By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; December 16, 2022
It’s December, the start of the Winter snowbird season when Northerners flee the inconvenience of cold, snow and sleet for the warm, inviting latitudes of Florida and its environs.
Beginning in 1925, the Seaboard Air Line Railroad – which had only existed as a fully consolidated railroad since 1900 – began operations of the winter season Orange Blossom Special from a still-new New York Pennsylvania Station to Florida. The Florida Land Boom was in full swing, and rich northerners – children of the previous Gilded Age generation – wanted to enjoy fresh-squeezed-that-morning orange juice with their breakfast while overlooking the refreshing, scenic beaches of Florida.
Arch rival Atlantic Coast Line Railroad would wait until 1938 to inaugurate its Florida Special from New York Pennsylvania Station to Miami via the Florida East Coast Railway south of Jacksonville.
The great winter rivalry for bragging rights, prestige and extra-fare revenue from the denizens of Manhattan and the Philadelphia Main Line families began in earnest in 1938.
Modern Florida exists because of railroad barons Henry M. Flagler and Henry B. Plant. Flagler has numerous streets and avenues in Florida named for him, in addition to an entire county his railroad passes through between Jacksonville and Daytona Beach. Plant has a city named after him near Tampa in Hillsborough County as well as various schools.
Both railroads had been luring passengers for Florida winter fun and sun since the Gilded Age. This continued up until the advent of the Jet Age when jets competed with passenger trains, but trains still had a loyal following.
In the 1950s, Fort Lauderdale became a hot college student spring break destination, duly enshrined in mindless movies, as well as Daytona Beach. Daytona Beach International Speedway is now a major attraction as well as Bike Week and Biketoberfest for motorcyclists in Daytona and Ormond Beach. Spectators watching racing on the Daytona/Ormond Beaches goes back to the days when they arrived on Henry Flagler’s trains.
Today, the Amtrak Florida trains still are some of the most popular in the Amtrak national system. But, now, Florida is a year-round vacation destination thanks to air conditioning, Walt Disney World, SeaWorld, Universal Studios and many other attractions added during the last half of the 20th Century. The days of Florida’s only attractions being the beaches are over. The beaches are still pretty wonderful, but they compete with many other interests.
Starting towards the end of the 19th Century, railroads on the east coast were consolidating short lines into long lines. Henry Flagler was aggressively rebuilding St. Augustine, Florida from a sleepy mosquito-infested outpost of civilization into a winter rendezvous for the ultra wealthy of the Gilded Age and less-well-to-do who were only wealthy.
After Flagler finished with St. Augustine with his spectacular gilded hotels, he pushed his later-to-be-named Florida East Coast Railway south into other tiny hamlets, creating modern versions of such soon-to-be famous places as Ormond Beach, Daytona Beach, Titusville, Melbourne, Fort Pierce, Stuart and West Palm Beach, all becoming winter havens for the rich riding his new railroad. After he settled on building the famed Royal Poinciana and The Breakers hotels in Palm Beach as well as his own opulent home across the street from The Breakers, an enterprising lady by the name of Julia Tuttle along with fellow land-owner William Brickell convinced Flagler to buy land in her little settlement of Miami. Their argument was convincing and Flagler sets his sights on Miami and pushed his railroad further south, also creating Delray Beach, Deerfield Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood. Eventually he his railroad would go all the way to Key West.
Rival Henry B. Plant was busy on the west coast of Florida doing much the same with his Plant System railroad, building his magnificent hotel in Tampa and going down Florida’s west coast with real estate and resort development. The Plant System became the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad and the ACL and rival SAL both built track along the west coast, also making upcoming iconic Florida west coast locations such as Venice, Sarasota, Fort Myers and Naples winter playgrounds for the rich and famous.
With the inauguration of the Orange Blossom Special, the era of modern, all-Pullman sleeping car winter season New York to Miami trains, from steam to diesel began in earnest. The Orange Blossom Special and the Florida Special were fierce express train/limited stops rivals with competing dining cars.
The winter season rivalry of the two railroad would last until 1953.The final run and end of the SAL’s Orange Blossom Special took place on April 13, 1953. The ACL’s Florida Special lived on into the early years of Amtrak in the 1970s.
