Stuart Ferguson Florida Historical Society
The following article appeared in The Wall Street Journal on May 28, 2009. This article is reprinted with the permission of its author, Stuart Ferguson. Mr. Ferguson is the 2009 Rossetter House Foundation Scholar of the Florida Historical Society. We hope as a Straight Track subscriber, you enjoy this piece on rail history.
Seeing Henry Morrison Flagler and John Ringling's private railroad cars -- their interiors, furniture and opalescent glass skylights gleaming from recent renovations -- you'd never know that by the 1950s one had become housing for migrant farm workers, and another a fishing shack. Now, thanks to the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach, Fla., and the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Fla., visitors can get a glimpse of the lives of tycoons whose careers were so closely intertwined with rail travel.
Flagler (1830-1913) created the Florida East Coast Railway (FEC), and Ringling (1866-1936) was advance man for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, owned by him and four of his six brothers. Both men used their cars for business and only incidentally for pleasure.
The Florida East Coast Railway, which stretched to Key West, created the tourism and real-estate industries that have characterized the state since the end of the 19th century. Flagler's luxurious hotels in Palm Beach and Miami turned those sleepy villages into resort meccas. He made his fortune as John D. Rockefeller's partner in Standard Oil, then adopted Florida as his winter home, where, in 1902, he built (with his third wife, Mary Lily Kenan) Whitehall in Palm Beach. That magnificent Gilded Age palazzo is now the Flagler Museum, its lavish parade of reception rooms housing old-master paintings, as well as artifacts relating to Flagler's life and the FEC.
Next to Whitehall is the new Flagler Kenan Pavilion, the home of the FEC's No. 91, Flagler's personal railcar. The 8,100-square-foot, Beaux Arts pavilion, designed by the Smith Architectural Group, recalls the glamorous age of rail travel. Its skylights and gigantic windows overlooking Lake Worth provide just the right atmosphere for Car 91, part of the first scheduled train to roll into Key West on Jan. 22, 1912.
In his book "Last Train to Paradise," about Flagler's construction of the monumental Overseas Railroad connecting the Keys (destroyed in the great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935), author Les Standiford describes the car, built in 1886 by the Jackson & Sharp Co. of Wilmington, Del. Costing $70,000, it was a "copper-roofed pleasure palace . . . containing a Victorian-styled, wood-paneled lounge, sleeping berths for visitors, and a private stateroom with bath for Flagler. There was a copper-lined shower, a dining area, and a small food preparation area with an ice box and wood stove."
Today, Car 91 looks better then ever, with no sign of its period as farm housing in Virginia. The museum rescued it back in 1959, restoring and displaying the car on the south lawn of Whitehall, site of the new pavilion. The museum refurbished it again before installing it in the pavilion's climate-controlled interior. Curator Tracy Kamerer told me she is proud that visitors can walk through the car, examining every detail of its yacht-like appointments.
In the Ringling's Circus Museum building in Sarasota, one must view John and Mable Ringling's railcar, the Wisconsin, from the outside -- because it's still being worked on. During my visit, conservation technician David Piurek was reapplying 23.5-karat gold leaf to the stenciling in the staterooms.
The Ringlings used the Wisconsin from 1905 to 1916; after a varied history it ended up as a fishing lodge in Morehead City, N.C. Tracked down by circus enthusiast Howard Tibbals in 1985, it was acquired by the North Carolina Transportation Museum, which in turn donated it to the Ringling in 2003. It's now part of a 66-acre site that in addition to the Circus Museum also includes Mr. and Mrs. Ringling's art collection and their Venetian fantasy of a mansion, the Cà d'Zan, whose terrace steps descend into Sarasota Bay.
A $400,000 Federal grant helped pay for restoration of the Wisconsin's exterior, carried out by the Edwards Rail Car Co. in Montgomery, Ala. An anonymous donation of $100,000 is helping to bring the Wisconsin's interiors back to their Gilded Age sheen; the project should be completed by the end of this year. Visitors walk along a raised platform and stick their heads through the Wisconsin's windows to admire what's already been accomplished, or turn to the other side of the ramp and watch as the colored glass and other fittings are cleaned and restored in an open workspace below. My guides at the Ringling included curator Deborah Walk; conservator Michelle Scalera; and restoration consultant and railroad historian David Duncan, who owns his own railroad car.
The Wisconsin's interiors are mahogany and other woods, decorated with elaborate moldings and gold-leaf stencils. The 10-foot high ceilings are painted Viva Gold, Baize Green and Fiery Brown. There are toilets in each compartment, and the Ringlings had a private bathroom, including tub. The rear compartment in the 79-foot car is the observation room, which could be used as a lounge or office. There are also crew quarters and a kitchen. All rooms get extra daylight from a clerestory of opalescent glass.
Taylor Gordon, Mr. Ringling's valet and steward on the Wisconsin (he later became a singer and part of the Harlem Renaissance), recalled his days aboard the car in his memoir, "Born to Be." "[Ringling] gave me orders to get the car in shape . . . and stock up heavy with special things like Pilsner beer, Poland Water and White Rock; special foods like Virginia Hams and Summer Brothers' products that could not be brought on the road -- also liquors." (From a bill of lading for the Wisconsin's inaugural journey, we know that Ringling preferred rye whiskey.) When the Wisconsin was hooked onto the Ringling circus train, it was usually placed in the middle.
If you want to ride this story to the end of the line in Sarasota, have lunch at "Bob's Train" restaurant, on a rail spur downtown, next to the Sarasota Boxing Club. Owned by railroad and circus enthusiast Bob Horne, Bob's Train consists of 1950s-era cars arranged for dining and decorated with mementos from the Ringling and other circuses that made Sarasota their winter headquarters. At the end of the train, its windows boarded up and paint faded, sits the JomaR, John and Mable Ringling's replacement for the aging Wisconsin; it was later owned by Ringling's nephew, John Ringling North.
Until rescued in 2004 by Mr. Horne and his friends, the JomaR was on a nearby rail spur, home for vagrants and squatters who vandalized its interiors. As a favor, Mr. Horne unlocked the doors and led me through the crumbling car, baking in the heat of a late April afternoon. The world outside could be glimpsed through decaying walls. Much -- but not all -- of the original interior is missing, and what remains, including the bathtub, is covered in graffiti and filth. Mr. Horne has begun his own amateur restoration and obviously loves the JomaR -- but he does not seem to have lots of ready cash. I bet John Ringling, himself broke after the onset of the Depression, would understand and wish him well.