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Roundabout Route to Norfolk
By Jack M. Turner

Between 1967 and 1970 my father took our family on 3 or 4 trips aboard Seaboard Coast Line’s Silver Star between Florida and Richmond, VA.  Several aspects of those trips stood out such as riding the rear sleeping car (line number R-360) which was cut off at Richmond, eating in the dining car, adding or subtracting cars in Jacksonville, and passing through the Carolinas in daylight. 

Most of these things are not experienced on today’s Silver Star operated by Amtrak, however, a rare opportunity to view the Carolina scenery by daylight made a brief return in late summer 2019.  Soon I put together an itinerary and booked reservations for my wife and I to travel to Virginia on the Silver Star and drive a rental back to Florida.  The primary motivation was to view much of South Carolina in daylight since the normal schedule takes train # 92 through that state in predawn hours.

On Sunday, August 4, 2019 we boarded train # 97, the southbound Silver Meteor, in Jacksonville heading toward Sebring where we would transfer to the northbound Silver Star.  This was necessitated by the new temporary schedule which had the Silver Star depart Jacksonville at 2:03am.  The Meteor’s 10:48am departure was over one hour late which would reduce our connection time in Sebring thus requiring monitoring throughout the day. 


Viewliner II dining car “Tallahassee” on the southbound Silver Meteor at Jacksonville

Passage through the Jacksonville area was, as usual, interesting as we passed Grand Jct. where the erstwhile Sunset Limited used to be wyed before backing into the station then we crossed the Norfolk Southern port line where a freight train could be seen to the east.  A few minutes later the Meteor passed Honeymoon Wye where the lead tracks to old Jacksonville Terminal branched off.  The next sights were Yukon where the CSX line crosses the Ortega River adjacent to US Highway 17 then NAS Jacksonville where about two dozen fighter jets were parked on the tarmac.  After passing below I-295 we spotted the small private rail car yard at Orange Park which on this day only housed the Georgia 300 office car.


Crossing the Ortega River at Yukon; Jacksonville skyline in distance


Crossing Rice Creek north of Palatka 

Lunch was served in the dining car beginning at noon and we made a beeline for the Viewliner II diner.  Our luck was good as car 68024 “Tallahassee” held down the assignment on this day.  This car would reappear on my next two overnight train trips in the fall but for now this would be my first meal in a Viewliner II diner.  The name of this car evoked memories of my childhood when one of the Silver Meteor’s 11 DBR sleepers was named “Tallahassee”.  The interior of this car was bright and airy with its double row of windows, etched glass dividers between tables, and clean and fresh appearance.


Inside new dining car “Tallahassee”

As full service dining was still in effect, we enjoyed excellent angus burgers with chips and salad as the train stopped in Palatka and continued south toward DeLand.  Following lunch we returned to sleeping car 62004 “Beach View” which our son and I rode on the Cardinal several years ago.  There was plenty of room to put our feet up as I had booked roomette 2 while Christine took roomette 4.  We were 90 minutes late at Winter Park and we lost another 30 minutes into Orlando caused by waiting for the northbound Silver Meteor.  It was now evident that we would have to change trains in Winter Haven to avoid a possible misconnect.


Angus burger lunch entree


Typical Florida scene: a fishing boat on the St. John’s River between Palatka and DeLand

After passing through Auburndale where we left the former Atlantic Coast Line route and joined the ex-Seaboard, we pulled to a stop in Winter Haven at 4:11pm.  The super nice station agent Charles was very helpful during our layover and he directed me to a Taco Bell within easy walking distance so I could bring back dinner for Christine and me.  Fortunately we had checked our luggage at Jacksonville directly to Petersburg where we would change trains so we didn’t have to worry about our bags being transferred at Sebring.


Southbound Silver Meteor at Winter Haven


The Silver Meteor departs Winter Haven headed to Miami

Northbound train # 1092 the Silver Star departed Winter Haven 43 minutes late at 6:31pm.  As a result of its delays, we would have made our connection at Sebring but it would have been a nervous time since there was little margin.  Winter Haven was definitely a wise choice.  Normally the northbound Silver Star is train # 92 but on certain dates it was designated # 1092 due to an adjusted schedule due to trackwork.  The train departed Miami at 1:50pm and had layovers of over one hour built in at Jacksonville and at Savannah to help it avoid the work window.  The Miami departure was two hours later than normal and was very close to its traditional SCL departure time of 1:40pm.


