Wednesday, June 15, 2022

The Mahru Jinx

From September 1953 to June 1959 I went to Ravinia School (grades K-5) in Highland Park, Illinois on Chicago's North Shore .6 mile from my family's home. Most of us walked or biked to school most of the time (including a round trip to home for lunch!) However, in 1959 I started at Edgewood Junior High (grades 6-8). Edgewood was 1.5 miles away and therefore the kids in my neighborhood rode a bus. The bus picked us up at the corner of Cedar, Dean, and Sheridan, a .3 mile walk from the house. Sheridan is a major road, winding its way through Highland Park from one end to the other, making a turn at the bus stop.

With that setup I take you to a winter day sometime during the time I attended Edgewood. In the winters of that era 12-13" snows, while not frequent, were also not uncommon in Highland Park. On one such morning a bunch of us trudged to the stop and waited (and waited) for the bus to come. While we waited we amused ourselves by piling up additional snow in the intersection, watching the occasional automobile get temporarily stuck. (Essentially all cars in those days had rear-wheel drive.) I do not recall pushing them out for money, but it would have been a great idea if we had. (Aside: Highland Park is the suburb where Tom Cruise executed his money-making idea in the movie "Risky Business".)

At some point it became clear that the bus wasn't coming and we started thinking that we'd get a snow day, something as rare as unicorns in those days. Alas, it was not to be. One of my good friends, Bill Mahru, lived on Wildwood Lane just down the street from the corner. As he and the rest of us were preparing to head home his mother drove up in a station wagon and told us that she had heard on the radio that the busses weren't running but that, if we could get to school, it was open. So she piled us all into her car and drove us to school...ruining our dreams.

Somehow I lost track of Bill by the time we got to Highland Park High School in 1962, but a friend just told me that his family had moved to Glencoe, an adjoining suburb, about that time. Before he moved, though, Bill had to endure (good natured) ribbing about the Mahru Jinx. 


Tuesday, May 3, 2022

The Sugarland Limited


Prolog

In January 2022 I received an email from Clark Johnson announcing the “Sugarland Explorer”, an American Association of Private Rail Car Owners (AAPRCO) excursion from Chicago to the sugar cane-growing area of southern Florida leaving on April 19 and returning on May 1. There had been few opportunities for such a trip since the pandemic hit in March 2020 so I jumped at the opportunity to ride in private cars “Caritas” and “Cimarron River”. Friend Neil Lang and I booked a bedroom for the trip within a few days of it being announced. Here’s a summary of the ultimate schedule:

  • April 19: Private cars attached to Amtrak’s Capitol Limited from Chicago to Washington leaving at 6:40pm.

  • April 20: Arrive in Washington mid-afternoon. Cars get attached to an Amtrak private car special from Washington to Miami (using the route of the Silver Meteor) leaving at about 11pm. 

  • April 21: Arrive Miami around 11pm.

  • April 22: Layover day in Miami.

  • April 23: Amtrak special from Miami to Sebring. South Central Florida Express (SCFE) special from Sebring to Clewiston.

  • April 24: SCFE special from Clewiston to Marcy and return

  • April 25: SCFE special from Clewiston to Okeelanta and return (supposedly the first passenger train to ever run on this branch)

  • April 26: Tour of the sugar operations in the area and a dinner at the U.S. Sugar owned Dunwoody Lodge.

  • April 27: SCFE special from Clewiston to Sebring. Amtrak special from Sebring to Miami.

  • April 28 and 29: Layover days in Miami. 

  • April 30: Private cars attached to Amtrak’s Silver Star to Washington leaving at 11:40am.

  • May 1: Arrive in Washington. 

  • May 2: Private cars attached to Amtrak’s Capitol Limited leaving Washington at 4:05pm

  • May 3: Private cars arrive in Chicago at 8:45am. Trip ends.


Too long in Miami. Too long in Washington. But, hey, it was a private car trip and there have been few of them in the last three years and many, many friends I hadn’t seen in that time. In the event, I flew to Chicago on April 19 to catch the train (I could have boarded in Pittsburgh early in the morning of April 20) and I flew home from Washington on the evening of May 1 (I could have left the train in Pittsburgh at 11:45pm on May 2.) What follows is a more detailed report.


