The finest trains in the southeastern United States graced Jacksonville. Any one of age recalls the Orange Blossom Special and the Florida Special as the finest trains to Florida second to none. In 1938 Jacksonville saw the first streamlined passenger train the “Silver Meteor” with its shiny consists of reserved seat coaches, lounges, and dining cars. A new age has arrived for the Gateway City to Florida.
In 1939 The Atlantic Coast Line and Florida East Coast jointly started their first all streamline reserve seat coach train between New York and Miami. The success of Seaboard’s Silver Meteor was immediate and the need for ACL/FEC to compete was swift.
The first Champion departed New York’s Penn Station at 12:30pm December 1st 1939 arriving in Jacksonville the next morning at 6:45. The FEC set was on the first run using FEC E3A #1002, with Baggage dorm coach “New Smyrna Beach”, two 60 seat coaches “Cocoa-Rockledge & Pompano”, Dining Car “Fort Pierce”, 60 seat coach “ Boca Raton”, 52 seat host coach “Vero Beach”, and Tavern Observation Car “Bay Biscayne”. The two ACL’s sets used E3A 500 & 501, with Baggage dorm coaches 100 & 101, two 60 seat coaches each 200, 202, 201, & 203, Dining Cars Philadelphia, & New York, one 60 seat coach each 204, & 205, one 52 seat host coach each 206, & 207, and Tavern Observation cars 250, & 251. One train set was even number cars with the diner New York, the other was odd numbers with diner Philadelphia which was the second set to start Champion service.
Jacksonville service was very convenient with morning arrivals form the north to the south, and afternoon arrivals from the south to the north. The trains were serviced here in both directions by Jacksonville Terminal Co. New York-Miami trains for ACL/FEC were able to pull through Jacksonville Terminal while Seaboard had to back in.
The success was immediate and the trains grew from 7 car consists to 14 with the addition of more locomotives and cars in 1941. The trains continued to be “all reserved seat coaches”. A new season started with the East Coast Tamiami Champion and a West Coast Tamiami Champion in mid 1941 running in two sections as East Coast 1&2, and West Coast 91&92. These trains received heavyweight Pullman Sleeping Cars painted aluminum to blend in with the streamline train. The Pullman Car configurations were;
10-1-2, 6-6, 10-2-1, & 8-5. ACL trains were delivered in all silver with Purple Letter board and name plates while FEC cars were all silver. Both railroads later changed all running gear to black with all ACL cars receiving black roofs and many of FEC’s also.
In the winter season of 1941-42 the East Coast Champion was back and without sleepers. The summer of 1942 it was again the East Coast Tamiami Champion still without sleepers. At this time Jacksonville saw 100 trains a day along with freight and express service of war time business. By the end of 1942 the Office of Defense Transportation took control of passenger service stopping winter season trains like the Orange Blossom Special and Florida Special. Pullmans were again added to the East Coast Tamiami Champion # 7 & 8, but was allowed to keep a second all coach section #1 & 2 on the East Coast side. The East & West Coast Tamiami Champions remained much the same until the end of the war with the exception of the name Tamiami would know longer be used after the spring of 1944.
In 1946 ACL and FEC were joined by PRR and RF&P in ordering new cars to refit the East and West Coast Champions with more Baggage dorm coaches, coaches, lounge coaches, diners, new streamline sleeping cars, and blunt end tavern observations for rear and mid train service. Many of these cars had been ordered before the war and could now be built. Meanwhile from 1946-47 both the East Coast and West Coast Champions were once again all reserved seat coach trains, this was the first all coach West Coast Champion. By the end of 1947 the West Coast Champion regained heavyweight sleepers. By summer of 1947 the new cars began to arrive, the new E7’s also teamed up with the pre-war E3 and E6 diesels for the new longer trains reaching an average of 18 cars. In the summer of 1949 the Champions gained new streamline sleeping cars and first class lounge sleepers. At this time ACL began rebuilding heavyweight coaches to resemble the new steam-line cars inside for additional space when needed, and painted purple and silver to match the locomotives. .
From 1941 the West Coast Champion/ West Coast Tamiami Champion’s were split in Jacksonville for Tampa via Sanford subdivision and St Petersburg via Ocala sub. In 1957 through cars from the City of Miami/ South Wind were added to the West Coast Champion’s both Tampa and St Pete Sections. JTC did many switching operations on the Champions which included changing engines, add or take off head end equipment, change out diners, add or delete coaches and sleepers from or for connecting trains along with servicing and inspection with running repairs made. Equipment continued to arrive with new E8’s for ACL and E9’s for FEC along with more coaches, and diners to replace older engines and cars into the mid 1950’s. ACL discontinued the round end observation cars in the mid 50’s due to additional switching operations. ACL had also reached 100 MPH speeds along the Richmond- Jacksonville mainline for a 24 hr New York Miami schedule.
As passenger traffic started to decline ACL and FEC started to look for cost cutting measures without sacrifice to service. The most noticeable was in 1958 ACL purple gave way to black and yellow and around 1960 FEC’s red and yellow went blue. In the mid 50’s all the way through the end of SCL the Champion vacation packages were very successful. When ACL couldn’t get new equipment they bought the best available from C&O, B&O, NYC, Katy, & RF&P to keep the high standards for their passengers into SCL until Amtrak took over operations.
One of the biggest upsets was the Florida East Coast strike in January 1963. After the 50th anniversary for the Florida Special, the winter season came to an abrupt end for ACL/FEC through passenger service, never to be again. ACL rerouted the East Coast Champion over the ACL Sanford subdivision to Auburndale were it was switched over to the Seaboard as a extra train into Miami. This practice was to become a regular train. In the mid 1960’s, the off-season Champion became a single train north of Jacksonville. South of Jacksonville the train was switched and combined for all three coasts. The sections became split up for the Miami bound Champion with either the City of Miami or South Wind and run as 1&2/5&6 via Sanford-Auburndale-Miami. The Tampa Bound Champion was combined with the City of Miami or South Wind as 91&92 via Sanford-Tampa, and St Pete Bound Champion with City of Miami or South Wind as 191&192, via Ocala Sub, all out of Jacksonville, all with first class accommodations.
With the advent of Seaboard Coast Line in July 1967 the East Coast Champion ran one more season, by December 1967 the “Champion” became a New York-Tampa Train with a section to St Pete out of Jacksonville via Ocala. The Champion made its new St Pete connection from Tampa after April 1968 via a Seaboard connection to Clearwater. The City of Miami/ South Wind section out of Jacksonville now used the Ocala subdivision until Amtrak.
On May 1st 1971 Amtrak took over all SCL passenger operations. The Champion continued as a fine 18 car train with all its amenities, first class lounge sleepers, two dining cars, and regular lounge service along with Budget Room Coaches, started by ACL in the 60’s as a thrifty way of private travel.
On January 3,1974 all Passenger Trains were re-routed to the Jacksonville Clifford Lane Station closing Jacksonville Terminal Passenger operations. In the late 70’s Amtrak put the ex-Seaboard’s Silver Meteor’s “Sun Lounge” sleepers and Round End Observation cars on the Champion, it was their last service. A budget cut ended the Champion on October 1st 1979 along with Florida- Chicago’s “Floridian” on October 8th . This was the true end of First Class Passenger Trains in the United States. The ironic side of this story is to this day the Amtrak Silver Meteor runs on the West Coast Champions route from New York to Auburndale Florida!