Seaboard Air Line’s Silver Meteor and Silver Star by 1953 had established themselves as new, post-war streamliner year-around favorites from New York Pennsylvania Station to Miami and Seaboard management decided the Orange Blossom Special had outlived its usefulness. The Orange Blossom Special was never streamlined; it’s entire consist was heavyweight equipment from the Pullman Company pool, painted annually in specially chosen colors for the train.
Atlantic Coast Line Railroad thought itself – and, told the world – it was the Standard Railroad of the South. It’s favorite color was purple, adorning it’s diesel locomotives in purple paint and the band along the streamlined passenger cars’ name boards in purple. Timetables were printed in purple ink – lots of it. Based in Wilmington, North Carolina until the headquarters move to Jacksonville, Florida in 1960, the Coast Line, which proclaimed “Thanks for Using Coast Line” on the exterior of its boxcars, was never known for or regarded for splashy corporate management.
Seaboard Air Line Railroad styled itself The Route of Courteous Service and was the scrappy half of the rivalry. The Seaboard was seen as the underdog to the ACL, but they were in fact fairly evenly matched. Seaboard’s original diesels were painted in a stylish citrus theme of yellow, green and orange, later to change to a very light green with red highlights. The Seaboard logo on the front of every locomotive proclaimed “Through the Heart of the South,” and they took that seriously, serving the state capital of every state that was part of the railroad’s network. Seaboard’s timetables were bright red and featured stylized renderings of its streamliner passenger trains.
The Florida Special operated from 1938 by the Coast Line, then the combined Seaboard Coast Line after the July 1, 1967 merger and then handed off to Amtrak in 1971. It began as a heavyweight train and was converted to a streamliner after World War II. It did benefit from an imaginative advertising campaign, and was dubbed “The Champagne Train” for its dining and lounge cars. The Florida Special also featured onboard fashion shows, highlighting bathing suits found on Miami Beach for the balmy Florida weather. The Florida Special took the World War II years off so the equipment could be better utilized for troop and critical personnel movements.
The Orange Blossom Special operated from 1925 to 1953, also with a World War II hiatus. It only operated as a heavyweight train, and began as a way to bring northerners to Florida during the Florida Land Boom. In 1930, five years after the train’s inauguration, the Seaboard slipped into bankruptcy, and would continue until exiting nearly 15 years later at the end of World War II. The Orange Blossom Special was the flagship of the Seaboard during the winter season, and, even in bankruptcy maintained its luxury and status. By 1953 the streamliner Silver Meteor had enough new equipment to handle the extra winter season snowbird business and the Orange Blossom Special faded into history in favor of the Meteor and Silver Star. It did become famous beyond its trek for a bluegrass music song written in 1938 titled Orange Blossom Special which became known as the fiddle player’s national anthem. Johnny Cash recorded the song and named his 1965 album Orange Blossom Special.
From Wikipedia: “Spurred by the success of Henry Flagler and his rival Florida East Coast Railway in attracting travelers, the Orange Blossom Special became famous in its own right.
“It was renowned for its speed and luxury. E. M. Frimbo, “The World’s Greatest Railway Buff,” offered this account of a dining car chef who had worked aboard the train:
‘Our chef...spent nine of his forty-three years with the Pennsylvania Railroad as chef on the celebrated all-Pullman New York-to-Florida train the Orange Blossom Special – the most luxurious winter-season train ever devised by man. Nothing even remotely resembling a can opener was allowed on the premises. All the pies, cakes, rolls, birthday cakes were baked on board under his supervision. Cut flowers and fresh fish were taken on at every revictualing stop, and the train carried thirty-five hundred dollars' worth of wine, liquor and champagne – these at pre-Prohibition prices – for each run.’”