April 19, 2022


Private cars Caritas and Cimarron River in Washington on 4/20/2022

I had not felt well (stomach issues) for the five days preceding the start of the trip, but I woke up feeling better on April 19 and, so, the game was afoot! I made it to Chicago around lunch time and meet up with Neil. We spent the afternoon catching up (after over three years!) before boarding our cars on the rear of the Capitol Limited. Our cars included Caritas, an open platform lounge car with kitchen and sleeping space, and sleeper Cimarron River, where Neil and I were assigned bedroom B. There were three additional private cars on the train including the Northern Dreams, the Northern Sky, and the Hollywood Beach (owned by friend Keith White.)

It was old-home week seeing Clark Johnson, Nona Hill, Reg Mitchell, Alan Butler, Phil Moser, Neal Payton, Bill and Linda Schafer, Mike Rose, Rick Sprung, Don Crimmin and others. And that was just in our two cars.


Most of our group are in this photo by Rick Sprung

Dinner was cooked by Chef Don Crimmin and served by his wife Deb shortly after departure. We ran late but nobody really cared because there was plenty of time before we had to be in Washington and we were on a train!


April 20, 2022


When I awoke around 7, we were just pulling into Pittsburgh about two hours late. This was great because we’d see the Allegheny mountains scenery all the way from Pittsburgh.We arrived in Washington after 3pm and I headed off with Reg Mitchell to the Metro Store and Metro Center station for me to get a senior transit card only to find that the store closed at 3. Shortly after I returned our five cars were added to two others, already there to form our special: the New York Central 3, and the Francis L. Suter. Dinner was off the train. Neil and I, and Bill and Linda Schafer, and Neal Payton and Phil Moser went to a nearby restaurant, the Dubliner, which was quite good. A few other passengers including Phil Bush and Brad Phillips joined us before our special train left at 11pm. I was already in bed by the time we left for Florida.


Washington Union Station on 4/20/2022

April 21, 2022


Amtrak's Rob Mangles took this picture of Linda Schafer, Me, Reg Mitchell, and Bill Schafer while we were stopped in Savannah, GA

After a very restful night, I awoke at Florence, SC, which is as far south as I’d seen the line in daylight before, so the timing was great. We met the northbound Palmetto as we neared Savannah, and Auto Train just north of Deland, Florida. While stopped in Deland to pick up Taylor Johnson, I was able to chat from the rear platform of Caritas with former colleague Dave Gluch who lived nearby. I was in bed before we arrived in Miami around 11pm.


Me on the platform of Caritas in Deland, FL on 4/21/2022 (photo by Dave Gluch)

April 22, 2022


This was a layover day in Miami and a group of us intended to make good use of the time. The first order of business was for Neil and me to rent an Avis car to have through our April 30 departure from Miami. The idea was that one of us would drive it to Clewiston and the other would drive it back giving us transportation during the four layover days. Before we could rent the car we had to get out of the Amtrak station which was locked up tight until 10am. Well, tight, until we discovered a gate with an unlocked padlock. After getting the car at an awful off-airport Avis corporate location, I shuttled a few of the less mobile passengers to the nearby Tri-Rail/Metro Transfer station where a large group of us caught a Metro for downtown Miami. The station in Miami adjoined the Miami BrightLine station where we caught the 11:58am train for West Palm Beach. BrightLine is a high speed rail service that runs on the Florida East Coast Railroad and will soon connect Miami to Orlando. They have upped the experience and their premium service includes a pre-departure lounge with drinks and snacks along with the same on board the trains.


A Miami Metro train arriving at the Tri-Rail/Metro Transfer Station on 4/22/2022


Our BrightLine Train in West Palm Beach

We arrived in West Palm Beach just after 1pm and had plenty of time to walk the several blocks to the Tri-Rail station. We then rode Tri-Rail (on the same CSX line that Amtrak uses) back to Miami (to the airport and then back to the Tri-Rail/Metro transfer station… quite a different experience than BrightLine with frequent stops, crowded cars, a noisy PA and a trip that took nearly twice as long as BrightLine. But, hey, it was a train ride.


