The Silver Meteor

On February 2, 1939, shortly after Dieselizing the Orange Blossom Special, Seaboard inaugurated the Silver Meteor, a Budd-built coach train between New York and Florida pulled by an E-4 locomotive. Initially, Seaboard purchased a single, seven-car train set, allowing service every three days, with the train alternating between Miami on Florida’s east coast and St. Petersburg on Florida’s west coast. The train was so successful that in July Seaboard ordered two more trainsets to make the train daily in December, 1939.

Did the Silver Meteor really go by a wetland featuring pink flamingos? Maybe not, but that wouldn’t keep the illustrator from adding flamingos to this postcard. Click image for a larger view.

The Silver Meteor was not quite as fast as the Orange Blossom Special mainly because it made more stops. Between Richmond and Wildwood, Florida (where the Special and, starting in June, the Meteor were split into Miami and Tampa-St. Petersburg sections), the Special made just one stop (probably for servicing and crew change), while the Meteor made nine. The Meteor also made three extra stops between Wildwood and Miami. Yet the Meteor required only 30 extra minutes to go from New York to Miami.

The cover of the February 18, 1939 Railway Age features a General Motors ad for the E-4s used on the Silver Meteor. Click image for a larger view.

The February, 1939 train, pulled by a single E-4 locomotive, closely resembled the El Capitan, which Santa Fe had introduced in February, 1938. Like the Santa Fe train, the Meteor consisted of a baggage/dorm/coach (the El Cap‘s had 32 seats; the Meteor only 22, which in the Jim Crow era were reserved for blacks), a diner, observation, and coaches. Unlike the El Capitan, which had only two 52-seat coaches for a total of 136 revenue seats, the Silver Meteor had three 60-seat coaches and a coach-lounge car with 30 revenue seats and 30 lounge seats. The Meteor‘s observation car also had 30 revenue coach seats, for a total of around 262 revenue seats.

Click image to download a PDF of this ad from the February 18, 1939 Railway Age.

Like other Budd trains, the Silver Meteor was planned with the help of the Paul Crét architecture firm, and had interior decorations by such artists as Mary Lawser. Small interior photos of the train can be seen in this Athenaeum of Philadelphia site, but a subscription is required to see enlargements.

As with the green of the locomotives on the Orange Blossom Special, it is likely that the illustrator of this postcard used a much brighter green than the actual color of these streamlined steam locomotives. Click image for a larger view.

The two trains added in December, 1939 were longer because they included cars owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad. Starting December 1, the train was daily to Miami with a section going to St. Petersburg only every third day. With the delivery of additional PRR cars, the St. Petersburg section went daily on December 29. A typical consist included the baggage-dorm-coach, five 56-seat coaches (one source says these coaches had 60 seats but Budd says 56); two 48-seat diners; the tavern-coach; and an observation car with 30 revenue coach seats. Two coaches and a diner went to St. Petersburg and the rest went to Miami. Nearly every train was sold out, so by mid-1940 Seaboard and Pennsylvania added several more Budd coaches, and Seaboard ordered special blunt-end observation cars that could be used mid-train to Wildwood and then on the end of the St. Petersburg section.

The shade of green on the locomotive in this postcard looks more realistic than that of the steam locomotive above or of the Orange Blossom Special postcards. Click image for a larger view.

In 1941, Seaboard added heavyweight sleepers to the consist, which then required more locomotives. To provide enough locomotives for all of its passenger trains, Seaboard streamlined three Pacific-type steam locomotives, numbers 865, 867, and 868, and used them to haul the St. Petersburg section of the Silver Meteor between Wildwood and St. Pete. This was only needed for about a year, after which the streamlined shrouding was removed from the locomotives.

The intrepid Steve Brown rode the Silver Meteor in the 1960s and photographed the drumhead on one of the blunt-end observation cars used on the St. Petersburg section. Unlike the Atlantic Coast Line, Santa Fe, Union Pacific, and many other railroads, Seaboard did not succumb to the temptation of removing observation cars when passenger traffic declined.

Most railroads put sleeping cars at the back of the train, away from the noise of the locomotive and giving first-class passengers exclusive access to the observation lounge. But the Silver Meteor observation cars were part coaches, so Seaboard put the sleepers up front.

This appears to be a luggage stick and it combines an image of the E-4 locomotive with the train’s drumhead. Thanks to Tampa Flickr user XV, also known as Silver Meteors, for permission to use this photo. Click image for a larger view.

In 1947, Seaboard received new stainless-steel equipment for the Silver Meteor, at which time the older trains were renamed the Silver Star. Each 1947 train had six 52-seat coaches; two diners; six streamlined sleepers, all with 10 roomettes and 6 double-bedrooms; and a sleeper-lounge with six double-bedrooms. Again, the train split at Wildwood with two sleepers and two coaches going to St. Petersburg, and a third sleeper on the St. Petersburg section going all the way to Venice.

The Hollywood Beach is a lounge-sleeper added to the Silver Meteor in 1955. The windows in the lounge portion of the car appear even taller than those on the Great Northern’s Mountain-series and New York Central’s Creek-series observation cars. Click photo for a larger view; Flickr photo by John Mueller.

At that time, the railroad offered as many as five daily trains between New York and Florida: the winter-only Orange Blossom Special, the streamlined Silver Meteor, mixed streamlined-heavyweight Silver Star, and heavyweight Palmland and Sunland, that made many local stops. The Meteor and Star operated several hours apart, giving people a choice of departures, and the Star‘s trip was only about a half-hour longer than the Meteor‘s.

In addition to the skylights, note the fake shutters in front that appear to offer a view of Florida palm trees. Click image to download a PDF of this postcard.

In 1955, Seaboard re-equpped the Silver Meteor one more time, including a special Sun Lounge car for sleeping car passengers that had five extra-large windows on each side as well as skylights. Though nowhere near as interesting as a dome car, it offered extra light (and extra air conditioning demands) for passengers headed to or from sunny Florida. The three Sun Lounge cars were called Hollywood Beach, Miami Beach, and Palm Beach and each had five double-bedrooms as well as the lounge.

When Steve Brown photographed the Sun Lounge, it appeared little different from the 1955 postcard shown above. The palm trees in the mural at the front of the car differ from those in the postcard, probably because Seaboard used a different beach photo in each of its three Sun Lounges. Another refreshing difference is that African Americans in Steve’s photo are passengers, and not simply servants.


The Silver Meteor — 1 Comment

  1. I have 2 of those Silver Meteor luggage stick that combines an image of the E-4 locomotive with the train’s drumhead.
    They have never been used and are in great condition because they have preserved in plastic holders.
    The only story I can share about them is that my late father was a passionate passenger train enthusiast.

    I doubt you will find ones in better condition. You can clearly see the embossing on the back. They look in better condition than the one in the photo.

    Any one interested in them, give me a reasonable price and they are yours.

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