The year was 1965, I was 10 years old and in Grade 5 at school in my home town of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. The time of year was Easter and I was about to go on a vacation with my mother that I will never forget. We were about to go on a train trip and while the train would take me from Canada to Florida, it would also take me on a time warp journey from Winter to Summer in only 72 hours.
Of course you can jump on an airplane and do the same thing in a matter of hours, you don’t get to witness the transformation. You just leave one and arrive at the other. What I witnessed on my journey was a transformation from one season to the next and then the next.
We left my hometown of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada in the morning on an all day trip to Winnipeg, Manitoba. It was Easter vacation from school and I was excused from class for 2 weeks rather than the one week allowed my fellow classmates due to the nature of the trip we were undertaking.
It was an 11 hour journey to Winnipeg on the train when there was good weather and no delays. I hadn’t mentioned that Spring in Western Canada usually arrived when it wanted to rather than when we were ready for it. In this particular mid April in 1965 it was not yet ready to come and our journey to Winnipeg was a very white one as we were faced with a blizzard of snow and blowing snow.
In the United States at that time freight trains had to pull to sidings and wait while passenger trains whisked by. Canadian passenger trains in contrast had to wait in sidings while the freights sped by. And wait we did. I remember sitting on a siding in the village of Rivers, Manitoba while the view out the window was nothing but whiteness. The ground was white, the air was white and the sky was white in what we would call the white-out conditions of a blizzard. The hot sunny beaches of Florida seemed a long way off indeed.
Even at the age of ten, I was a veteran of this sort of travel having taken the train to Chicago several times and even all the way to Florida once before. We were traveling on Canadian National Railway‘s transcontinental train named the “Super Continental”. My mother would pass the time making a scrapbook journal, writing about our journey as we went and pasting momentos of our trip onto the pages.
The first page or two would be divided in half lengthwise so that she wrote on the left side of the page and I would write my own experiences of the journey on the right. I don’t know if I added any words to the second page or not. It was a wonderful idea and in later years I certainly wished I had kept up my half of the writing but I was much too preoccupied with the excitement of the trip to take the time to record it.
In the end the journal would contain writings by my mother as well as timetables and sugar packets from each of the railroads we travelled on. It was truly wondrous to go back through it in later years and recollect all the details of our trip. There would be picture postcards from various places and all sorts of travel brochures describing the places we visited.
Finally arriving in Winnipeg we had to change trains. The next leg of the trip would be an overnight journey on the Great Northern Railway from Winnipeg south to St. Paul, Minnesota. The Great Northern “Winnipeg Limited” as it was called was painted in and orange with green colouring making it brighter than the olive and black of the Canadian National.
Pulling out of Winnipeg it was an hour journey to the border crossing from Emerson, Manitoba to Noyes, Minnesota. The customs and immigration officers would board the train in Emerson and make their way quickly and efficiently through the train looking at identification occasionally and asking questions at times. By the time the train had arrived in Noyes they would be done with their job and get off the train there.
We would continue through the night making stops in Grand Forks and Fargo, North Dakota before greeting the daylight somewhere around Fergus Falls, Minnesota. I can remember marvelling at how busy the streets of Fargo looked at 2 in the morning. We would be having our breakfast as we passed through St. Cloud, Minnesota and back to our seats as we made our way into and through Minneapolis on the way to St. Paul.
In St. Paul we would again be changing trains to go to Chicago. We would be riding on the bright yellow cars of the Milwaukee Road’s Morning Hiawatha going to Chicago. The Morning Hiawatha traveled from Minneapolis through Milwaukee to Chicago and it would have been possible to change trains in Minneapolis but that would have required that we change train stations as well as trains. St. Paul’s station was a “Union Station” and both railroads used the same facility.
As well as changing trains in St. Paul, we were also changing seasons as the blizzard had been left behind in Manitoba and the snow on the ground had also disappeared during the night. What greeted us this morning was a very flooded Mississippi River. Spring had arrived in the Twin Cities and all manner of items were to be seen floating in the Mississippi River.
We travelled down the west bank of the Mississippi through the Minnesota cities of Red Wing and Winona. We saw everything from trash cans to houses floating alongside the train. South of Winona the train crossed the Mississippi on a series of bridges to the city of LaCrosse, Wisconsin. The sun shone through the windows as we made our way through rural Wisconsin to another of the scenic highlights of the journey … the Dells of the Wisconsin River where red and yellow rock promontories greeted us out the windows of the train.