Neil Lang on BrightLine


Amtrak's Silver Star leaving West Palm Beach

A Tri-Rail train approaching Tri-Rail/Metro Transfer station

Dinner was supposed to be, again, off-train, but there was some risk that Amtrak would move our train to the yard for servicing and if they did it would be difficult to re-board so we ordered a bunch of pizzas and stayed on the train.


April 23, 2022


Our special left for Sebring on time at 8am. In addition to the seven cars that formed the special from Washington to Miami, we were joined by the Chapel Hill. I was supposed to drive our rental car to Clewiston, but at the last minute Nona Hill volunteered to relieve me of that duty so I got to ride the train instead. We were delayed at several places enroute and then it took over an hour to switch onto the SCFE where their steam engine 148 awaited to take us the rest of the way to Clewiston. Before getting there, though, we stopped in Lake Placid for a BBQ picnic off the train. Nona was waiting for us when the train arrived. Dinner was off-train and four of us went to Beef O’Brady’s for a not terrific dinner.


Our SCFE train at Lake Placid, FL

I had decided to stay off the train at a nearby Hampton Inn for the four nights we were in Clewiston. My friend Rick Moser who was riding in the Hollywood Beach did the same. Eventually Phil Moser joined us and even Neil spent one night. It was nice to get a real shower (though there is a good shower aboard the train) and to sleep in a big bed for a few nights.

A friend enjoys the baggage car added to our SCFE train


April 24, 2022


Today’s trip was to go to Cana, where the SCFE’s trackage rights on the Florida East Coast ends. We made it only to a location called Marcy, where the SCFE crosses the CSX mainline from Miami. We left Clewiston at 8:00am and had two excellent photo runbys enroute. The engine ran around the train and we were pulled back to Clewiston by a diesel. Dinner was again off-train and we went to a marina and a place called the Tiki Bar. The food was good and there was a sort of floor show (two drunken women at the table next to us) but it was way too noisy to really enjoy ourselves.


Runby on the trip to Marcy, 4/24/2022

April 25, 2022


The trip on this day was to Okeelanta at the end of a branch that had supposedly had not seen passenger traffic in the past. This was a much shorter day again with a photo runby featuring an alligator. We were back around 3pm and Neil and I used the car to explore the area. We were looking for a freight train to take pictures of but didn’t see one until we had given up and were headed back to the hotel to relax before dinner. Dinner was really good at Sonny’s BBQ. When we mentioned to our waitress how noisy dinner had been the night before she said “oh, you ate at the Tiki Bar?”


On the branch to Okeelanta

April 26, 2022


The US Sugar people asked to borrow our train this afternoon. While they were doing that, they treated us to a tour to learn about sugar processing followed by a dinner at their corporate-owned private Dunwoody Lodge. The tour was fascinating. We saw sugar being processed from growing in the fields to harvesting, to transport to the sugar refinery, etc. Apparently this harvesting is handled in a very different manner than Alec Wilkerson had written about in his 1989 expose, Big Sugar, in The New Yorker.



Burning the sugar cane prior to harvesting

Stored sugar - No ants because their mandibles would stick together!

We had all anticipated that the Dunwoody Lodge would be an elegant private club. Instead it was essentially a corporate training center. The best thing was the open bar with high-end beer, wine and liquor. The worst was the key lime pie that was essentially lime flavored cool whip in a factory graham cracker pie crust.


April 27, 2022


We were told to be aboard the train by 7am because they were going to be doing some switching before we left for Sebring and Miami. As I expected, 7 came and went without any sign of switching. The train had been set up with the car Chapel Hill on one end and Caritas on the other. To simplify switching in Miami we were supposed to go out with Chapel Hill in front of (or behind depending on direction) Caritas. The owners of Chapel Hill had a fit about this and we ended up in the same order we arrived in. We made good time to Sebring but then sat to well past our expected 1:30 departure from there to Miami. A major culprit was that the two Amtrak diesels were experiencing PTC problems. Once those were corrected we made decent time to Miami but still didn’t arrive until nearly 6pm. I had made reservations at Joe’s Stone Crab restaurant in Miami Beach that we had to cancel. Instead Neil, Rick, Phil and I went to a so-called delicatessen that Neil had found and then I took Rick and Phil to the airport for their next-day flights.



