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Letís fondly reminisce about our stations in life
By Joy Wallace Dickinson   - 09/28/2008

Orlando Sentinel

On a recent trip to New Mexico (great place), I soaked up wide-open vistas where ribbons of steel carried an amazing 200 freight trains a day across the desert.

Those sunset-orange engines and their long trails of cargo reminded me to tell you about a photo book from Arcadia Publishing, Railroad Depots of Central Florida.

The author, Michael Mulligan of southwest Florida, says he was inspired to gather 200-plus photos for the book after Hurricane Charley destroyed the Fort Ogden depot (near Port Charlotte) in 2004.

Mulligan used resources including railroad timetables and local history books from the counties covered -- a band across the state ranging from Levy, Gilchrist, Alachua, Putnam and Volusia to the north and Sarasota, DeSoto, Highlands, Osceola and Brevard to the south.

He included many long-gone depots and stations, but we are lucky enough to have still-standing gems, from the grand (or once grand) to the modest.

Winter Garden boasts two small stations that house museums of the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation.

The former Tavares and Gulf station at 101 S. Boyd St. is home to the Winter Garden Railroad Museum and the Central Florida Chapter of the National Railway Association (see wghf.org or call 407-656-0559).

In Orlando, we have two depots included both in Mulligan's book and in the Guide to Florida's Historic Architecture (we mentioned them briefly in a Flashback last spring).

One, the 1889-90 depot that inspired Church Street Station, at 76-78 W. Church St., was among the first Orange County buildings to gain a place on the National Register of Historic Places, in the 1970s.

Victorian gem

The architecture guide calls Orlando's Church Street depot a "unique example of Victorian Revival-style railroad architecture similar to the designs of H.H. Richardson," an important American architect (1838-1886), whose work helped shape the cityscapes of Boston, Pittsburgh, Albany and Chicago, among other cities.

Built by the South Florida Railroad, according to Mulligan, the Church Street structure later served as Orlando's Atlantic Coast Line passenger station until 1927, when the present Amtrak station on Sligh Boulevard opened to great fanfare in January.

Mulligan's book pictures other Spanish Mission Revival railroad stations built in Florida during the 1920s boom, but most have been destroyed or converted to another use.

Orlando's Sligh Boulevard station, hailed by experts as the area's best example of Mission Revival architecture, has served railroad passengers continuously for more than 80 years -- which is rare indeed.

Once, a jewel of the South

Built in 1926 at a cost of nearly $500,000, the station was "said to be one of the most beautiful in the South," the Morning Sentinel trumpeted when it opened.

One of its finest features remains the word ORLANDO, arched over the entrance to the station facing the trains.

It must be the most beautiful public rendering of the city's name, to my eyes at least. Each letter was hand-designed by the station's architect, A.M. Griffin of the Atlantic Coast Line.

Inspired by the early 20th-century vogue for Mission Revival architecture, the railroad's top brass sent Griffin to travel the Pacific Coast to study the Spanish colonial missions for which the style was named.

And so, with its twin bell towers, arches and tile roof, an homage to historic buildings in San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Carmel, San Juan Bautista and other California locales, the station became the Atlantic Coast Line's very Pacific Coast-style gift to Orlando.

Today, the passengers who still arrive and depart under that arched "Orlando" board their trains at the site where a crowd of 6,000 -- about a fifth of the town's population -- jammed traffic for blocks around the building on opening day in 1927, more than 80 years ago.

Then, the interior of the station overflowed with potted palms and flowers. The Lions Club quartet sang, two bands played and exuberant speakers hailed a "new era of progress and expansion."

That was a long time ago, and the station sure could use another renovation like the one our community gave it in 1990, or like the folks in Tampa pulled off for their Union Station. (Amtrak does not own the building, by the way.)

Those trains I saw rolling across the Western desert are a reminder that, despite their problems, railroads remain viable transportation.

In stirring memories of Florida's depots, Mulligan hopes he may help "change attitudes about the way we travel today and just maybe inspire a change back to rail travel in our nation."

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