Today in Transportation History – 1962: The Passing of a Railroad Legend

Internationally renowned railroad executive Ralph Budd died in Santa Barbara, California, at the age of 82. His obituary in the New York Times noted, “Mr. Budd, a bulky, exuberant man who spent a half-century on railroading, approached the work with the drive of a locomotive churning through a tunnel.”

Budd had been born on a farm near the city of Waterloo in Iowa in 1879. After graduating from Highland Park College in Des Moines when he was only 19, Budd began his railroad career by working in the division engineering office of the Chicago Great Western Railway (CGW). It was during this time at CGW that he learned the basics of railroad construction and maintenance.

By 1903, Budd had left CGW to work for the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad (CRI&P). His accomplishments at CRI&P included helping to build its line between St. Louis and Kansas City. In 1906, he went to Panama to assist with the large-scale U.S. construction efforts on the canal there.  His engineering efforts specifically involved rehabilitating and relocating the longtime Panama Railway.

Three years later, Budd was back in the United States working for the Great Northern Railway (GN) affiliate Oregon Trunk Railway (OT). He helped map out and build an OT line in central Oregon. By this point in his railroad career, Budd had amassed a high-quality record of achievement when it came to both engineering abilities and leadership skills. In 1913, he moved to the GN headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota, to serve as assistant to the railroad’s president James J. Hill. Budd continued to rise steadily through the ranks, becoming executive vice president of GN in 1918 and then its president the following year; at the age of 40, he was the youngest railroad president in the U.S.

It was during Budd’s time as GN president that the railroad built the record-setting Cascade Tunnel in the Cascade Range of north-central Washington State to replace an earlier tunnel built there. The construction of the new Cascade Tunnel became one of the most ambitious engineering projects of the era. This tunnel was opened in 1929 and, measuring 7.79 miles (12.54 kilometers) in length, it remains the longest railroad tunnel in the U.S. During the course of his 13 years as president of GN, Budd oversaw the investment of $79 million for improving the railroad’s infrastructure and nearly $7 million for constructing new lines.

In 1932, Budd underwent another significant career change when he became president of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad (CB&Q). One of his key accomplishments in this role took place in 1934 when he helped usher in the railroad streamliner era by introducing the CB&Q diesel-powered train Zephyr. Budd even named the mile-a-minute train with the stainless-steel body. He came up with the name after reading the Geoffrey Chaucer classic “The Canterbury Tales,” which featured pilgrims who find themselves inspired by a nurturing wind known as Zephyrus. Budd was among those on board this train — eventually redubbed Pioneer Zephyr — when it set a speed record for travel during a May 1934 run of 1,015 miles (1,633 kilometers) between Denver and Chicago. The train, averaging 77 miles (124 kilometers) per hour, took an unprecedented 13 hours and five minutes to complete the trip.

Another one of Budd’s major legacies as CB&Q president occurred in 1949 when he introduced bubble-domed train coaches as part of the service for those traveling through such picturesque areas as the Colorado Rockies and the California-based Feather River Canyon. These innovative “Vista Dome” double-deck coaches enabled passengers to more fully view and enjoy the scenery en route. As part of the festivities surrounding the debut of these train coaches, Budd glued on a black mustache and donned a stove-pipe hat and velvet-collared Prince Albert coat so that he could resemble railroad presidents from an earlier era.

Budd retired from CB&Q that same year. His subsequent activities included serving as chairman of the board of the Chicago Transit Authority until 1954.

For more information on Ralph Budd, please check out

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