Northbound Silver Star arriving Winter Haven

We were the only passengers boarding in Winter Haven and settled into roomettes 7 and 8 in car 62031 “Prairie View”.  Within minutes the train swung northwest off the ex-SAL main line onto a connector track running between warehouses until joining the former ACL route heading to Tampa.  Fifteen minutes later we departed the modern Lakeland station which was on the left side of the train. Train 1092 zipped through Plant City whose old depot now houses a railroad museum with a train viewing platform across the track. After passing through Mango and meeting a northbound double stack train, we sailed under I-75 and pulled onto the east leg of a wye then forward until the engines were two car lengths short of the I-4 overpass.  A couple of minutes later we backed down the west leg of the wye onto the main line again; the entire process took 10 minutes.  The Silver Star then made a fast reverse move through Ybor City and across the TECO streetcar line to reach Tampa Union Station at 7:49pm.  Tampa Union Station used to have seven station tracks but now there is only one platform track in use.  The 20 plus minute stop allowed time for a quick visit inside the beautifully restored station before returning to the sleeping car for the night.


Baggage car is loaded on train 1092 the Silver Star at Tampa


Inside Tampa Union Station

Soon after our 8:11pm departure we enjoyed a pretty sunset as the Star retraced its route through Plant City and reached Lakeland again at 8:51pm.  This time the station appeared on the right side of the train almost two hours after our first stop at its platform.  At Auburndale we continued straight ahead on the CSX “A Line” toward our next stops in Kissimmee and Orlando where we were almost 50 minutes late.  I fell asleep after Winter Park and missed DeLand and Palatka but awoke briefly as we arrived in Jacksonville at 1:19am.  A peek out the window revealed that our checked bags were indeed on the baggage cart to be loaded aboard the baggage car.  Later the scheduled 66 minutes in Savannah turned into a 20 minute stop that got us back on schedule though I slept soundly through it. 

When I woke we were departing Denmark, SC at 6:45am which, as planned, would allow me to view the South Carolina sights.  The next 20 minutes found us passing through Sweden and Norway, a reminder of my youth when we drove through those three towns during family car trips along parallel US 321 and joked that we were in Scandinavia.  Beyond the town of North we took the siding and met train # 91 the southbound Silver Star which was running 5 hours late.


A church near Norway, SC

One of the sights I clearly remember from one of the early 1970s trips on the Silver Star was a landscape full of sand hills south of Columbia.  The Silver Star normally traversed that area in the predawn darkness but occasionally ran on a slightly later schedule similar to that of # 1092.  Eventually most of my northbound trips had been aboard the Silver Meteor which followed the route via Florence.  A few minutes after passing train # 91 and rolling through the small village of Woodfort after daybreak, we traversed the sand hills region that I recalled so well.  Our track rode along the top of a ridge looking down at a broad valley framed by another ridge in the distance.  Red clay, sand, and piney woods added an interesting dimension to the scene as it reinforced 50- year-old memories.


Fog shrouded field near Woodfort, SC


Sand hills north of Woodfort, SC

Ten minutes later the Silver Star crossed the Congaree River once again evoking memories of family vacations when my family stayed in Cayce, SC and my dad walked me out on the US 321 bridge over the river to enjoy the view from high above.  Just beyond the river crossing the rail line diverged from the historic Seaboard line that ran right through downtown Columbia.  The current route bypasses downtown and serves the current Amtrak station located on the city’s west side.  Our 8:17am departure was just 16 minutes late and things looked good for the late afternoon connection in Petersburg, VA.  Since there was no dining car on the Silver Star, we brought our own food for breakfast which allowed us to enjoy the sights without having to leave our roomettes.


Congaree River at Columbia

Following the stop at Camden the Star rolled through Bethune, McBee, and Cheraw en route to the next stop, Hamlet, NC.  The Hamlet station was built in 1900 and is an example of Queen Anne style architecture.   Through the 1960s five SAL named trains stopped in Hamlet (the Silver Meteor, Silver Star, Silver Comet, Palmland, and Sunland) as well as unnamed passenger and mail trains.  Today’s CSX “S line” used by the Silver Star crosses another CSX line linking Atlanta and Wilmington, NC.  In pre-Amtrak years, the Silver Comet diverged onto that line at Hamlet on its way to Atlanta and Birmingham.  In 2003 the station was moved a couple hundred feet to the other side of the Wilmington line.  Today it also houses a railroad museum with a Seaboard SDP35 engine and an SAL caboose displayed on the grounds.


Seaboard Air Line caboose displayed in Hamlet


SAL SDP35 displayed near the Hamlet station


Hamlet Amtrak station which once also served trains to Atlanta and Birmingham

We were about 30 minutes late at Hamlet and remained a half hour late at Southern Pines.  We visited the cafe car and I purchased a roasted turkey and swiss sandwich for myself and a hot dog for Christine.  Both earned a thumbs up which was a pleasant surprise.  There were signs of a great deal of trackwork between Southern Pines and Sanford, however it had cleared up for us and there were no major delays into Cary where we noted a station agent handling checked luggage.  Perhaps someone was connecting to or from one of the Piedmonts that operate to and from Charlotte via the line that diverges at the station.  Ten minutes later we stopped in Raleigh where one of the Piedmont trains waited on the opposite side of the high-level platform.  Our stop in Raleigh was longer than scheduled and the Silver Star was over one hour late departing.


