In 1889 and the 1890s, S.E. Gross, the founder of Grossdale (now Brookfield), repeatedly stressed in his newspaper ads that this, his new subdivision, was a mere 26-30 minutes ride (the ads’ times varied) from Chicago’s Union Station.
Since that time, one might have thought that, with more modern rail transportation available, that this traveling time would have decreased. But no.
To this very day, it still takes 28-30 minutes to travel to Brookfield. Diesels were brought into use on the Burlington Northern’s Chicago-Aurora line in the 1950s, but the schedules have remained unaltered by technology.
And yet, there was a time, long ago, when we had the equivalent of today’s Japanese Shinkansen bullet trains, or British Intercity Express trains streaking back and forth through Brookfield.
Incredibly, this began to happen 81 years ago, during the height of the Great Depression. These trains first zipped between Chicago and Denver; Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota; and to Missouri and Nebraska.
A new electric spot welding process made the creation of the stainless steel, streamlined Pioneer Zephyr possible. It was to be lighter, stronger, and faster than any steam train then operating.
This modern three-car train, nicknamed “The Silver Streak” made a record-breaking speed trip on May 26, 1934, between Denver and the Chicago World’s Fair, where it was put on exhibition for the fair’s second year.
Early on that Saturday evening, hundreds of Brookfield citizens of all ages waited alongside the tracks to see the fastest, most modern thing on wheels pass through the village.
The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad had alerted all stations and also newspapers to prepare for the “dawn-to-dusk dash.”
According to the Porter Rubendall, editor of the Brookfield Enterprise newspaper, “Each crossing between Denver and the Union Station will be guarded by two men, and ropes and red flags will be placed at crossings not protected by crossing gates … 15 minutes before the scheduled arrived of the Zephyr at each crossing. The passenger stations, likewise, will be roped off to prevent spectators from getting close to the tracks.” Even overhead bridges were closed off.
No such high-speed train had ever traveled on these rails before, so the CB&Q had every spike and bolt checked along the line.
The railroad was also “apprehensive over the possibility of the train being derailed by any object such as coins being put on the track.” Today, of course, this seems like “overkill.”
Approaching from the west, the Zephyr was not as noticeable as other steam engines. No “chuf-chuf-chuf” of smoke clouds rose into the sky. Onlookers first heard the blaring, blasting horn going “HONK, HONK,” announcing the train’s imminent arrival and speedy departure.
Amateur photographers aimed their cameras in that direction, but even they weren’t prepared for the blur that was to flash through the village.
A common joke going around afterward was that “you need two people to watch the Zephyr — one to say ‘Here she comes!’ and the other to say ‘There she goes!'” It was that fast.
Reported the Suburban Magnet newspaper on May 31, 1934, “[It was] nine minutes from the time it passed through Brookfield [to when] it was at the Halsted Street Station in Chicago, and averaged 85 miles an hour all the way from Aurora. Its highest speed was 112 miles per hour for a short distance in passing through Nebraska.”
The 1,107 mile daylight run from Denver was completed in 13 hours, 5 minutes.
After the World’s Fair closed, the Pioneer Zephyr went into regular revenue operation on Nov. 11, 1934 on a Missouri/Nebraska route, and villagers were again treated to the sight and sound of its presence.
On April 14, 1935, two more Zephyrs, the Twin Cities, began service, at first having both trains leaving Union Station at the same time, then returning from their destinations also at the same time. Eventually this changed. One train left Chicago while the other left St. Paul, both exactly at 8 a.m. CST.
And this is where the trouble began for people living along the Chicago-Aurora line. Rubendall’s Enterprise editorial for July 26, 1935 was headlined “Zephyrs Too Noisy.”
“Not so many weeks ago people lined up by the hundreds to watch the new Burlington Zephyrs go by and acclaimed them the new marvels of the present day transportation era. But the novelty has worn off and many of these same people are already complaining of the noise these Zephyrs make with their blasting [horns]. One can hear them coming from as far off as Riverside, and in passing through Brookfield the noise becomes a roar and can be heard until past LaGrange. Neighboring towns are preparing to take steps to have the blasting [horns] toned down. They feel the loud blasts have advertised the Zephyrs long enough and it is time to tone them down to where they will not prove to be a nuisance.”
Did the railroad reduce the noise? Local papers were silent on the matter. Even the Chicago Tribune had nothing to say.
However, the Brookfield Library took advantage of the “Zephyr Fever.”
The Children’s Library began a new Zephyr reading contest on Monday, July 8, 1935. Twenty-four children signed up that same day. The contest’s slogan was “The Zephyr for Fast Time; Our Books for Pastime.” Each child received a card that recorded books read during July and August. Ninety children were enrolled by early August.
Each winner and leading constant received a framed picture of the Zephyr. More than 1,600 books were taken out by participants.
Brookfield President John Bergman and Attorney Paul Pretzel were so impressed by the contest that they offered pay expenses for three of the leading contestants for rides to Aurora on the Zephyr as an additional award.
This didn’t sit well with the railroad, possibly because a special stop at Aurora would have to be made. And where would the children and their parents stay? And would a special stop have to be made to take them home again?
Then, just when the people of Brookfield got used to seeing the Zephyrs swooshing through the village in handful of seconds, they were treated to an amazing sight.
Reported in the Enterprise of Sept. 13, 1935 was the news that “Steam Engine Tows Burlington Zephyr Through Brookfield.”
“An unusual sight was witnessed last Tuesday afternoon [Sept. 10] by many citizens of Brookfield when the famed Burlington Zephyr was towed through the village at breakneck speed by a steam engine. There was a sharp contrast between the sleek, trim, streamlined silver Zephyr and the rugged, conventional style puffing locomotive. The Zephyr, it is reported, broke down on its run and was being towed to Chicago for repairs.”
Even the speediest trains had their bad days. A good one was in 1960 when the Pioneer Zephyr became a permanent exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry. It is still there, gleaming and streamlined, an example of when the first and fastest train ran right through Brookfield … and on into history.