholstery. These have been completed. But owning a 62-year-old car is an ongoing project. There are always more things to fix," he claims.

The original Vista-Dome California Zephyr ran an entire train consisting of these stainless-steel cars. Each car's name began with "Silver" and was lettered CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR with the stylized, art-deco typestyle you see in the photos, gracing the train with a sharp, uniform appearance.

  Silver Solarium place setting    
  A place setting displays the California Zephyr logo on a tablecloth embossed with the same art-deco image   Waiter Paul Clements serves with style in the Silver Lariat's dome dining area.  
  Ted recalls several pre-Amtrak trips which he thoroughly enjoyed. In December 1967, he booked tickets on the train from Oakland to Chicago, occupying the coveted Drawing Room D (which converted to a bedroom at night) on this same round-end Vista Dome sleeper-observation car Silver Solarium.  

Ted: "The windows were hung with wreaths and Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters Christmas carols were playing over the sound system.

"We pulled out of Oakland, the view was all sunny skies and green fields. But the next day we encountered blizzard conditions across Utah and Colorado, which slowed the train down. We were warm and cozy inside, but we limped into Denver six hours late. There we stopped to get our frozen steam-heat lines thawed out before the inside temperature dropped. Now twelve hours behind schedule, we headed east into blowing snow.

"Rolling at a steady 60 mph over the plains, the train blasted its way through hundreds of drifts. The conductor warned us that standing or walking was risky. Every collision with a snow drift caused a sharp lurch. The flying snow formed a long 'rooster tail' behind Silver Solarium (we were the last car on the train) as the train plunged through the frigid plains, and we drifted further behind schedule. This was more of a White Christmas than we had bargained for!

"Finally stopping at the Hastings, Nebraska station, we were advised that the CZ would be held until a broken rail ahead was repaired. By now, it was too late to reach our destination in time for Christmas with the family. Eastbound traffic was stalled indefinitely, but it was possible to travel westbound. So we cashed in our tickets and went back to warm, sunny California."

Silver Solarium brochures
A collection of Train & Travel's current brochures harks back to the streamliner era

A former railroad conductor, Chris Scow, of Trains & Travel International, is the organizer of trips like this, although today's short journey is just a sample—most of them involve several days or longer. His career proves the adage "Do what you love and the money will follow." During vacations, he traveled to Africa and South America to photograph steam trains. On subsequent trips friends tagged along, and six people joined him in 1975 on a journey to South Africa. By 1977 the tag-alongs numbered 20.

"Planning group trips to out-of-the-way places was very time-consuming," he recalls. "I was doing this without compensation. So I told my companions in 1984 that I'd have to charge them for my time. They agreed. So then I retired from the railroad and began organizing tours to various countries.

"One tour we do is a fall-foliage event in New England with rides on a lot of tourist railroads."

Skow and his wife Debbie reveal they were married aboard the Silver Solarium " 79 miles per hour" according to Debbie.

Silver Solarium wedding
  Chris Skow, Rail Tours Manager of Trains & Travel International, and Debbie say "I do" at 79 miles per hour aboard the Silver Solarium.  

A great variety of Trains & Travel International trips are scheduled for 2011, ranging from short trips in the US to steam excursions in Australia and Argentina. Discounts are offered to passengers who book before December 1. Visit, e-mail, or call 1 800 359 4870.

Sylvia Blishak can be reached at:

NAMED ONE OF THE WORLD'S TOP TRAVEL SPECIALISTS BY CONDE NAST TRAVELER MAGAZINE SINCE 2002. 3939 S. Sixth St. #331, Klamath Falls, OR 97603 Phone: 800 347 0645 Fax: 541 883 6457


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