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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To Old Florida and Beyond

Joy Wallace Dickinson (left) with grandparents Bill and Alice Wallace and the truck for the family's new business, the B&D Market in Winter Park.

Joy Wallace Dickinson (left) about 1950 with grandparents Bill and Alice Wallace and the truck for the family’s new business, the B&D Market in Winter Park.

Welcome! If your memories or interests include sandy beaches, orange blossoms, and all that’s old and “real” Florida, I hope you’ll find this a fun, interesting spot to perch every so often in your travels across the vast, astonishing worldwide web.

I love writing about Central Florida’s past, and my heart remains there, even when I wander. Right now, I’ve wandered on a visit to California, where I once lived.

I’ve been reunited with three dear women friends to celebrated friendships forged more than 50 years ago, at Orlando’s Howard Junior High School. My ties to one of these friends, Debbie Staton Cook, reach back to a bond forged between our families in the 1940s when her uncle, Ted Staton, sold my grandparents the house in which I now live.

We four have talked a lot about how our youth in Orlando shaped our lives: about the teachers who inspired us, about good times at the Central Florida Fair, playing records at Bill Baer’s on Orange Avenue, about trips to the beach, about listening to our teacher read us The Lion’s Paw in elementary school. And yes, we’ve probably talked, too, about the pumpernickel rolls at Ronnie’s restaurant.

I carry my Central Florida past with me wherever I wander.

Joy Dickinson's 2012 painting of Orlando's Spanish Mission Train Station used a vintage postcard for inspiration.

Joy Dickinson’s 2012 painting of Orlando’s Spanish Mission Train Station used a vintage postcard for inspiration. (Credit: Joy Wallace Dickinson)

I admire folks whose roots go deep into Florida’s sand, and I cherish too my heritage as one whose family came from the North, from the steel country of Pennsylvania. My father and grandparents traveled in my granddad’s woodie station wagon, but my mother and I journeyed by train and arrived at the Sligh Boulevard station. Modeled on the missions of California, this 1920s station remains my most-loved Orlando building.

Especially for my grandfather, Bill Wallace, Orlando was truly a city of dreams. Back in Pennsylvania when I was a small child, he often asked me, “Now, where are you going to go to college?” And I would respond with the much-rehearsed, “University of Florida.” In the end, my college was Florida State, but it was all the same to him. It was in Florida, his final and best-loved home. May we never forget its history, including the parts that may be difficult to embrace and understand.

Vintage roadside signs, including the iconic jaws at Orlando's Gatorland, are among the topics that inspire Joy in Florida. (Credit: Joy Wallace Dickinson)

Vintage roadside signs, including the iconic jaws at Orlando’s Gatorland, are among the topics that inspire Joy in Florida. (Credit: Joy Wallace Dickinson)

In this space, my goal is to embrace my name (not always easy) and focus on what’s joyful in Florida and beyond. We’ll probably venture into wide-ranging subjects including travel as a single, older woman; books, especially cozy mysteries; Florida-related art and pop culture; vintage roadside signs and other uses of typography; Orlando’s historic Lake Eola Park; the other sunshine state, California, so like and so different from Florida; writing tips and inspiration; and the occasional historic or family recipe. And maybe even coffee. This is one writer who is fueled by coffee. Let’s have a cup. I’m so happy you’re here.