Southbound Carolinian between runs at Raleigh; annulled north of Raleigh

Another 20 minutes were lost on the way to Wilson, a temporary Silver Star stop on days that # 1092 was scheduled.  Rocky Mount came at 3:31pm, 84 minutes late, and our connection in Petersburg (originally almost two hours) was now in jeopardy.  The trip through northern North Carolina and southern Virginia was extremely slow with our train often creeping along and it was obvious we would miss our train to Norfolk.  This was confirmed when train # 95 rolled by at 5:31pm as it navigated the interchange track to the Norfolk Southern line just 6 minutes south of the Petersburg station.  By this time I had spoken to the conductor who advised us to stay on board until Richmond where we would have a shorter wait for the later train to Norfolk.  He made sure to transfer our checked bags at Richmond rather than Petersburg; we would carry them on board the other train.


Crossing the Appomattox River at Petersburg moments after missing our connection

The final 30 minutes of our trip on the Silver Star were smooth and included a meet with train # 91, the southbound Silver Star, before we crossed the James River.  We reached Richmond at 6:08pm, 1 hour and 48 minutes late.  The station was crowded when we arrived but the crowd thinned out greatly as train # 66 from Newport News to Boston loaded and a regional train heading to Newport News prepared to depart.  We were to be accommodated on train # 93 directly to Norfolk which made sense as the Newport News train would require a Thruway bus connection to Norfolk which could add another complication.  As it turned out the regional was apparently held up by a flash flood situation not far from Richmond so that could have created a problem.  Instead we relaxed by watching heavy rain outside the station windows and observing a couple of passing freight trains.


Northbound Silver Star after detraining at Richmond


Train # 66 from Newport News to Boston departs from Richmond

The pleasant station agent who issued our tickets for train # 93 drove us to coach 82526 after the train pulled to a stop well down the platform.  The nine car train was not crowded and I concluded that its morning return trip would necessitate the sizable consist.  The 9:02pm departure was 45 minutes late but we were just thankful there had been a backup option to ensure we got to Norfolk on the planned evening.   The interior of our coach had been refurbished and the leather seats were attractive and comfortable.  This comfort was welcomed since our planned afternoon trip was now a nighttime ride which prevented seeing much outside the windows.


Interior of refurbished Amfleet coach on train # 93 to Norfolk

Twelve passengers detrained at Petersburg.  The station appeared to be isolated from any businesses and we were glad we had transferred in Richmond as we would have had a four-hour layover with nothing to do in Petersburg.  Shortly after crossing the Appomattox River, # 93 curved left onto the interchange track to the Norfolk Southern mainline to Norfolk.  Paralleling US 460 through Waverly, Wakefield, and Windsor we noted that we were due south of historic Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown which lie north of the James River.  We passed through Suffolk at 10:35pm observing that it appears to have enough population to warrant a stop for these trains.  The track grew rougher through this area and felt like it was made up of jointed rails.  The city of Chesapeake came next then the railway crossed a drawbridge over a branch of the Elizabeth River before arriving in Norfolk at 11:01pm. 

The Norfolk Amtrak station opened in 2012 when rail passenger service was restored to the city after ending with the cancellation of Amtrak’s Mountaineer to Chicago in 1977.  Prior to Amtrak the line had hosted Norfolk & Western’s Powhatan Arrow and Pocahontas trains through 1969 and 1971 respectively.  The modern station is located beside a corner of the parking lot for Harbor Park, home of the Norfolk Tides AAA baseball team.  The Tide light rail trains stop within easy walking distance of the Amtrak station providing an excellent link to downtown and other Norfolk destinations.


Interior of Norfolk Amtrak station


Norfolk station exterior

Our lodging while in the city was the Norfolk Hilton The Main, a beautiful high-rise downtown hotel overlooking the Elizabeth River and the harbor.  Our room on one of the upper floors had a commanding view of the waterfront both by day and night.  The hotel restaurant served an excellent breakfast and the staff was super friendly.  This was one of the better hotels we have encountered on our extensive travels.


View from our room at the Norfolk Hilton The Main hotel


Nighttime view of the harbor from our hotel room 

In the morning we walked two blocks to the MacArthur Memorial, a terrific museum honoring WW II hero General Douglas MacArthur.  Inside we found many items from his service including his jacket, corn cob pipe, sunglasses, army jeep, and other notable objects.  This is a sight that should be on anyone’s “to do” list when visiting Norfolk.


