This blog by Michael Grey, an Honors Program student at South Florida State College, first appeared in the April 2017 issue of The Historian.
January 25, 1925 was a memorable day in Sebring, Florida. The first Seaboard Air Line Railroad passenger train, the Orange Blossom Special, arrived from New York. The train, which was in four sections with 43 Pullman cars, carried 500 dignitaries from 20 States. This was the first Seaboard train service from New York to Florida and the first train service ever without interchange through Central Florida to the East coast. West Palm Beach was the final destination.
Thousands greeted the train in Sebring, as dignitaries disembarked for a pre-arranged tour of the town and a buffet lunch on the grounds of the Kenilworth Inn. The Highlanders Band played in the oval facing the Kenilworth, and Governor John Martin and Seaboard President S. Davies Warfield spoke to the audience, the Sebring White Way reported.
But this momentous Sebring celebration almost didn’t happen, according to an article in the publication The Way It Was. In early 1924, Florida Western and Northern, a subsidiary of the Seaboard Air Line Railroad, proposed to build a new trunk line through Sebring as part of its rail line extension into South Florida. A deal was struck between Seaboard officials and the City of Sebring. Sebring would raise $30,000 to create a right-of-way for the rail line.
Enthusiasm for the project was high, but there was no follow-through. Mr. Warfield became frustrated with the lack of progress and threatened to run the rail line elsewhere, unless Sebring got its act together. The idea of losing the railroad to another city spurred Sebring’s citizens, of which there were only 850 at the time, to raise $30,000 in 30 days. Once the right-of-way was settled, the project went forward quickly, and the section of line through Sebring was finished by the end of 1924.
The Orange Blossom Special was billed as a luxury, all-Pullman, winter-season-only train that catered to wealthy travelers from the Northeast. Breakfast and dinner included elaborate menus and were cooked and served on the train. Passengers typically disembarked for lunch at one of the midday stops.
Florida cities north of Sebring, through which the Orange Blossom Special traveled on its maiden trip included Coleman, Center Hill, Polk City, and Auburndale; West Winter Haven and West Lake Wales; Highland Park, Babson Park, West Frostproof, and Avon Park. To the south of Sebring, the train passed through Fort Basinger, Okeechobee, the edge of the Everglades, and West Palm Beach. The rail line greatly facilitated travel between these cities that were heretofore difficult or, in some cases, almost impossible to reach any other way.
The line only terminated in West Palm Beach for about a year before it was extended to Miami by the Florida Western and Northern and another Seaboard subsidiary, the All Florida Railway. With this link, the Florida East Coast Railway no longer had a monopoly along the East Coast. Eventually, a section of the Orange Blossom Special also went to Tampa and St. Petersburg on Florida’s West Coast, and the lines were connected across the State.
With the arrival of the new rail-line, Sebring’s economy and population boomed, and Sebring became a popular vacation spot for northerners looking to escape winter weather back home.
After the Depression the train offered air-conditioned cars and the first diesel-electric passenger locomotives in the Southeast. Service was suspended during World War II, and by the 1950s,
competition from cars, planes and newer trains no longer justified the Orange Blossom Special’s operation. The last run was in April 1953.
Over the years, such famous Orange Blossom Special trains as the Silver Meteor and Silver Comet stopped in Sebring, and the Silver Meteor still does to this day. But Sebring’s train service, now operated by Amtrak, has lost much of its importance. Sebring has the fourth fewest rail passengers in the State of Florida, according to Amtrak’s 2016 annual Fact Sheet.