The post-war 1949 Orange Blossom Special dinner menu had something for every taste, from plain to refined:
Chilled Blended Orange and Grapefruit Juice, Crab Flake Cocktail, Bisque of Sea Food, Consomme, Dumont
Sweet Pickle Strips
Broiled Southern Shad with Roe, Creamed Crab Meat on Toast, Broiled or Fried Milk Fed Spring Chicken, Baked Sugar Cured Ham, Sultana Sauce, Roast Leg of Spring Lamb, Mint Jelly, or Grilled Sirloin Steak with Onion Rings (An additional cost for $3.75)
Ice Cream with Wafers, Strawberry Shortcake with Whipped Cream, Fruit Tapioca Pudding, Custard Sauce, Chilled Florida Grapefruit
Coffee, Tea, Milk
A La Carte
Juices, each for 25 cents: Chilled Blended Orange and Grapefruit Juice, Chilled Florida Tangerine Juice, Chilled Florida Grapefruit Juice, Chilled Florida Orange Juice, Tomato Juice Cocktail, and Chilled Apple Juice
During the Great Depression, it wasn’t unusual for each day’s Florida Special or Orange Blossom Special to operate in several sections because of the popularity of the trains and high passenger demand.
South of Jacksonville, the Florida Special operated to Miami over the Florida East Coast Railway, and continued to do so until the FEC strike in 1963; it then moved over to the Seaboard main line south of Auburndale.
The Orange Blossom Special operated through the middle of Florida’s peninsula on Seaboard’s main line through Wildwood, with a west coast section splitting there for Tampa and points south. To take advantage of the Florida Land Boom, S. Warfield Davies, the president of the Seaboard (and, uncle to Wallis Warfield Simpson, who would marry the King of England and become the Duchess of Windsor) extended the railroad’s reach to West Palm Beach and Miami. The former Seaboard tracks from West Palm Beach to Miami are today’s Tri-Rail commuter rail tracks.
Both the Seaboard and Coast Line had post-war plans to expand their streamlined trains consists. Seaboard’s Silver Meteor and competitor Coast Line’s Champion were both inaugurated before the war in 1939 as all-coach trains; not until after the war did enough new streamlined equipment arrive that the trains could be full-service trains with coaches, Pullman sleeping cars, diners and lounges.
As the new radio and then television broadcast industries grew in New York City – Hollywood was initially primarily a movie town; broadcasting would come to Hollywood later than New York City – the stars and executives of radio and television followed the crowds and vacationed in sunny Florida, primarily Miami and Miami Beach.
Miami Beach boasted hosting radio and early black and white television shows from such luminaries and Arthur Godfrey for CBS (he broadcasted from both Miami Beach and New York City; he bought part of the Kenilworth Hotel and had a street named for him).
In 1959 the classic Some Like It Hot starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon was also set in the Roaring 20s Miami Beach, but was actually filmed at San Diego, California’s Del Coronado Hotel and Hollywood sound stages.
For two seasons from 1960 to 1962 the weekly mystery/detective show Surfside 6 was set in Miami Beach across the street from the Fountainbleau Hotel. Surfside 6 was an early beefcake and bikinis show that even though it was set in Miami Beach it was filmed in Hollywood.
Frank Sinatra and Jill St. John starred in Tony Rome in 1967 and it was filmed principally in South Florida. Sinatra had other movies also set in Miami Beach and South Florida.
In the late 1960s Jackie Gleason tired of doing his weekly television shows from New York City and relocated The Jackie Gleason Show on Saturday nights (as the announcer said at the opening of each show with appropriate accompanying images) “from the fun and sun capital of the world, Miami Beach.” It was filmed at the Miami Beach Auditorium.
The 1960s show happily featured the return of Gleason’s famous TheHoneymooners which made him famous in the 1950s, and by the late 1960s the show was in color. Gleason was an avid golfer and he liked to play year-round in South Florida.
Dom DeLuise also filmed his television show at the same Miami Beach Auditorium as Jackie Gleason in 1968.
Robin Williams Gene Hackman and Nathan Lane starred in The Birdcage in 1996. It was set in South Beach and other parts of Miami and much of the movie was filmed there.
Now, over half a century into the Amtrak era, both the Silver Meteor and Silver Star, successors to the Orange Blossom Special and Florida Special, still bring shivering northern passengers to the warm climes of Florida. In the Orange Blossom Special and Florida Special era, the winter season was considered the “high season” for travel to Florida. That was before the common commercial use of air conditioning in all buildings and homes in Florida. Since the middle 1960s, and the initial opening of Walt Disney World in the Central Florida Orlando area in 1971, summer has become the high season for Florida travel.
