Last revised: December 4, 2023
By: Adam Burns
Florida's history with trains can be traced all of the way back to the 5-foot gauge Tallahassee Railroad, which opened 22 miles between Tallahassee and St. Marks in 1837.
However, the state's modern involvement with the iron horse is credited to Henry Flagler. He became involved with the region's flimsy rail network in mid-1880s, and went on to create the Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) in 1895.
The FEC, which remains in corporate existence today, single-handedly developed most of Florida's vacation destinations along the Atlantic coastline. While the railroad is no longer in the passenger business transporting folks to popular resorts it remains a successful freight line that maintains a double-tracked corridor from Jacksonville to Miami.
Until the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 destroyed a great deal of its right-of-way, the railroad also boasted a link to Key West via the famous "Key West Extension." If still in service today, this line would be a very popular tourist attraction.
Two other important railroads to serve Florida included the Atlantic Coast Line and Seaboard Air Line, both of which maintained routes to Miami, as well as the Gulf Coast. Both railroads also maintained popular long-distance vacation trains that continued to boast strong ridership well into the 1960s, a time during which most other services were being downgraded or discontinued.
The Seminole Gulf Railway attempts to bring back a semblance of these fondly remembered trains where freshly prepared, exquisite dinners were provided during the trip.
The Seminole Gulf Railway is actually a freight railroad which hosts a very popular Murder Mystery Dinner Train that is well known for the on-board meals they serve (including wine and alcohol).
Throughout the year the railroad hosts a number of different "mysteries" as well as special events for the holidays.
Today, you have your choice of a standard excursion during, or the very popular Murder Mystery Train that includes a fine dinner and show. These trains have been running out of Fort Myers since 1991, making the Seminole Gulf one of the oldest such experiences in the country.
The railroad's trips offer a beautiful look at southwest Florida by rail as trains travel north out of Fort Myers for a 12-mile round trip that lasts for 3 hours.
Altogether, the railroad actually owns over 100 miles of track from roughly Bonita Springs to Arcadia, via Fort Myers and Punta Gorda. The track was formerly owned by the Atlantic Coast Line, another notable Florida railroad, which maintained a significant presence in the state and hosted popular long-distance passenger trains.
Its trains are led by historic streamlined "F" units, whose heritage date back to over a half-century to railroads no longer in existence. The Seminole Gulf runs a total of four cars on its excursion whose names include the Sanibel, Marco, Gasparilla and Captiva.
(Closed: April, 2019)
The Orlando & North Western was inaugurated in 2017 when it took over excursion service for what was previously known as the Tavares, Eustis & Gulf (which proclaimed itself as the "Orange Blossom Cannonball").
When the latter organization was forced to shutdown following a dispute with the Florida Central Railroad, owner of the trackage, it also ended trips powered by what was the only standard-gauge steam locomotive operating in Florida, 2-6-0 #2 built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1907.
The O&NW, otherwise known as "The Royal Palm Railway Experience," transformed the excursion experience into a first-class operation with well-maintained equipment, historic diesel locomotives wearing either attractive or historic paint schemes, and numerous special events (including for the holidays) throughout the year, including dinner trains.
Unfortunately, the operation also ran into a dispute with the Florida Central when the freight carrier declined to maintain the Tavares-Mount Dora section to passenger standards in 2019. As a result, the O&NW shutdown that April.