April 28, 2022


Everyone slept in. During the night Amtrak had moved our equipment around in the yard to get it organized the way they wanted. Two of the cars were pulled off our train and placed on the head end of the Silver Star scheduled to leave at 11:40am. Neil and I along with Bill and Linda Schafer drove to Miami Beach where I showed them some of the places I used to hang out as a kid. We eventually made it to the Art Deco district and had a nice lunch outside at the Birdcage in the Carlyle Hotel. We then walked up and down Ocean Blvd, which didn’t seem as chic as it had the last time I had done this, over a decade ago. We did pass a passel of hookers however. We also went to the beach for a few minutes. Eventually it was time for our rescheduled dinner at Joe’s which was, as usual, fantastic.


Linda and Bill Schafer, Neil, and me



April 29, 2022


Three more cars were detached from our train to go north on today’s Silver Star, leaving our Cimarron River, Caritas, and two Amtrak engines sitting alone on the track. I gave Don Crimmin a ride over to Walmart so that he could restock the car. Neil and I had nothing much to do. About 10:30 I said to him “you call what we ate at the other night a deli? Would you like to go to a real deli” at which point he jumped up with a Pavlovian response. The only catch was that since both Wolfy’s and the Rascal House had shut down years ago, the deli was in Fort Lauderdale. But we had gasoline to use up (Avis had given us only ¼ of a tank and I didn’t want give them more than they gave me.) The deli was Pomperdale’s and I had discovered it while my Dad was recovering from heart surgery in a nearby hospital in the mid-2000s. Lunch was terrific and afterwards we drove down Fort Lauderdale’s Ocean Blvd. where they were practicing for an air show to be held the next day. When we got near the cruise terminal we went over to the BrightLine station to see if we could get a picture of a train but it turns out that they have a two hour gap between trains in the middle of the day, so we headed back to the train. I



In spite of our over-stuffed lunch, we had a somewhat early dinner at La Rosa, a Cuban restaurant near the airport where we turned in our rental car. It was a short walk from the rental car center to the Tri-Rail station where we caught a train two stops to the Tri-Rail/Metro transfer station. From there it was a short walk to the train. It started to pour torrentially a few minutes after we boarded. They took our cars to the yard where, overnight, they added them to the front of the Silver Star.


April 30, 2022


When I awoke we were still in the Hialeah yard. Amtrak moved us to the station at about 10am and the train boarded and left on time at 11:40am. The ride up to West Palm Beach and beyond was quite rough at least until we neared Tampa. We were on track to reach Tampa about 30 minutes late when, shortly after the train was wyed, the PTC system dumped the air and we came to a sudden stop.. It seems that a trolley that crosses our route had (apparently) run a red signal and had ventured into our path. We did not hit it, but by the time all of that was sorted out we were almost an hour late into Tampa.


May 1, 2022


After an awful night’s sleep because the train was rocking and rolling too much I awoke as we reached Hamlet, NC still over an hour late. The ride was awful all day. Since much of the route was identical to the one we took south bound the only explanation I can think of is that being at the head of a 16+ car train caused the problem. Whatever it was, it wasn’t pleasant. Chef Don Crimmin served a full breakfast this morning of sausage, eggs, and toast. We arrived in Washington at 3:42pm…38 minutes late.


Since otherwise I’d have to spend most of another day in Washington and get home after midnight on May 2, I elected to fly home. I had booked a refundable 8pm departure out of Washington National (refundable in case we were very late). I was able to get from Union Station to National airport via the Washington Metro and change my reservation to an earlier flight (6:10pm). Not only did it leave earlier, but I got a partial flight credit AND a seat in premium economy with no one sitting next to me. Had American Airlines been slightly faster getting my checked bag to me (5 minutes faster would have done the trick) I would have been home by 8:30. Instead, I was home at about 9:00 after a long and quite fun trip.