Smoke billowed and steam wisped through the air as dozens of railfans and sightseers assembled at the depot in the town of Tavares, Florida for the Orange Blossom Cannonball’s final trips to Mt. Dora. It was a somber mood as both current and former employees gathered throughout the weekend to see the train off. The railroad, which began operations in October 2011, announced in early January 2017 that it would be closing at the end of the month due to contract disputes with the host railroad that owns the trackage the tourist train operates on.
The central Florida tourist destination has been popular among those wanting to get their steam railroading fix in a state otherwise devoid of steam operations outside of Walt Disney World. The town of Tavares, known as America’s seaplane city, has embraced it’s railroading heritage in recent years. In 2013, the city built a half-million dollar depot, replicating one that formerly stood near the same location. The depot serves as headquarters for the historic train and the town’s Chamber of Commerce.
I first learned of the Cannonball in October 2011 after receiving word from two friends who had signed on to work at the newly formed tourist railroad. It was an exciting time as the equipment, which is owned by the Reader Railroad of Arkansas, began to arrive in Florida by highway truck. A few weeks later I would make my first visit and finally meet Thomas East and Dean Gordon in person for the first time. That evening I brought out my lights and we had a small night photo shoot at the depot, the first of several good memories I would have over the next couple of years. Thomas and Dean later moved on to work at Amtrak and my visits became a little less frequent, but it was always great to have the railroad around when I visited the Sunshine State!
While the steam locomotive, and wooden coaches may be leaving Florida for home in Arkansas, rumors swirled throughout the weekend of what may take the Cannonball’s place. While future operations will most likely not involve steam, it is hopeful that Tavares will not be missing a tourist railroad for long.