Until trains connected Florida with Northern markets and people, Florida was the least populated state in the South, the least populated region of the country.
At a time when transcontinental railroads were building westward, Henry Flagler was building a railroad down the Florida East Coast, Henry B. Plant one down the Florida West Coast, and William Chipley across the Florida Panhandle. These railroads meant Tampa cigars, Indian River oranges, and Florida winter vegetables could reach New York and Philadelphia in two days. It also meant middle class Northerners could take a train to Florida by 1900 and cruise on a steamboat down the St. Johns River.
Trains, not airplanes, started Florida as a winter vacation destination.
It is shocking how today train service had declined. I remember going to the Punta Gorda train station to pick up my British aunt and uncle who were coming down from Toronto. Fortunately, there are still some ways to enjoy Florida’s railroad legacy on a trip or vacation. Here are some choices:
The Florida Railroad Museum (frrm.org) south of Tampa in Parish on US301 not only has a large collection of diesel-powered trains in their rural collection, but also offers 13-mile round trips into the tropical wilderness of Eastern Manatee County.
During the winter season, there are numerous theme and reenactment rides, including a train robbery. The Ashley gang robbed trains from horseback long after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid fled to Bolivia.
The Gold Coast Railroad Museum (gcrm.org) pays tribute to the Florida East Coast Railroad but has many weekend train excursions. There is even a two-foot gauge children’s steam train ride.
Old Number 153 Rescued People from 1935 Hurricane
This museum has several historic trains including the Ferdinand Magellan, the Presidential car used by Presidents from F. D. Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan. There is Florida East Coast Railway 4-6-2 No. 153, the train that rescued hundreds of people from the Florida Keys just before the Hurricane of 1935 destroyed the bridges.
FDR Campaigned From This RR Car
Down in Fort Myers is the Seminole Gulf Railway (semgulf.com) which has 118 miles of track for train trips, including a neat drawbridge over the Caloosahatchee River. Using the tracks of the Seaboard Coast Line, the railway offers a 3.5 hour dinner train trip and a mystery train experience. The Christmas schedule is very interesting, offering combo-train-boat trips.
If you would like to take a trip along the scenic hills of Central Florida, you could ride the Tavares, Eustis & Gulf Railroad (http://www.orangeblossomcannonball.com), with stations in Tavares and downtown Mount Dora. The 1907 engine is my favorite on the wonderful lakeside excursions.
A Trip Around The Lakes of Central Florida
Visitors will get an addition surprise when they enter the passenger cars for most of them were obtained from Western movie sets so you can pretend you are part of a movie like “True Grit” or “3:10 to Yuma.”