Magic Carpets Made of Steel

Florence Dickinson George Dickinson Joy Dickinson Sligh Blvd Train StationMy family are railroad people, no strangers to the Orlando passenger station on Sligh Boulevard. After the traveler among us has climbed up into the train, we wave at the long windows sliding by, vanishing into the horizon. Sometimes we go there just to take photos.

Much has changed since the station debuted with a roaring big celebration back in the Roaring ’20s, but the old Spanish Mission station, designated a city landmark in 1977, has remained a working part of America’s railroad heritage, and its new role as a SunRail station has given it a brighter future.

When Atlantic Coast Line officials planned the station in the mid-1920s, they sent architect A.M. Griffin to California to study the Spanish missions in cities such as Santa Barbara and San Juan Capistrano. With its twin bell towers, arches, and tile roof, the station became the Atlantic Coast Line’s very Pacific Coast-style gift to Orlando. It survives as the sole Mission-style station in Florida.

Built at a cost of nearly $500,000, the depot opened in January 1927 with elaborate ceremonies brimming with railroad executives and Orlando dignitaries. The interior 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.”

 The arched letters that spell Orlando were designed by the station’s architects in the 1920s. One of the station’s finest features remains the curved rendering of the word “Orlando” over the entrance facing the trains. It doesn’t hurt that the city’s name is pretty in itself. The folks who picked it back in 1857 must have known it had more marketing potential than its predecessors, Fort Gatlin and Jernigan.

I also love the colonnade of arches that extends out from the station. There our family would wait in the 1950s and ’60s for visitors from western Pennsylvania, our particular slice of up North. Among them were my Northern grandparents, Florence and George Dickinson, always decked out in their best: For her, hat (with silk flower), gloves, corset, suit, stockings, high-heeled pumps, serious purse and the little suitcase called a train case. Granddad wore a snappy fedora, starched dress shirt, double-breasted suit, pocket handkerchief, polished shoes.

Orlando’s Atlantic Coast Line station bustles in the 1930s. Courtesy of the Orange County Regional History Center.

Orlando’s Atlantic Coast Line station bustles in the 1930s. Courtesy of the Orange County Regional History Center.

You dressed for travel then. It was an occasion. And my Granddad Dickinson wouldn’t have traveled any other way except by train. He was an engineer for the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie line. Not too many years after he wore his double-breasted suit to visit Florida, he would depart this world at the throttle of his engine during heavy snow, the victim of a heart attack. His last act was to stop the train safely. The railroad gave my grandmother a gold watch to honor that.

Granddad would be happy to know that people are still traveling to Orlando by rail, on trains that bear names from his era – the Silver Meteor and the Silver Star – names that still trail a hint of adventure. And he would be happy about the survival of a station where thousands of travelers  – old, young, rich, poor, black, white – have come and gone over the years, as they rode their father’s magic carpets made of steel.

 

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The Marvelous Richard Halliburton

Channeling Halliburton In one of my favorite childhood photos, a friend and I are playing dress up. She’s princess-elegant in a long dress, but I’m swathed in a scarf and shorts, a smiling child with a too-curly perm trying to channel some Indian elephant boy out of Kipling. Now I think perhaps I was channeling my inner Richard Halliburton. Although once a renowned emblem of travel adventure, my Halliburton has nothing to do with the aluminum travel cases of that name, or with the multinational Halliburton Corp. He has to do with the worlds he opened for me and many other children through his Complete Book of Marvels.  First published in 1941, it has long been out of print but still rates stellar reviews on Amazon.com. “My favorite book of all time,” notes one, in a thought echoed by others.

Richard Halliburton's Book of MarvelsHalliburton’s Marvels  educated generations of young Americans about geography, history, and culture, as the Wikipedia article on him notes. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Halliburton)

Reading Halliburton never felt like “education,” though. It was like diving into magical adventures, and Halliburton did literally dive in – to the Panama Canal, to a pool by the moonlit Taj Mahal, where great white lotus blossoms drifted on the water. He rode elephants and perched on the Golden Gate Bridge during its construction. And he took along his young readers in friendly prose that never condescended.

To see the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids or even the Golden Gate Bridge – these were goals outside my family’s experience. For us, moving from Pennsylvania to Florida was a magical as it got – and nothing to be sneezed at. Travel, beyond family visits, was something other people did.

And, in truth, Halliburton’s kind of adventurous travel was beyond most of us. When I read him as a child, I didn’t realize he had already died. His last adventure began in March 1939, when he and a crew set out from Hong Kong on a Chinese junk, the Sea Dragon, to sail across the Pacific. Instead, they vanished, and Halliburton was declared dead in October 1939. He was 39 years old.

I had always thought of him as my own private childhood passion – me and my inner elephant boy – and was shocked and pleased to discover, in 2001, a magazine article by the literary icon Susan Sontag, titled “Homage to Halliburton.”

She had loved him too. And his sad end, she noted, could not taint the “lessons of pluck and avidity” that she and I and so many others drew from reading him.

Sontag’s essay helped me see that Halliburton’s most important gift was opening for us not only the world of travel but the idea of being a writer. “What is a writer but a mental traveler?” she asks. “When I acknowledge to myself that I’m interested in everything, what am I saying but that I want to travel everywhere. Like Richard Halliburton.”

What indeed.

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