Friday, June 10, 2022

Tracking path of disappearing railroad

Motorcycle in front of mural of train engine.
I posed my Royal Enfield with a mural of a railroad train.

 Vintage Royal Enfield motorcycles and old passenger trains just seem to go together. Both were
pioneering forms of transportation: powerful (for their day), noisy, smoky, and now rare. 

You now can buy a wide variety of new Royal Enfield motorcycles that are more powerful, less noisy and not smoky. 

Today Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where I live, can claim shiny new high-speed passenger rail service, and a shiny new downtown station. Riding these clean, comfortable "Brightline" trains is like flying. 

But nostalgia is a powerful thing. 

Riding my 1999 Royal Enfield Bullet through town I smile a bit when I pass a large mural of an old-fashioned locomotive, painted on a fence about five years ago by artist Serafima Sokolov. I finally decided to pull my motorcycle alongside the mural and get a photo.

Nice mural; but what is it about, with the date "June 1956," so prominent?

Sokolov likes to base her paintings on real photographs

"An artist can be a part of that documentation in reminding the public that although news stories are fickle, life is full of situations that need attention."

Turns out the mural recreates the June 2, 1956 opening of a then new (and now long gone) Florida East Coast railroad station. The mural is obviously far more recent than that. But its inspiration is clear.

It's based on a dramatic photograph shot on that date of a FEC locomotive literally "cutting the ribbon" for the new station. The photographer must have had great timing, as there would be no second chance to get this photo. It perfectly displays the remains of the torn banner.

Locomotive breaks through a banner.
A real locomotive cut the ribbon for the new FEC station. 
(State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory Photo.)

The photograph is now part of the Florida Memory archive.

The Fort Lauderdale News newspaper mentioned the ribbon cutting in the edition of June 2, 1956. The article touted the modern appearance and convenient parking offered by the new station.

While the station was new, old prejudices prevailed in this Southern town: 

"The ticket office is between the White and Negro waiting rooms," the 1956 article reported.

The building would have been planned and designed before the 1954 and January, 1956 rulings of the Supreme Court and Interstate Commerce Commission ending legal separation of the races in public facilities. The division apparently persisted, for how long I don't know.

Newspaper clipping about new station.
Fort Lauderdale News article described the new station.

The Fort Lauderdale News clipping incorrectly gave the address of the new station as being in the northwest part of Fort Lauderdale. The new station was in fact in the southeast part of the city, at 1850 Park Lane.

Today there are modern warehouse structures where the station used to sit. However, if you look to the other side of the existing tracks you can still see the ghost tracks of a one-time railyard on Google's Satellite View.

Satellite view shows former site of station.
FEC station was at the red dot between Park Lane and tracks.

The then-new FEC Fort Lauderdale station is visible in a 1967 amateur film, as seen on YouTube

"The train and the classic stations are but pleasant memories," the You Tube video suggests. But the facts are distinctly unpleasant. 

Watching the video you will be surprised that there are only two passenger cars on the run, and they appear to be empty. Here's why:

By 1967 railroad companies were running only required service, and making it none too attractive. They wanted out of the passenger business, which interfered with more lucrative freight revenue.

And there was another, darker reason that people weren't riding the FEC in 1967: they were scared.

FEC employees were on strike from 1963 to 1977, one of the longest and most violent labor disputes of the century. Some tracks were blown up.

The railroad (anxious to end passenger service anyway) made no secret of the danger, letting riders know they were on board at their own risk, and stripping the service offered to the required minimum.

Automobiles fitted to run on rails went ahead of trains, with officers watching for anything suspicious.

So much for the "pleasant memories" of the happy ribbon cutting scene shown in the mural.

The mural my motorcycles posed with is at 824 N. Flagler Dr., Fort Lauderdale, in the northeast part of town, far from the original site of the scene it depicts.

It is an appropriate location for a railroad mural, as the street runs alongside the tracks and its name honors Henry Flagler, creator of the FEC. You can see the full mural in this Google Street View.

1 comment:

  1. "They wanted out of the passenger business, which interfered with more lucrative freight revenue."
    That sums it up. Rail is the most efficient way to move people, it can be electrically powered, and in the USA it is private companies only. In Europe rail is the preferred travel choice, you can even take it to the airport. Not here. Too much lobbying from the rail & auto industries.


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