It’s a bad pun, but many rail passengers used to make tracks through Jax via the Jacksonville Terminal. This former railroad station is today’s Prime Osborn Convention Center. Modeled after New York’s Pennsylvania Station, Jacksonville Terminal actually ranked as the South’s largest station when completed in 1919. The facility hummed with activity during the Florida Land Boom of the Twenties, and it once handled as many as 142 trains and 20,000 passengers a day. The switch engines kept busy, dropping, adding, or trading various diners, coaches, and sleeping cars. Part of a passenger train might continue in one direction, while its other sections went elsewhere. Such legends as the Orange Blossom Special made regular stops in Jax. On January 3, 1974, however, the last passenger train finally rolled out of the venerable old station.
AN OLD WAY TO GO — Before the rise of interstates and airlines, a favorite way to travel was by railroad. And one of the most popular passenger trains rolled through Jacksonville. The Silver Meteor first streaked along the Atlantic coast in 1939. This Seaboard Railroad train linked New York with St. Petersburg, Florida. In December 1941, however, America entered into World War II, and railroad companies could build few passenger cars. After the conflict’s conclusion in 1945, these businesses tried to replace rolling stock that was wearing out or becoming obsolete. Seaboard Railroad proved no exception. It ordered new streamliners for its passengers in 1946, according to the Florida Times-Union of May 21 that year. The trains would ply between New York City and both coasts of Florida, with stops in Jacksonville.
Seaboard trumpeted how these streamliners would give the ultimate in comfort and safety. The coaches combined stainless steel exteriors with fluorescent-lit, pastel aluminum interiors that boasted spacious, glare-proof windows. The seats were individual and could be inclined or rotated to four positions, and they also came equipped with adjustable foot rests. Air conditioners would cool the cars, and fans would completely change the air every 30 seconds. For their listening pleasure, passengers could take advantage of radios that could be cut into the public address system, thus offering everything from the “Moonlight Sonata” to the last call for dinner. Each coach would have its own attendant, while the overall train carried a passenger agent and a registered nurse.
Remember in old movies how railroad travelers used to slumber in communal quarters? They were stacked in upper and lower berths, hidden behind curtains. According to the Times-Union, the Seaboard trains would make these arrangements old fashioned. Their new sleeping cars contained “roomettes,” that is, small, individual bedrooms.
Each Seaboard streamliner would feature a sleek dining car. And bringing up the rear of the train would be a living room-like observation car. It offered such amenities as radios, writing desks, and a library. Some of the cars were decorated in blue & gold, while others were decked out in green & gold. The walls were adorned with handcrafted linoleum plaques depicting Southern landscapes, historic shrines, and native industries. Maybe even the sophisticated James Bond would have approved!
Most of the railroad passenger service in America is now handled by Amtrak, a semi-public corporation created by Congress in 1970. Relatively few passenger trains run today, since Amtrak concentrates on the most potentially profitable routes. Nevertheless, the organization’s grave financial woes have given real cause for concern, further clouding the future of rail travel.
~written by Glenn Emery