What’s in a Name: The ZEPHYR

Originally called just “The Zephyr”, the first streamlined diesel-electric train made its debut on April 18, 1934 at Philadelphia’s Broad Street Station.  The Philadelphia Record announced its arrival on the front page of its April 18, 1934 issue, remarking that it was “Named after the West Wind and looking like some Martian visitor.”

Promotional Brochure for the Zephyr, 1934


In an internal document to CB&Q administrators, an anonymous resource goes into great detail on the Greek God Zephyrus, who as the son of Astraeos by Eos, and described by Homer as a strong blowing wind.  In later accounts Zephyrus was described as the God of the West Wind, the gentlest of the winds. Zephyrus was known to be the father of many gods and creatures:  Aphrodite, the goddess of love; a son named Karpos , or Carpus (“fruit”); and two horses, Xanthos and Balios, the steeds of Achilles.

Obviously the name, and its association with the wind and speed, was appealing for a train that would run faster and lighter than its predecessors.  Before its debut, however, one district agent questioned its appropriateness. To him, the name “…does not mean very much but a ‘lazy breeze.'” (M.J. Fox to H.F. McLaury, Nov. 17, 1933) He suggested the alternative name “Cannonball.”

The Nov. 20, 1933 response from the Advertising Agent H.F. McLaury explains the origins and reason for the name:

“The name ‘ZEPHYR’ really originated with Mr. Cotsworth [the General Passenger Agent]…. I am afraid that I was more in favor of the name ‘Quick Silver.’ But on the whole I do think that ZEPHYR is a good name. You are right about one definition being ‘a light breeze’. Another definition however is ‘the west wind.’ The name has the advantage of being about ‘the last word’ (in the dictionary), hence its application to our train implies that the latter is ‘the last word’ in modern rail transportation. Another advantage in the name is that it is an odd and unusual word and readily sticks in the public mind.”

Original artwork draft for promotional brochure by Brown & Bigelow, ca. 1933

Promotional brochure, 1934

This original Zephyr train was renamed the Pioneer Zephyr a year later to distinguish it from the growing fleet of Zephyrs that traversed the United States: the Twin Zephyrs (service to the Twin Cities); the California Zephyr, the Denver Zephyr, the Sam Houston Zephyr, the Mark Twain Zephyr, and so on. The fleet was wildly popular for the company, breaking several speed records and claiming to be a much smoother ride than any of its predecessors.

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