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The Burlington Zephyr

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Even a state as quiet and peaceful, and as rural as Iowa generally provides several possible entertainers for idlers. On the morning of May 26th, 1934, however, there was only one choice: tracking the progress of the brand-new Burlington Zephyr on its inaugural run from Denver, Colorado, to Chicago. The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad was attempting to break the world records for both speed and non-stop distance.

The three-car Zephyr, with 72 dignitaries and reporters, left the Denver station at four minutes past six. As one of the reporters put it, she "zoomed out of Colorado dawn, roared down the mountains and streaked the plains of Nebraska."

At one in the afternoon, the Zephyr crossed over into Iowa at Council Bluffs. On the tracks ahead, all other trains were sidelined. Burlington employees were stationed at every crossing to clear the way. For Iowans, the only debate was whether to watch the Zephyr alongside the tracks for the close-up thrill of a shrill whistle and a flash of silver, or from a rise miles away, where one could see the speeding silver bullet coming far ahead.

The Zephyr was well worth waiting for. Its three gleaming stainless-steel cars were so connected as to appear to be a single unit. The whole trained weighed less than a single Pullman Car. No one had seen anything like it.

Across Iowa at speeds up to 112 miles per hour. By the time is passed through Cromwell, the Zephyr had already broken both the earlier speed and distance record of England's Royal Scot train between London and Edinburgh. On it went, through Red Oak, Ottumwa, through Burlington, across the Mississippi toward Chicago, where it arrived at nine minutes after seven. 1,015 miles in just over 12 hours, at an average speed of 77.6 miles per hour.

At Chicago, the Burlington Zephyr switched onto tracks which took it to the lakefront where its arrival officially opened the second year of Chicago's World's Fair—the Century of Progress.

The famous Rock Island Lines was also headed toward the fair. They were used to being first in railroad matters, but now the best they could offer was a carload of local newsboys who had won contests for selling the most papers.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Humanities Council and Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, with additional funding from Humanities Iowa, the Iowa Arts Council, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.