Mark Twain Zephyr on track for return visit to Midwest

Robert Tabern, director of passenger development with the Great Northern Railroad in Trego, Wisc., shows a picture to Hannibal’s second Becky Thatcher, Jean (Richmond) Buckman. She greeted passengers on the Mark Twain Zephyr when it returned to Hannibal in 1957, including getting to meet Hal Holbrook, who was in character the entire time as Mark Twain.

HANNIBAL — After 60 years, the Mark Twain Zephyr is on the way to transporting passengers once again, bringing back a flood of memories for people who worked on the train or saw it come to America’s Hometown for its christening in 1935.

Robert Tabern, director of passenger development with the Great Northern Railroad in Trego, Wisc., told audience members at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum talked about how The Mark Twain Zephyr was built for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad — one of the Burlington Route’s premier trains when it entered service Oct. 25, 1935. The modern, “shovel-nose” design was penned by Albert Dean. The train’s arrival in Hannibal garnered national attention, and the excitement will return again as the train’s renovation gets closer to completion.

Tabern said he enjoyed locating stops along the Burlington Route from decades ago, running between Burlington, Iowa and St. Louis, Mo. His visit to Hannibal was part of a 14-visit tour tracing the historic route.

Tabern and his wife, Kandace, have written two parts of a three-book set titled “Mark Twain Zephyr: History, Restoration and Rebirth”. The books chronicle the history of developing a new type of train to replace the previous “heavyweight” designs, along with the stories surrounding each of the seven private owners the Mark Twain Zephyr passed through. In 2020, it was transported car by car on enormous flatbed trailers from a railyard near St. Louis to Wisconsin.

Over the course of 10 months, crews in Wisconsin have been painstakingly restoring the cars, including the cab named Injun Joe, the baggage car named Becky Thatcher, the passenger car named Huck Finn, and the rear observation car named Tom Sawyer. The train will also feature an additional dinette car from the Pioneer Zephyr train, named Effie Dean after the wife of the train’s designer.

All across the country, the futuristic, speed-record setting trains captured the hearts of many Americans during trying times.

“Zephyr-mania swept through the nation,” Tabern said. “It gave people hope during the Great Depression.

The train’s arrival in Hannibal included souvenir trips to Quincy, Ill. and Louisiana, Mo. before official service began. Notable visitors included Harry Truman, Samuel Clemens’ granddaughter, Nina Gabrilowitsch, and CBS radio announcer Del King.

“From 2:00 to 2:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 25, 1935, all eyes were here on Hannibal, Mo., as the inauguration of the Mark Twain Zephyr took place coast to coast on every CBS radio station in the country,” Tabern said.

When the train returned to America’s Hometown in 1957, one of the excited visitors was Hannibal’s second Becky Thatcher, Jean Richmond Buckman.

She recalled when Hal Holbrook came to visit, he was a famous star in soap operas at the time. During his visit, Holbrook never broke his character as Mark Twain, speaking just like Twain.

“I knew it was him, and I was thrilled,” she said.

Buckman always wanted a signature from Holbrook before he left, and she received one, with one of his famous lines: “I fell before she fired a shot.”

M.G. Farris recalled riding the train for its last trip north with passengers. As a boy, he got his paper route with the Des Moines Register. The route took him right by the depot. He was glad to see the efforts to bring the Mark Twain Zephyr back to life.

“I’m glad they’re doing it, and they’re saving it,” he said, noting they are restoring it with new touches to blend with the historic details they preserved or reconstructed. “I love them for doing it.”

Tabern showed before and after photos from the 10-month restoration, expressing his excitement for the train to be running again — the only one of its kind in operation — in 2022.

“It’s just the beginning of the life for the Mark Twain Zephyr,” he said.

More information about the project is available by visiting www.marktwainzephyr.com or the Mark Twain Zephyr Facebook page.

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