Atlantic Coast Line/Seaboard Coast Line’s Champion survived into Amtrak, but was killed in one of the early cost cutting programs. A third Florida train was added in the 1990s, the Silver Palm, but it was cut, too, for the same reasons the Champion and Florida Special went away.
Now, the Silver Meteor and Silver Star and distant cousin Auto Train maintain service from the northeast into Florida.
All of Amtrak’s current long distance network/inter-regional trains have a pre-Amtrak, private railroad heritage. The Silver Meteor and Silver Star are names which survive directly from the pre-Amtrak era, and, even though much of their “home road” route is that of the Silver Meteor and Silver Star rival Atlantic Coast Line’s Champion and Florida Special, they still travel their routes south of Washington, D.C. on the tracks of the successor railroad to the Seaboard Air Line Railroad, first Seaboard Coast Line, then Family Lines, then Seaboard System and finally today’s CSX.
CSX Transportation, the host railroad over which the Meteor and Star operate today between Washington, D.C. and Miami, Florida is a relatively new company name. Here briefly is the CSX heritage:
The Seaboard Air Line Railroad was founded was in 1900 after a consolidation of older, shorter railroads. It ran south from Richmond, Virginia to Florida; first the west coast, and later into Miami.
The Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, also founded in 1900, was also a consolidation of older, shorter railroads, the first dating back to 1830. It also ran south from Richmond, Virginia into Florida, to the west coast. It’s passenger trains ran down the Florida East Coast Railway from Jacksonville into Miami until 1963, when FEC employees went on strike and attempted to close the railroad.
The Seaboard and Coast Line merged on July 1, 1967, forming Seaboard Coast Line Railroad, headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida. Seaboard Coast Line and the Family Lines lasted until 1983 when the Seaboard System Railroad was formed, which included the Louisville & Nashville (L&N) Railroad and the Clinchfield Railroad, among other small lines.
Seaboard System and the Chessie System (former Chesapeake & Ohio [C&O] and the Baltimore & Ohio [B&O] and other smaller railroads) merged in 1987 to form the modern day CSX Transportation. In 1999, CSX merged the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac (RF&P) into the company.
Originally the Silver Meteor and Silver Star were operated by three railroads by an interline agreement.
The trains were home based at Seaboard’s Hialeah Yard in Miami where all major maintenance took place and the onboard services crews were headquartered.
Northbound, the trains operated over home tracks on the Seaboard, north to Richmond, Virginia, where they became RF&P trains between Richmond and Washington, D.C. At Washington Union Station, the trains became Pennsylvania Railroad trains, operating along the Northeast Corridor into New York Pennsylvania Station. The trains had turn maintenance and restocking performed for the southbound trip at Sunnyside Yard in Queens, which was owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad.
The Silver Meteor and Silver Star (and, the Silver Comet which served Atlanta and Birmingham) were extraordinary trains in their day when operated by the Seaboard Air Line Railroad. The SAL styled itself as The Route of Courteous Service, and that was true on its passenger trains.
The stainless steel trains had some of the best equipment in the country, and they served a high-maintenance clientele which traveled during the winter season between New York City and Miami. With the exception of the restriction of dome cars on the Northeast Corridor, no classic streamliners anywhere in North America had any nicer equipment or level of service than was found on Seaboard’s Silver Fleet. Today’s Amtrak Silver Service is based on the Seaboard’s Silver Fleet.
The Seaboard had four New York-Florida trains in the post-war era. By the time the Silver Meteor gained its full place on the SAL horizon, the famous Orange Blossom Special, which was a winter seasonal train, was gone, with the Meteor and Silver Star taking its place and operating year round. In addition to the Meteor and Star, there was the Sunland and Palmland, the last two being “all stops local” trains with heavy loads of mail and express.
Southbound, the Star had the early departure from New York Penn at 9:30 a.m. and during off seasons, was often paired with a Pennsylvania Railroad corridor train to Washington before being handed off to the RF&P for the run to Richmond, the northernmost point of the Seaboard.
The Sunland was next, at 11:30 a.m.; it was a New York-West Coast of Florida train into Tampa and points south.
The Silver Meteor departed at 2:50 p.m.; it was not unusual for both the Meteor and Atlantic Coast Line’s Champion to be side by side on a New York Penn platform, with their separate departures but ultimate destinations less than an hour apart.