One highlight of the Hiawatha trains was the grand observation cars with their windows looking out to the sky above as well as the scenery alongside the train. Wisconsin is such a pretty state and we would travel through towns with interesting names like Watertown and Oconomowoc. I was always fascinated riding through Milwaukee as the track was elevated and it was fun to watch the traffic pass below us on the cross thoroughfares.
From Milwaukee we were only an hour and a half from Chicago and we would need to start getting ready to get off the train there. Chicago was a special place as my mother grew up there and she had a sister in the city and a brother in the northwestern suburbs. All the way through Wisconsin and into Illinois it seemed that Spring was advancing toward summer.
Rather than flooding in the Chicago area we were to learn that an F4 tornado had been in the area and done considerable damage to the suburbs of Crystal Lake and Island Lake which was near where my uncle and his family lived. We had traveled for 36 hours and passed from the dead of winter to mid-spring. We would stop here in Chicago for a week to visit family and then continue to Florida completing our journey to summer.
Leaving Chicago we would be on one train all the way to Jacksonville, Florida. That train was called “The South Wind“. There were three different railroads involved in the journey and they would each have some of their cars on this one train but it involved the Pennsylvania Railroad from Chicago to Louisville via Indianapolis, The Louisville & Nashville Railroad from Louisville to Montgomery via Bowling Green, Nashville, Decatur and Birmingham and finally the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad from Montgomery to Jacksonville via Thomasville and Waycross.
And we left Chicago traveling the length of the state of Indiana passing into Kentucky and as we did so the season continued to change. By the time we were in Kentucky it was May and the grass was truly summer blue. The further we went the warmer the air and the lusher the scenery.
One sad note was in Jacksonville, Florida. We had traveled this route before in 1958 and in Jacksonville we transferred to the Florida East Coast Railroad for our final leg to Daytona Beach. However in 1965 the Florida East Coast Railroad was no longer operating and we had to take a Greyhound bus from Jacksonville to Daytona Beach.
We found ourselves outside the train station in Jacksonville looking for a cab to get to the Greyhound Station. We had seen signs directing us to the taxi stand and taxis would go by but none would pull to the curb to pick us up. Finally someone approached and asked what we thought we were doing there and we told them we needed a taxi to get to the Greyhound station. They said we were in the wrong place and had to go around the corner to another street if we wanted a taxi. That was where “whites” got the taxi. We had been standing in the “coloured” taxi loading area.
Our destination was Holly Hill, Florida…. a suburb of Daytona Beach and it was truly summer there. The sun was hot and the afternoons brought their thunderstorms. I remember walking a mile to the beach from where we were staying, getting drenched with rain on the way, and our clothes being totally sun-dried for the walk home afterward.
I did a lot of traveling as a child and for those considering traveling with children, I can assure you the trips you take as a child stay with you for a lifetime. I took an extra week off from school, and had to make it up of course, but I learned far more on those trips than I ever could in a week of school.
My mother’s uncle lived in Holly Hill and we stayed there for a few days but actually we did not end our trip there. We got back on a Greyhound bus and continued down the Florida coast to Miami and with a change of bus we were off to Key West. Key West is the furthest point the highway reaches as it goes from one island to another on a series of bridges stretching for 100 miles (160 km) from Key Largo to Key West.
The Florida East Coast Railway was started by Henry Flagler who saw much opportunity in developing the east coast of Florida. He built his railway down the east coast from Jacksonville to Miami and eventually all the way to Key West. The section to Key West was fated to doom however as in 1906 and again in 1935 the track was destroyed by hurricanes.
We had gone as far as we could in the United States. We were at the southernmost point in Key West. And yet we were not done. We went back on the bus to Miami where we headed for the cruise dock and took a 3 day cruise to Nassau in the Bahamas. What a trip !!! But I had 2 new straw hats from the straw market in Nassau.
I had been studying maps at home as I had done since I was very young and I pointed out to my mother how close Nassau was to Miami. That was all it took. Her little 11 year old travel agent had sold her on the trip of a lifetime!