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  • Writer's pictureCat T. Gardiner

In Search of the Orange Blossom Special

My Final Research Travelogue - All Aboard!

Hi-di-ho, my friends! When last we caught up on my research trip for A Moment Forever, we visited Lakeland, Florida and the story of the swans. Well, today, I'd like to steam ahead and share with you my search for the Orange Blossom Special. With dear hubby at the wheel, our destination was the Florida Railroad Museum in Parrish, Florida just ten miles north of Bradenton on the Gulf coast.

The museum grounds, railcars, and tracks are the location of the upcoming WWII reenactment event called Von Kessinger's Express. At the time of the visit, my husband was preparing for his participation, but this year, I'll be joining in! Needless to say, at that time, I had a willing victim to drive me south from Tampa to learn a little about the roots of Florida's important railroad days. Of particular interest to him (and me, too) was troop transport. I went, of course, to see what little remained of an old steam locomotive from Seaboard Air Line Railroad: The Orange Blossom Special, which ran down the eastern coast to Miami from 1925 to 1953 for all those wealthy snow birds wintering in Florida.

How happy I was to also find a stainless steel Pullman car on the tracks when I arrived. Although in need of some major money for major restoration, we could still climb aboard and get a real feel for how it was back then. There were several different cars to a Pullman, some full sleeper cars with suites and roomettes (see piccies below,) observation cars, lounge and dining cars. This one below is a post WWII streamlined sleeper railcar that had six bedrooms, each of which slept two people and had a private bathroom, and ten "roomettes" which slept one person, having its own sink. At the time of this car's running, it was part of the Silver Meteor line, a name still used by Amtrak for the same service from New York to Florida.

Tired and beaten down from the elements, its windows were fogged and browned from the hot Florida sun. The inside was stripped bare, almost dangerously so if one wasn't careful or paying attention to the signs, but not enough so that you couldn't see some interesting details like the shoeshine locker. Before bed, the traveler would put his/her shoes in the locker inside their sleeper. In the hallway, the porter would open a door and remove them for shining in his little room. When finished, he would place them back in the locker and the next morning, voila! Shined shoes! What a neat little fun fact.

What I found really fascinating was the individual controls for air conditioning and heat (L). Located outside the sliding door. There was even a call button for the porter.

The "roomette" was a fascinating little cubby, bright and private. Probably costing a fortune in its heyday, it boasted a comfortable, cushioned lounge seat that faced a fold-up sink. Above the lounge was a door. Slide the lever, and down came the bed--just like a Murphy! Most likely, A Moment Forever's Lizzy traveled in a private suite bedroom where she had her own bathroom. Those touted a double bed and a full-sized lounge sofa!

The private bathroom was considered a luxury with a fold up sink and a small commode. Crude by our modern sensibilities it was very small, giving further testimony to how large - and far - we have come! LOL

There were a lot of highlights on this trip back in time, but one of them was standing before this old locomotive, having researched the Orange Blossom Special's history prior to my arrival. I was dismayed that there wasn't anyone able to impart more information about the steam engine after I asked. You see, I knew that the train Lizzy traveled looked differently. Of course it did. It was electric and pretty, too! This must have been an early locomotive.

So, here is the research that I would have loved a docent to share with visitors to the museum about the Orange Blossom Special Train.

The Orange Blossom Special was conceived to meet the demands of high-class service and attract wealthy travelers from the Northeast to Florida. The winter season-only train was all-Pullman with unsurpassed equipment, incredible service, and on-time schedules just before Christmas. Service began in November, 1925 to West Palm Beach. The train used Pullman sleepers from Boston and the Midwest, as well as New York, departing from Pennsylvania Station in midtown Manhattan.

It featured such amenities as an Observation Library car and in January of 1934 the Blossom became the first Florida train to boast air-conditioning. It's wealthy travelers had at their disposal a secretary, barber/valet services, ladies’ maid/manicurist, showers for men and women, and gourmet food—nothing but the best —served on china designed in orange blossoms. Dining tables were set with Irish linens.

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 revictualling stop, and the train carried thirty-five hundred dollars' worth of wine, liquor and champagne—these at pre-Prohibition prices—for each run."

World War II arrived in America in December, 1941, but the Blossom finished the season as usual in April, 1942. Then in October, 1942, the Office of Defense Transportation (ODT) put a freeze on deluxe passenger trains with sleepers for civilians to provide for troop movements. By government decree, the all-Pullman train would be suspended for the duration of the war. It was considered an unnecessary luxury, and regulations would end the operation of all-seasonal trains. The all-coach Silver Meteor, however, was allowed to continue to run during the war years.

After the war, the Blossom was reinstated in December, 1946, as an all-Pullman 16-car consist operating as one section out of New York.

There's even a Bluegrass song, made famous in 1938:

Well I'm goin' down to Florida

And get some sand in my shoes ...

I'll ride that Orange Blossom Special

And lose those New York blues ...

What truly excited me on this trip was that I was able to stand on the tracks that my fictitious character Lizzy's train rolled over. I took a ride with my husband in a Pullman lounge car as it traveled eight miles to a train graveyard where I could see trains from as early as the 1800s! It was so exciting.

On that rail journey I made sure that I asked questions of the docent on the train - specific questions about troop transport across Florida, but was answered with only mediocre information, and I found myself pulling out my iPhone for greater clarification. I wanted to hear about the Golden Age of Railroad travel and what GREW Florida to be the tourist destination that it is today. I wanted to hear about railroad tycoons Henry Plant and Henry Flagler and what they did on both coasts of the Sunshine State, but alas, it was not to be. As friendly as the docent was my questions seemed too specific for him. Perhaps it was an "off" day and on a subsequent visit I'll be regaled with better stories. I understand it's not easy to be "at the ready" for unexpected questions.

But what I did come away with was a great sense of awe for the men who grew this state. They were visionaries. In my mind's eye, I saw myself riding with Lizzy in the lounge car of the Blossom when she met the paratroopers, and I imagined the soldiers traveling in the sleeping berth toward their unknown fate. I stepped back in time to Chapter 19 of A Moment Forever and I could hear Benny Goodman's "Ridin' High" playing in my mind.

When I got home, I dug into my research deeper and I learned about the tireless Pullman Porters, former slaves hired by Pullman himself at the end of the Civil War. They served America's railways for over one hundred years and established the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925! They worked 400 hours a month and are credited for establishing an African-American middle class!

I came away from the museum thinking that one day when my muse disappears and I can no longer write, I just may find myself heading south down Route 41 begging to become a docent for this museum! If for no other reason than the fact that I'd LOVE to wear a conductor's uniform. It would be positively LULU!

Well friends, I'll catch back up with you about the museum in late November with details of my ride on Von Kessinger's Express. I'll be headed to France, June 1944 and traveling on a still Nazi-run train. Jeepers! Until then: Keep 'em Flying

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