A Tide light rail train negotiates a tight curve in front of the MacArthur Memorial


Gen. Douglas MacArthur's Army jacket


Front of the MacArthur Memorial

Directly in front of the MacArthur Memorial we boarded a Tide light rail train heading eastward toward the outskirts of Virginia Beach.  Five minutes into the ride the train stopped at Harbor Park where passengers can walk to a baseball game or to the adjacent Amtrak station.  Shortly the light rail climbed over an elevated bridge featuring an S curve above the triple track Norfolk Southern line.  Beyond that came the light rail stop for Norfolk State University, a couple more stops, and a picturesque river crossing.  After making the Military Highway (US 13) stop it was on to the end of the line at Newtown Road.    The one-way eastbound ride had taken about 20 minutes followed by a 10 minute layover before reversing direction for the westbound return.  This time I continued past MacArthur Square where my ride began and continued to the line’s western terminus at EVMC/Fort Norfolk.  The westward ride took 28 minutes and was followed, after a 10 minute layover, by a short run back to MacArthur Square.  The entire outing took just 80 minutes and offered a great glimpse of various parts of the Norfolk area.


The lead car provides an excellent view climbing the bridge over Broad Creek


Crossing appropriately-named Broad Creek on The Tide light rail


Climbing an overpass over a heavy rail line


Meeting an eastbound Tide train at Ballentine/Broad Creek


A tight S curve on the overpass over the Norfolk Southern triple track main line


The Tide stop for Harbor Park and the Amtrak station


Meeting another Tide train on the west side of downtown


Western end of the line at EVMC/Fort Norfolk

That evening we attended a Norfolk Tides baseball game vs. the Indianapolis Indians at Harbor Park.  From the grandstand seats along the third base line and from the press box above we had a great view of the harbor and the river beyond the outfield wall.  During the game we observed both inbound Amtrak trains and a couple of Norfolk Southern freights as they crossed the drawbridge, a perfect combination of two favorite hobbies – baseball and trains.  Tides games are a great way to spend an evening as AAA ball is one step below the major leagues and the ballpark’s many amenities and Harbor Park’s great view make a terrific, reasonably priced evening activity.


Harbor Park with rail bridges in the background


Eastbound Amtrak train crosses the bridge behind Harbor Park


Trains can easily be seen from Harbor Park as with this Norfolk Southern freight

The following morning we rented a minivan and visited the Chrysler Museum of Art, a heralded museum that displays a wide variety of well-known artwork in an impressive building.  Then it was time to begin the drive homeward with our first stop being the Outer Banks.  There we visited the Wright Brothers Memorial at Kitty Hawk, NC where  aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first powered flight.  Below Kitty Hawk we made two pleasant ferry boat crossings of Hatteras Inlet and Pamlico Sound and enjoyed vistas of Cape Hatteras and other well-known landmarks.


Chrysler Museum of Art


Monument marking the Wright Brothers takeoff location in Kitty Hawk, NC


Replica of the Wright Flyer aircraft


Beautiful beaches, such as this one in Kill Devil Hills, line the Outer Banks


Sand Dunes on Ocracoke Island hold back the Atlantic Ocean


Boarding the Ocracoke to Cedar Island ferry


A fishing boat passes our ferry


Passing another ferry in Pamlico Sound


The harbor at one of the ferry terminals

After our leisurely two-day trip through the Carolinas and Georgia we picked up our car at the Jacksonville Amtrak station, returned the rental, and completed our trip home after a most enjoyable stopover at the Sawgrass Marriott in nearby Ponte Vedra Beach.  The resort offers two large swimming pools, putt-putt golf, tennis, bicycling, and access to a popular beach club plus the adjacent golf course where the PGA Players tournament is held.


Waterfall at the Sawgrass Marriott Resort in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL


One of two swimming pools behind the hotel


Lagoon at the Sawgrass Marriott Resort

Despite the missed connection, this was a perfect time to make the trip from Florida to Norfolk as the normal Silver Star schedule requires a 7 1/2 hour layover in Petersburg.  It would be better to ride all the way to Washington, DC and retrace one’s steps as far as Petersburg before branching off to Norfolk.  Another interesting option is to ride one way into Norfolk and take the Norfolk-Newport News Thruway bus the other direction to connect to or from an Amtrak train via Williamsburg to Richmond and points north.  The Norfolk and Tidewater, Virginia area has many excellent sights and visits to the Delmarva Peninsula via the spectacular Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel and over to Colonial Williamsburg via the Hampton Roads Tunnel are worthy destinations.


Norfolk Hilton The Main

MacArthur Memorial

Chrysler Museum of Art

North Carolina Ferry Schedules

Sawgrass Marriott Hotel