Samuel Augustus Jennings
Shortly after I began working out of the Tampa, Florida crew base in December 1985 I discovered an Illinois Central tavern-observation-lounge car parked on a siding near Amtrak’s Tampa station (a huge trailer parked behind the deteriorated uninhabitable remains of Tampa Union Station). The lone IC lounge car also stood completely gutted and seemingly vandalized beyond repair.... Scroll to below photos for full stories.
CITY OF MIAMI
(Illinois Central/Central of Georgia/ACL/FEC)
The City of Miami was my absolute favorite train. The beautiful Illinois Central streamliner had everything going for it, including the fastest schedule between Chicago and Miami, top-notch onboard service crew and Passenger Agent, popular tourist route, immaculately maintained equipment, a host of dining and lounge cars in every perfectly matched consist, and an eye-popping color scheme that was warm and inviting.
Even my mother, who was not a rail-fan, used to rave about the “beeyootifull” City of Miami racing up and down the Florida East Coast main next to Old Dixie Highway (US 1) right in front of the family shack in St. Lucie County just north of Ft. Pierce, Florida. The Conley clan might not have had “40 Acres and a Mule” but they owned lots of virgin land that the State of Florida wanted. Mom also told me about how she and my Auntie Mame used to ride the FEC Local to school in Ft. Pierce for a nickel.
Mom supported all my early rail adventures in the 50’s after Dad insisted I ride the dog to Detroit …or else! I will be forever grateful to my mother for paying the train fare and satisfying my passion for trains when my father refused to budge. Mom always called Dad a cheapskate…and she was right! How could he deprive me of a train ride I cherished just to save a couple of bucks on a cramped stinky Greyhound??? In retrospect, my dad was a thrifty black man who lived really well because he had learned early on how to stretch a dollar.
In 1957 the City of Miami moved to Central Florida towns with thru-cars on the West Coast Champion’s Tampa and St. Petersburg sections while the main train rolled down the Florida East Coast Railway to its namesake city. The City now served
all east and west coast Florida resorts and booming Orlando. The “beeyootifull” City of Miami had finally arrived…in my hometown. (After the FEC strike in 1963 all Miami- bound trains were rerouted through Orlando, so I often got to see the IC streamliner in all its chocolate, orange, and yellow glory.)
West Coast Champion 91/92 carried ACL custom-built City of Miami coaches 247 & 248 between Jacksonville and Tampa/Sarasota via Orlando. These ACL cars wore IC’s striking autumn sunset colors to blend in with the always perfectly matched solid consist of the Chicago-Miami streamliner. 247 and 248 sported CITY OF MIAMI letter boards (with ACL in small print at each end of the cars) while most cars in the consist wore the generic ILLINOIS CENTRAL label. These unique ACL cars were also the best looking coaches in every City of Miami consist. Central of Georgia Railway contributed an ugly 68-seat battleship to the carpool. This car was most often filled with black passengers.
“Ain’t Jim Crow dead yet?”
Smartly dressed waiters in IC’s elegant twin-diner wore crispy white spotless uniforms with brown trim. These brothers would show off by balancing and twirling fully loaded food trays with amazing dexterity and finesse on kick-ass streamliners. Waiters also rolled food and beverage carts through the aisles during off-meal periods. Absolutely no one had to starve because they wouldn’t or couldn’t walk!
Dome sleepers were leased from Northern Pacific in the late 50’s during Florida’s peak winter tourist season. Second-hand Missouri Pacific dome coaches came later. Of course, the add-ons were always repainted in IC chocolate, yellow, and orange to match the rest of the consist. The City of Miami was the only train to carry dome cars through the heart of the Deep South into Florida on a regular basis. The 1965 winter consist included a sleeper bar-lounge, dome sleeper, twin-diner, diner-counter-lounge, and a round end tavern-lounge observation car. The built-in radio in the lounge car was usually a garble of static because signals were weak unless the train was in or near a decent size town, so I spent many frustrating hours turning tuning dials.
In 1967 IC management changed for the worst. Traditional high standards wavered as passenger revenue plummeted. Trains were downgraded, cut back or discontinued altogether while traditional dining car service was dropped from many runs. IC continued to provide excellent service on the City of Miami with minimum downgrading, despite fierce airline competition and significant cutbacks on the premier Panama Limited and City of New Orleans (made even more famous by Arlo Guthrie’s big hit). Stainless steel ACL cars began infiltrating IC-flavored City of Miami solid consists and the beautiful round end observation car disappeared in1970. The City now had a flat ass, yet the butchered train still carried well maintained coaches, sleepers, lounge, diner, dome, and a Passenger Agent until Amtrak took over on May 1, 1971 and dropped the popular train which had been running since 1940.
