Thursday, October 22, 2020

Riding the Florida East Coast and Auto Train

My friend J. David Ingles passed away on October 4, 2020 and I've been spending a lot of time remembering the good times we had together. The below is the story of a trip I've never written about. This is mostly from memory so please forgive errors.

The AAPRCO Florida East Coast Train

When Lizzy was growing up she and Barbara went all out on Halloween. From inside the house they showed spooky lights out the front window and played spooky sounds out an upstairs window. On the ground the front yard was throughly decorated including a coffin that a nephew would jump out of and a "table" where my brother-in-law would sit with his masked head through a hole and talk to kids as they took candy from a bowl in front of it. Everyone in costume and makeup of course. One year a man came up and scolded Barb for scaring his five year old too much. I mention all of this to illustrate that they took Halloween seriously. When planning the trip I'm writing about here I had to take that into account. 

Lizzy and Barb, Halloween 2009

The trip in question was centered upon riding an AAPRCO (American Association of Private Railway Car Owners) special train over the Florida East Coast Railway from Jacksonville to near Cocoa Beach, Florida. The trip originally was to include a ride over the railroad that NASA uses to move things to the space center at Cape Canaveral, but that part got eliminated at the last minute due to security concerns. The train was running from Washington to Cocoa Beach and return but most of us "mileage collectors" only "needed" the section out of Jacksonville and several of the car owners were selling day space for that segment. The three of us had reserved seats in the car Dover Harbor for the day.

The Dover Harbor

Actually, I didn't "need" the mileage in question. I had been over it several times on family trips on the City of Miami and the South Wind prior to 1963 when the Florida East Coast stopped running passenger trains after a fairly violent strike. But it had been nearly 50 years prior so I was pretty interested in riding again.

As usual with Dave coming from Waukesha, WI, Rick from Chicago (but having to work), and me from Pittsburgh (having to work and having to deal with Halloween) the logistics were complex. I had originally planned to fly, but we ultimately decided that I would drive to Charleston, WV where I would meet Dave arriving on the Cardinal which was due at 8:16am on Sunday, November 1 and then we'd drive to Jacksonville where we'd meet up with Rick who would be flying in from Chicago.

It's a 3.5 hour drive to Charleston from Pittsburgh meaning that I'd have to leave at around 4:45am to meet Dave's train if it was on-time. The better alternative was to go down the afternoon the day before, but that's where Halloween got in the way. Ultimately Dave and I agreed that I'd leave Pittsburgh around 6:30am and would get to the Amtrak station in Charleston when I got there...likely after 10am but for sure before noon when the station closed. In the event Dave's train was late and I ended up waiting (a little while) for him.

We spent some time exploring and taking pictures of trains in the downtown Charleston area, before heading for Charlotte, NC. via Interstate 77, stopping along the way to take more pictures and for lunch at a Steak and Shake and a depot hunt in Wytheville VA and visiting its historic district. Mid-afternoon found us in Charlotte, NC where we rode the light rail from it's southern end to downtown and back before heading to Rock Hill, SC where we checked into a Hampton Inn, had a great BBQ dinner, and called it a night after a long day of driving. (I must have had a camera failure because I cannot find any photos documenting this or the next day.)

The next morning, Monday, we left Rock Hill and went to Columbia, SC. Dave was interested in seeing the "new" (since the last time either of us had ridden through there on a train) configuration of rail lines and to get some pictures of local rail operations. From there we went to Folkston, GA to visit the Folkson Funnel railroad viewing platform where as I recall we saw no trains before we decided we had to head to Jacksonville to meet up with Rick that evening at the Comfort Suites near the airport.

The AAPCO Train

Bright and early on Tuesday morning the AAPRCO train left Jacksonville with us aboard the Dover Harbor. The train was scheduled into Cocoa (actually City Point) at 11:10am and was scheduled to stay there until the next morning when it headed north to St. Augustine (stopping for a tour lasting several hours) and then onto Jacksonville for a late afternoon arrival. Since we were day riders we elected to rent a car upon arrival at Cocoa and drive back to my car in Jacksonville. This was aided by Rick's cousin's husband who picked us up train side and, after a lunch, took us to a nearby Avis location. We spent the rest of the day taking photos along the Florida East Coast before getting back to our hotel.

As you've read this you may wonder why we decided to drive to Florida? The three of us had decided that we wanted to ride the Auto Train from Sanford, FL to Lorton, VA just outside of Washington. In order to ride Auto Train we needed a car to do so. We spent the morning chasing the AAPRCO train our of Cocoa and then drove to Sanford, stopping at a Steak and Shake before turning the car into Amtrak for loading onto the train at the Auto Train station. As I recall the train left late, but only stopped for crew changes and was actually into Lorton ahead of schedule the next morning. We, of course, had sleeping car accommodations on the train and had a good time at a wine and cheese tasting in the lounge and then dinner in the diner and a Continental breakfast the next morning.

Offloading my car from Auto Train in Lorton

Another goal of this trip was for Dave and I to ride the B&O line into Frederick, MD. This was the end of a MARC commuter operation out of Washington Union Station that only ran inbound in the morning and outbound in the evening. Rick, having already ridden the line, dropped us in Washington and then spent the day doing other things before picking us up in Frederick. While he was doing that Dave and I had lunch in a restaurant in the station concourse (surrounded by people who were in town protesting Obamacare and thought we were one of them.) We spent the night in a nearby Hilton Garden Inn.

Our MARC commuter train in Frederick

The Capitol Limited at Harpers Ferry

The plan for Thursday was to get to the South Branch Inn, in Romney, WV making various stops for photos along the way at Point of Rocks, Harpers Ferry, and elsewhere, I think including my first Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich near Winchester, VA. The South Branch Inn was an interesting, newish, hotel seemingly filled with frackers judging by the pickups in the lot (and mud on the floors.)

Both end of the South Branch Valley's Potomac Eagle

The goal for Friday was to get back to Pittsburgh, but not before Rick and Dave had a chance to ride the South Branch Valley railroad from Petersburg, VA to Green Spring, WV (near Cumberland, MD). I had ridden this line over 20 years earlier on a round trip photographers special so this time I had the duty of dropping them off and one end and picking them up at the other. I spent the interim chasing and photographing their train. After I picked them up we went to nearby Confluence, PA to visit with friends Bill and Pam Metzger. We dropped Rick at the Embassy Suites near the Pittsburgh airport after having a farewell dinner at a nearby Cracker Barrel and then Dave and I went back to my house where we sat and talked with Barb and Lizzy before I dropped Dave off at the Amtrak station around 11:15pm in time to catch the Capitol Limited for home.

Another great road trip in the memory banks.

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