In Winter Park, the blast of the horns, the squeal of the brakes and the roar of the engines are sounds of our lives.
Railroads have always captured the imagination and inspired wanderlust. By the mid-19th century, locomotives had powered a transportation revolution that altered long-held concepts of time and distance. In small towns and big cities alike, a train whistle in the night became an almost irresistible siren song.
In fact, Florida frontier towns like Winter Park owe their very existence to railroads, which in the 1880s offered vacationers and relocators relatively easy access to the state’s alluring but untamed interior. Trains also allowed local commerce to flourish, providing a means for growers to ship their citrus crops north.
A train station of one kind or another has abutted Central Park, in the very heart of the city, since 1882. The rather forlorn 52-year-old Amtrak station was demolished in June, after which an adjacent arts-and-crafts style depot, dedicated with considerable fanfare in April, became the new combined facility for Amtrak and SunRail, the region’s fledgling commuter service.
With the city’s long railroading saga finally chugging full circle, the Winter Park History Museum, which is housed in a 91-year-old building that once served as the Atlantic Coast Line’s freight depot, has launched a timely exhibition entitled Whistle in the Distance: The Trains of Winter Park.
Museum Executive Director Susan Skolfield is particularly excited about this project, a multi-media experience that drew upon the expertise of numerous artisans and railroad historians. A film was even produced to introduce visitors to the oversized wall displays and dozens of intriguing, sometimes quirky train-related artifacts.
“Bring a cup of coffee if you like,” Skolfield says. “Some people watch the film over and over again.”
The mini-epic, a five-minute period piece set in 1889, follows a young couple eager to escape the brutal winters of Boston for subtropical Winter Park, a sophisticated, resort-style oasis set among shimmering lakes and lush forests.
Through vintage post cards, archival photographs and live-action footage, viewers experience what a train journey to the Deep South was like as the Gilded Age drew to a close.
The train itself is something of a celluloid celebrity. At 107 years of age, the Orange Blossom Cannonball is the only operating wood-burning steam locomotive in Florida, outside of amusement parks.
Its film debut was in This Property is Condemned, a sultry 1966 drama starring Natalie Wood and Robert Redford. It has also been featured in Rosewood, O Brother Where Art Thou and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
But like most actors, the Cannonball also has a day job. It works for the Tavares, Eustis & Gulf Railroad, running between Tavares and Mount Dora every Saturday and Sunday, hauling nostalgic weekend adventurers.
Director Todd Thompson of Stars North Films and Executive Producer Tareen Aguilar collaborated with the museum’s staff, board members and a host of volunteers. The cast and crew met in Winter Garden at 6 a.m. and finished filming in just six and a half hours.
“I’m drawn to projects that tell a story, and I liked the focus on two specific individuals who’ve departed on a trip that will change their lives for the better,” Thompson says.
Aguilar, who previously worked with the Discovery Channel, adds that the goal of the film was “to create an experience, to add intrigue, to help museum-goers feel what it was like to set off to an unknown land.”
The couple onscreen represents scores of others attracted to Winter Park by effusive newspaper ads placed by Loring Chase and Oliver Chapman, the partners who paid $13,000 for a 600-acre tract that they planned to transform into “a bright New England town in Central Florida.”
By 1880, the South Florida Railroad already ran through the duo’s fledgling community enroute from Sanford to Orlando. But railroad officials were disinclined to build a station for a town that did not yet exist. Undaunted, Chapman and Chase raised $1,000 from local boosters to fund the project, which was completed in 1882 and celebrated with a citywide picnic.
With a transportation conduit to the outside world established, the city’s first hotel, The Rogers House, quickly opened, followed by the ultra-luxurious Seminole Hotel in 1886. The town of Winter Park, now rapidly growing and firmly established as a desirable destination for snowbirds and permanent residents, was incorporated in 1887.
Presaging SunRail by 125 years, a commuter rail line debuted in 1889. The Orlando-Winter Park Railroad, which became known as the Dinky Line, originally ran just six miles through dense forests, connecting the two cities but providing notoriously slow and balky service.
One unknown author paid mocking tribute to the train with a poem, one verse of which reads:
Oh, the Dinky moves along
like a man with one lung,
Yet it shrieks like a kid
with hot mush on his tongue,
I guess this is the moral,
though it’s never been sung,
That the poor little thing started
smoking too young.
The Dinky Line, which is memorialized in Whistle in the Distance, would run for 60 years, but toward the end hauled light freight instead of passengers. The tracks, some of which traversed the Rollins College campus, were pulled up in 1969.