The Palmland was the latest departure for Florida, at 7:30 p.m.
The train schedules were designed for end-point-to-end-point convenience. Keep in mind that Florida during the SAL era was mostly developed along the coasts, and middle of the Florida peninsula was orange groves, farms, and mosquitos.
While the Silver Meteor was the pride of the Seaboard fleet, the Silver Star was a notable train, too. It did not carry a Pullman Sun Lounge, but carried a five bedroom Pullman lounge. The Star’s dining car offered the identical menu of the Silver Meteor. The Star had coaches on the front end of the train, with a modified round end Tavern observation car for coach passengers mid-train. The Pullman sleeping cars brought up the rear. At Richmond, the “Richmond sleeper” was added to the southbound train, and ran to Miami.
Both the Meteor and Star ran with a standard onboard services crew of a Passenger Services Agent (who wore an airline style hat to distinguish him from the T&E crew, which wore traditional conductor hats), a nurse, one attendant per coach, and one sleeping car attendant per sleeping car. The Pullman lounge attendant worked both the lounge area and the five double bedrooms. In addition to the SAL conductors, there was also a Pullman conductor, responsible for the sleeping car passengers. The Pullman conductor lifted the sleeping car passenger tickets and handled any other issues. The 48 seat dining car had a steward, waiters, and the kitchen chefs, cooks and dishwashers for the railroad-branded china and silver. From a rather shameful past on the Seaboard as many other railroads, too, it was presumed the waiters could not read nor write, and dining car patrons had to write their food order on a table check provided by the steward. Waiters were not allowed to take verbal food orders. The only credit card at the time (later, before Amtrak and before the invention of the VISA and MasterCards) was the Rail Travel Card, so the dining car stewards and lounge attendants handled a lot of cash.
The Star was introduced as a premium companion train to the Silver Meteor. Most railroad employee pass-holders were not allowed to use their company passes on the Meteor and Star.
Typically, both of these train would run from 12 to 15 cars (all steam heat; HEP had not yet been invented), and had high load factors.
The Meteor ran with an all-bedroom Pullman sleeping car that included a drawing room. In the 1960s there were still some celebrities which preferred not to fly, such as Jackie Gleason, who lived in the Miami area. He was a regular patron of the Silver Meteor’s drawing room to New York City, having his meals served to him in his room.
The Star did not quite draw the Hollywood types the Meteor did, but it did draw an upscale patronage in its Pullman sleeping cars.
When the Seaboard and Atlantic Coast Line merged to form Seaboard Coast Line on July 1, 1967, all of the passenger train fleets from both railroads were retained. It wasn’t until the advent of Amtrak on May 1, 1971 that saw a reduction in frequencies. Gone were the Palmland, Sunland, Everglades, Gulf Coast Special, and the locals. Remaining were the Silver Meteor, Silver Star, the Champion, and winter season Florida Special in the early years.
Under Amtrak in the early years, these trains all ran with 18 car consists, and, the Meteor, Star and Champion would operate with two dining cars per consist in order to feed everyone efficiently, plus lounge cars.
These trains remained 18 car consists up until the late 1990s Amtrak introduction of the Viewliner sleeping cars, and an unfortunate Amtrak manager decided to create the “common consist” trains of the Meteor, Star, the added Silver Palm, Lake Shore Limited, and Crescent. The consists rotated between all five trains (which all used New York Penn and Sunnyside yard in Queens) so all of the equipment would cycle through the old Seaboard Hialeah maintenance shops in South Florida, which was the east coast home maintenance base for single level equipment.
As Amtrak passengers entrain the Meteor and Star, they probably are not aware of the long and illustrious heritage of these two former premium trains. Passengers paid a higher fare to ride these trains as compared to the Sunland and Palmland, and expected and received a higher level of service.
There was a reason why these two trains were considered profitable right up to Amtrak Day on May 1, 1971, 51 years ago. Both trains had a loyal clientele, it wasn’t unusual for northern snowbirds to use the Meteor and Star year after year for good transportation to escape the winter weather and enjoy warm, sunny Florida.
Editor’s Note: This article contains material from two previously published articles on February 24, 2021 and April 13, 2022. New information has been added as well as photographs and illustrations. – Coridorrail.com Editor