Hello, and welcome to another great blog written by Edward Ringwald (that’s me). I got to admit, I have been a railroad enthusiast since my childhood years, going back to the days when Amtrak used to run to St. Petersburg.
Back in those days if you lived here in St. Petersburg you could take a nice day trip on Amtrak to Clearwater or even Tampa and return the same day. In fact, right after I got out of school for the day my grandmother would take me to the Amtrak station in St. Petersburg to let me see the Silver Star start making its 1,200+ mile northward trek to New York City as Train 82.
But Amtrak service into St. Petersburg would not last for long. Amtrak decided to discontinue service to St. Petersburg in February 1984, replacing it with bus service to Tampa Union Station which continues to this day. After all, buses are subject to the same traffic delays out there on any of the major bridges connecting St. Petersburg with Tampa including Interstate 275’s Howard Frankland Bridge, which was at the time a single four lane span prone to accidents.
Today, the options are very limited for a resident of the Tampa Bay region as far as a day trip on the rails is concerned. While Miami-Ft. Lauderdale has a great rail based mass transit system thanks to Tri-Rail, and Orlando is just about to get its rail based mass transit system thanks to SunRail in May 2014, the Tampa Bay region basically has a lack of rail based mass transit. In fact, rail travel in the Tampa Bay region is more excursion based rather than commuter based; the Tampa Bay region resident is practically limited to three choices as far as same day rail travel is concerned:
1. Round trip on Amtrak’s Silver Star (which is today’s Train 91 southbound and Train 92 northbound) to Winter Haven and back. It is possible to go to Sebring and back in the same day and I’ve done it several times, but a trip of this nature has to depend on the timeliness of the southbound Train 91 in order to avoid having to spend extra money on a hotel room in the Sebring area.
2. A trip on the TECO Streetcar Line linking Ybor City with downtown Tampa including the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
3. A weekend excursion trip on a train run by the Florida Railroad Museum in Parrish, a northern Manatee County community located on US 301 five miles east of the southern terminus of Interstate 275 at Interstate 75. It’s a six mile train ride from Parrish to the community of Willow located on the Hillsborough-Manatee county line and the trip is not only fun but educational too!
Now let me talk to you a little bit about the Florida Railroad Museum, if I could get your attention for just a moment. (Just like I would say when I give my safety briefing to the passengers in my assigned car).
The Florida Railroad Museum was founded in 1982 with the goal of preserving Florida’s bygone railroading history as the Florida Gulf Coast Railroad Museum. The museum began with donations of railroad passenger cars from the golden age of railroading and in 1987 ran a series of excursion trains on the former Atlantic Coast Line track from Tarpon Springs southward to Clearwater in conjunction with CSX Transportation (which was formed from the merger of several railroads including Atlantic Coast Line’s successor, Seaboard Coast Line) as CSX was getting ready to abandon the section of track from Tarpon Springs south to Clearwater.
The museum moved into its present day grounds in Manatee County in the 1990’s after negotiating a lease of the trackage from Florida Power & Light, which wanted to maintain rail access to its Manatee Power Plant after CSX abandoned the section of track from Willow to Ellenton Junction. The terms and conditions of the lease was very simple: All the Florida Railroad Museum had to do was to maintain the track.
Today the Florida Railroad Museum offers regular train rides on Saturdays and Sundays as well as themed train rides scheduled at various times throughout the year. Speaking of themed train rides, the museum offers plenty of them for all ages at various times throughout the year including:
The Hole-in-the-Head Gang Train Robbery
The Murder Mystery Dinner Train
A Day Out With Thomas (which is a popular favorite among children and is based on the Thomas and Friends TV series featuring Thomas the Tank Engine and Sir Topham Hatt).
The Peter Cottontail Express, held around Easter
The Pumpkin Patch Express, held usually the weekend before Halloween
Von Kessinger’s Express, a World War II reenactment usually held around Veteran’s Day
The North Pole Express, held on three weekends in December on Thursday through Sunday nights before the Christmas holiday (this is also a popular favorite for the holiday season; it is so popular that tickets sell out rather quickly once tickets go on sale)
Your experience begins the moment you step on board the train. After finding where you want to sit and the train leaves the train station in Parrish, you are taking a ride that takes you back to the days when taking the train was indeed the way to go. The rails that the museum’s train operates were laid in 1903 and the train takes you on a six mile journey through the woodlands of the Florida that once was, before the era of interstate highways such as Interstate 275 and air travel such as Tampa International Airport and Southwest Airlines.
Once your train arrives in the community of Willow, you get to see the switching operations from one of the open air passenger cars and you get to see the yard in Willow. In fact, the yard at Willow has a lot of history to it: Willow started out as a company town for a logging mill operation in the early 1920’s; by 1929 the Great Depression hit which resulted in the shutdown of the logging mill’s operations. An attempt to revive the logging mill was attempted in the 1930’s was to no avail.