The exhibit also spotlights the local citrus industry, and the crucial role the railroad played in shipping “liquid gold” to the Northeast. However, back-to-back killing freezes in late 1894 and early 1895 ruined the orange crop, devastating the region’s economy.
It took years for the groves bounce back. But, according to the Winter Park Citrus Growers’ Association, by 1909 six to 10 rails cars per day had resumed hauling homegrown fruit up the Eastern Seaboard.
The railroad itself became an important employer. George Pullman, owner of the Pullman Company and inventor of the sleeper car, believed that former male “house slaves” would have the skills necessary to provide train travelers with attentive service. Eventually, more than 20,000 African American men would become Pullman porters.
Hannibal Square, the traditionally African American neighborhood on the west side of Winter Park, was home to numerous railroad employees. Whistle in the Distance spotlights one in particular, Dempsey J. Phillips, who worked for the Atlantic Coastline Railroad as a chef.
Phillips eventually bought a large tract of land in Winter Park, where he raised his family while farming and working as a chef at the Seminole Hotel. Rose Charleton Bynum, his great granddaughter, still lives locally and is proud of her family’s prominence in west side history.
The museum’s exhibits always include something for children, and Whistle in the Distanceis no exception. There’s a train set displayed at toddler level, so children can not only watch it operate but also pick it up and examine its components.
Another hands-on feature is a telegraph office display, which Warren McFarland from the Morse Telegraph Club‘s Florida Chapter helped to design and set up. Telegraph offices directed trains and shifted them to secondary tracks to avoid collisions, much as air traffic controllers direct airplanes today.
Whistle in the Distance visitors can press a green button to hear the first public message sent by Morse Electric or even create their own messages using Morse Code. Instructions on how to translate letters to dots and dashes are part of the display.
Although every detail of the exhibit was carefully thought out and planned in advance, there were also serendipitous events that added to its Norman Rockwellian charm.
For example, local resident Tim Scheid, a frequent museum visitor, was at the Winter Park Farmers Market, held in the adjacent parking lot, when he “poked his head in” to check on how installation of the new exhibit was progressing, according to Skolfied.
Scheid told curator Camilo Velasquez and his team that he had a rare model train once owned by his late father Roy, a railroad aficionado who had founded the second-largest Lionel train distributorship in the U.S. He offered to loan it to the museum, if Velasquez was interested in displaying it.
The large-scale model turned out to be a meticulously hand-crafted replica of the Union Pacific’s Locomotive No. 119, which chugged east to Promontory Summit, Utah, for the 1869 ceremony marking completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. The locomotive and its accompanying railroad cars are mounted on a kid-height table at Whistle in the Distance.
Whether you’re a fan of railroading or not, you’ll find the exhibit to be informative, entertaining and well-designed. It offers a glimpse of Winter Park as it was in a more leisurely era, before automobiles and interstates eliminated much of the adventure and romance from travel.
And who knows? After viewing Whistle in the Distance, you might even sigh and smile instead of fidget and fume the next time a train rumbles past while you’re sitting in rush-hour traffic.
“The location of the train depot establishes a centerpiece for the assortment of trains that travel through Winter Park,” reads one of the exhibit’s displays. “The regular blasts of the horns, the squeal of the brakes, the roar of the engines, are sounds of life. In fact, there is no town far removed from ‘the whistle in the distance.’”
Location: Winter Park History Museum, 200 W. New England Ave
Hours: Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
Admission: Free, but donations accepted
For more information: Call 407-647-2330 or visit wphistory.org
Susan Skolfield, executive director of the Winter Park History Museum, says that Whistle in the Distance: The Trains of Winter Park, was truly a collaborative effort. Local historian, author and former Orlando Sentinel feature reporter Jim Robison did extensive research and writing for the displays, with editing assists from Skolfield and museum board member Linda Kulmann. The large wall displays were created by Will Setzer of Circle 7 Design Studio in partnership with GaLuWi, a company that creates wall murals. For the displays, Setzer also scanned and digitally restored old black-and-white photographs provided by the Rollins College Department of Archives and Special Collections. Just the photograph of Winter Park’s first train station, shown on the opening pages of this story, took a full eight hours to process and then two more days to colorize. Ken Murdock, curator of the Central Florida Railroad Museum in Winter Garden, offered expert consultation and provided many of the items on display. Other contributions came from the Art & History Museums Maitland.