U.S. Sugar Corp. in Clewiston will fully restore and then operate ACL #1504.
City Council approved transferring the historic locomotive displayed at the Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center to U.S. Sugar Corp., which will transport the steam engine to Clewiston, restore it and put it back in limited service.
The vote June 8 was 16-2, with Council members Matt Carlucci and Randy DeFoor voting against Ordinance 2021-293.
Carlucci said while he voted to approve the bill in committee, he would like a couple of weeks to determine if someone in Jacksonville would like to see the train remain.
“We might go ahead and think this one through,” Carlucci said.
DeFoor said she objects to the locomotive having to leave Jacksonville to head off its gradual decline.
“Shame on us for not taking care of it,” DeFoor said.
Brian Hughes, Mayor Lenny Curry’s chief administrative officer, said the plan to sell the steam engine was approved by the Planning Department and several Council committees, based on the fact that restoration and use hasn’t happened in the 35 years since the locomotive was placed outdoors at the convention center, where it is deteriorating.
“It’s a giant paperweight in a parking lot,” Hughes said.
The North Florida Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society Inc. has a contract to transfer the locomotive to Sugar Express LLC, a division of U.S. Sugar in Clewiston. After the cosmetic and mechanical restoration, U.S. Sugar will operate the locomotive as a tourist train to offer short-line passenger excursions on the company’s 230,000-acre property near Lake Okeechobee.
The ordinance states that the society’s chapter will use the proceeds of the sale or transfer of ACL 1504 to Sugar Express to fund the “NFC-NRHS/Sugar Express Railroad Educational Scholarship” to provide financial assistance to Duval County high school students who wish to attend the National Railway Historical Society Rail Camp and other activities of the society.
After the locomotive is operational, Sugar Express has agreed that ticket sales from a fundraising excursion will be used by NFC-NRHS for rail preservation projects and further endowment of the scholarship fund, the ordinance states.
While moving #1504, a Downtown landmark since 1960, is not the best-case scenario, it is the only option to save the locomotive, said John Holmgren, spokesman for the historical society.
“Time and the Florida weather will do what it does,” Holmgren said.
The locomotive first hit the tracks in 1919, pulling passengers on trains including the Miamian, the Florida Special, the Palmetto Limited, the Southland, the South Wind and the Dixie Flyer.
After diesel locomotives went into service on the ACL after World War II, #1504 was used for freight service. It was retired and placed into storage in 1952.
The locomotive’s first cosmetic and mechanical restoration was completed in 1960. It went on display outside the Atlantic Coast Line’s new corporate headquarters building Downtown along the Northbank, now the home of CSX.
When the former Jacksonville Terminal Co. Depot was converted into the Prime Osborn in 1986, #1504 again was cosmetically restored, donated to the city by the railroad and placed on a platform in the parking lot.
The depot was built in 1919, the same year as the locomotive, and #1504 spent its early life pulling passenger trains in and out of the terminal on trains that ran between Jacksonville and Richmond, Virginia. The convention center is named after Osborn, a former CSX chairman and CEO who died in January 1986.
The American Society of Mechanical Engineers designated the locomotive a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark in 1990 because it is the only example among the 81 locomotives of its model that remains in essentially as-built condition.
Parts that were not on #1504 the first day it pulled train cars include the headlight, tender trucks and pilot truck wheels, the society said.
The most recent cosmetic restoration was in 2013 when Trains magazine awarded its annual Preservation Award and a $10,000 grant to the NFC-NHRS that was matched by CSX Corp.
That allowed local railroad enthusiasts to repaint the locomotive, but periodic paint jobs will not adequately preserve #1504 as long as it is an outdoor display.
Allowing U.S. Sugar to restore and put the locomotive back into limited service in Clewiston is the best way to preserve it and keep it in the state of Florida, Holmgren said.
“This is an opportunity for it to be maintained and operated. It’s about railroad preservation,” he said.
The locomotive will join the Sugar Express, a similar steam locomotive (#148) that U.S. Sugar restored in 2019 to be used as a tourist attraction.
According to sugarexpress.com, U.S. Sugar is the only sugar cane farming operation in the continental U.S. that transports all of its cane from the fields to the sugar factory by rail.
“Our CEO Bob Buker is a history buff and has long had an interest in bringing visitors to our rural farming community to experience historical steam locomotives in action as a way of learning about both our company’s history and our current agricultural operations’ part in helping feed American families.
“Restoring the #1504 will allow us to further these public education efforts centering around our own #148, as part of The Sugar Express, which will provide both excursion trips and occasionally assist in harvest operations,” said Judy Sanchez, U.S. Sugar spokeswoman, in an email.