I remember boarding the Champion’s Chicago coach at the Orlando station. ACL 248 was freshly painted in IC colors. I felt so relieved that I was no longer forced ride in CW40, the Champion’s colored coach which had retired to railroad heaven. 248 was sparkling clean inside and out and everything looked brand new - like the modern reclining blue seats with adjustable head and foot rests. My seatmate was a young white girl about my age. We were quickly becoming friends as a friendly attractive hostess passed out coloring books and games to the kids. I had never seen her smiling white face in the colored coach before.
I spent a couple of days visiting my grandmother in Evanston, IL before continuing on to Detroit. She met the train at Central Station and gave me the red carpet treatment. Grandmother insisted on buying me a steak dinner, but since I was on a spaghetti kick we ended up in a nice Italian restaurant near the station. The next day she took me to the Museum of Science and Industry where I “discovered” a real coal mine.
The South Wind alternated with the City every other day, but the scruffy streamliner fielded by PRR, L&N, ACL, and FEC was definitely second-rate compared to the City of Miami. The South Wind was usually a mismatched hodgepodge of ACL stainless steel, L&N blue, and PRR tuscan red. Some of the L&N cars were even heavyweight! Penny- pinching Pennsylvania provided only a cramped mid-train coach-lounge for coach passengers. My grandmother had already warned me the South Wind was dirty. She used to work for a rich white family in Skokie who had a winter home in Windermere, so she made many trips between Florida and Illinois. I figured she must have known what she was talking about so I heeded her advice and steered clear of the Wind by juggling my departure days.
A Christmas tree lit up the lounge car on the City of Miami and
measles sprouted all over my body while returning to Detroit where I now lived. The colored lady sitting next to me couldn’t figure what caused the rash which popped out overnight. Was I allergic to the seat fabric?
The second section of the packed train was running very late when I hiked through the long string of coaches, lounges, and sleepers to reach the distant diner for help. There were 2 or 3 dining cars on the 20-car train. I looked out one of the windows to marvel at the long train curving across the Ohio River Bridge during the long hike. I remember passing through an old heavy weight sleeper lounge that glowed with freshness and tender loving care. Sick or not, I was thrilled. Even though the meal period was over the helpful dining car crew fed me, made hot lemon tea and isolated me as best they could.
I will never forget the kind black men in the diner even though that was over 50 years ago just a few days after I turned 14. Illinois Central dining car crews worked the City of Miami right into Florida, thus relieving ACL and FEC of any staffing obligations. IC always insisted on using ONLY its own diners and dining car crews to assure high standards and quality control.
We got to Chicago about 4 hours late…just in time to make my Detroit connection
scheduled to depart LaSalle Street Station at 10:59P. It was snowing and icy cold as detraining passengers sloshed through dirty puddles of slush in the blinding blizzard to exit Central Station. The mob pushed, shoved, and fought to squeeze into Parmelee Transfer station shuttles to make connections.
I tried to play on a driver’s sympathy by telling him I had the measles and did not want to miss a tight connection, but my plan immediately backfired. The driver screamed “I don’t wanna take no measles home to my kids!”…then barred me from getting into the shuttle. I hailed a cab and kept quiet. New York Central’s Motor City Special was a big comedown after the City, but it didn’t matter because it was warm and dry and I was too sleepy and too itchy to care.
Shortly after I began working out of the Tampa, Florida crew base in December 1985 I discovered an Illinois Central tavern-observation-lounge car parked on a siding near Amtrak’s Tampa station (a huge trailer parked behind the deteriorated uninhabitable remains of Tampa Union Station). The lone IC lounge car also stood completely gutted and seemingly vandalized beyond repair. I remember thinking, “Oh What a shame! I probably rode in this car on the City of Miami. What a sad reminder of the state of passenger rail service in the United States! “No more Chicago trains. No more observation cars.” And the worst was yet to come.
A round-end observation car was a perfect ending to any train and the quickly changing panoramic view was a thrill a minute…especially while sipping ice cold Coca Cola out of a sexy green bottle. It got even better when I was old enough to drink…with a forged college ID. A window facing rear seat was my favorite spot on my favorite train as the City roared down the tracks kicking up huge clouds of dust in its wake. At the time the City of Miami was one of the few remaining trains with an observation car expressly for coach passengers. In fact the only other streamliner I can recall with coaches and tavern-observation-lounge on the rear was the “Silver Meteor”.
The exceptionally well-run Tampa crew base is history and the sprawling Tampa Bay metropolis is down to two trains a day that are as popular as ever. On the positive side, the historic Tampa train station has been beautifully restored to its original grandeur although the projected Orlando-Tampa high speed train is not scheduled to not stop there.
Samuel Augustus Jennings