By Dakota Parks for Pensacola Magazine
Long before automobiles and airplanes, railways served as the beating heart of the Industrial Revolution, provided easier transportation of goods, safer travel for passengers and even led to the standardization of time zones. Here in West Florida, the Pensacola and Atlantic Railroad, chartered in 1881, connected Pensacola across the sparsely populated Panhandle through thickets of cypress swamps and pine forests. Along the 160 miles of tracks, two train depots were built in Milton and Marianna, the largest two towns along the route. Located within the historic Milton depot, built in 1909 to replace the original 1882 building that was lost in a fire, lies the West Florida Railroad Museum that is dedicated to preserving the local history of railways throughout our region and educating future generations to come.
The L&N Milton combination freight and passenger depot is one of the few depots in America that has not only been preserved but is also still located on its original working grounds. Guests can walk the museum complex exploring train memorabilia and still feel the rattling of a passing train beneath their feet as modern- day trains pass the depot. The station was closed in 1973, purchased and partially restored by the Santa Rosa Historical Society. The West Florida Railroad Museum opened inside the depot in 1989, completing the restoration.
Train enthusiast and former pilot, George Wilson, has been volunteering and leading tours at the museum for more than 15 years. For him, the children running down the wooden depot corridors and marveling at the model trains are what keep him coming back. The museum offers public and private tours, class field trips and rental of its 1929 dining car for birthday parties and special events. In the winter, the museum also offers a Polar Express experience with hot chocolate and cookies inside the vintage dining car while volunteers dressed as conductors read from the book.
“We want to preserve the history and we want to make this an educational experience, but we also want it to be fun for children, so they keep coming back and learning more,” Wilson said. “We’re a railroad museum, so that means we teach about railroads. But I also teach a lot more than that. I can show you history about architecture, transportation, commerce, math, war, communication and technology. I can take you from the telegraph and morse code to the radio and telephone. This train station was the hub to the entire community. If you wanted to send a telegraph message or ship a package, you came here. There is so much history in these walls.”
The museum complex features the original train depot, the Bridge Tender’s House with a miniature HO model railroad depicting 1950s-era Northwest Florida, a section shed that rail workers used to maintain the tracks, the Garden Railway with an outdoor G-scale train layout as well as several vintage railroad cars. The railroad cars exhibited on the property include the L&N Dining Car 2722, L&N caboose 1148, Frisco caboose 1102, L&N boxcar 18050, L&N flat car 21107 and the former L&N baggage- dormitory car 1652, which was used by the Atomic Energy Commission in the 1960s to haul nuclear material for atomic and hydrogen weapons. Housed within the depot walls are the original ticket counters, baggage room, waiting room and the Railway Express Agency, where museum guests can learn about telecommunications, train routes and the significant impact the railroad had on the local timber industry and population growth across the West Florida region.
Historical remnants of the segregated South still remain such as the depot’s original triple entrances that were marked for men, women and “colored” before the Civil Rights Act. In the adjoining freight house, visitors can see train memorabilia like a coal burning steam engine, coffin cart, luggage scale and 100-year-old train car seats. Across from the depot, is the Bridge Tenders House, which once stood by the swing bridge in the middle of the old Escambia Bay trestle before it was replaced in 1989. The prior two houses were destroyed by hurricanes in 1906 and 1926, claiming the lives of the bridge tender’s family in 1906 that tried to ride out the storm. Now it houses the miniature train diorama of 1950s-era Northwest Florida complete with the Milton depot and stretching all the way to the Pensacola depot that is now the lobby of the Pensacola Grand Hotel.
Fellow train enthusiast and Club Treasurer Peggy Humbert first discovered the West Florida Railroad Museum in 2015 when she joined the Emerald Coast Garden Railway Club, located at the back of the property. Members of the club help maintain the tracks, pull weeds, trim plants and, in exchange, can bring their own trains to run on the track system. The garden G-scale train layout attracts children, families and train enthusiasts alike to marvel at the immaculately landscaped garden with small plants and detailed figurines. Children, ages 3 to 12, are also invited to take a ride on the gondola-style train cars which surround the entire garden.
“We have about 35 members, and the trains are owned by the members. So, what you see running today in the garden could be totally different tomorrow or next week” Humbert explained. “In addition to having a fixed layout here that we operate every week, we take layouts to various national train shows. It gives exposure to the museum as well as the City of Milton, because we carry a display board that has some information about Milton and the museum.”
When they aren’t giving tours or maintaining the Garden Railway, museum volunteers and staff are busy working on preservation, repairs and fundraising to continue sharing the legacy of this historic local landmark.
“We have projects going on constantly,” Wilson explained. There is always something being repaired—be it the plumbing in the restroom or fixing shingles that blew off the roof. It’s just like anybody else that owns a home. The problem we run into is that a lot of our materials are no longer manufactured. So, we have to come up with some sort of alternative to use. For example, when we replaced some of the wood siding on the exterior, we had to have blades made specifically to mill the lumber so it would match what was there, because they don’t make that kind of lumber anymore. The goal is to keep it authentic.”
The West Florida Railroad Museum is currently undergoing one of its biggest restoration projects to raise $100,000 needed to restore the old rusted and corroded train cars and make some much- needed repairs to buildings on the property. By 2022, they hope to have both cabooses and passenger cars repainted to help them weather the sands of time. The museum recently brought in a welder to begin restoration work on the L&N Dining Car 2722, which they rent out for parties and special events.
“Preserving this depot allows us to share the history and make it personal,” Humbert said. “There are so many things that happened in this area that people don’t have any idea about. If we don’t preserve those things, they can’t learn and understand why they happened. I think it’s not just the history, it’s our culture, and it’s what makes us who we are. It helps us understand how we became the people we are, and I think that’s an important facet of it.”
Whether you’re a history buff, a train aficionado or you’re looking for a family-friendly outing for the holidays, the West Florida Railroad Museum has a little of something for everyone. The museum is open from 10 am until 3 pm from Wednesday- Saturday and is located at 5003 Henry Street, Milton, Florida. For more information or to donate to the restoration project, you can visit wfrm.org.