Trilby – The depot



The Depot


After the trains stopped coming to Trilby they moved the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad depot to a museum in Dade City. The first time I saw it there I was taken aback. It was so small, so lifeless, so inconspicuous compared to the one I remembered from the 1940’s, back when –

Trilby was a thriving railroad town, a place where tributary lines from Sanford and St. Petersburg merged with the ACL’s north-south trunk lines; where the coal burning steam locomotives then in use replenished their coal and water beneath an imposing structure the height of a nine story building, the coal-chute; where freight trains switched about in the massive marshaling yards, setting off or adding boxcars, tank-cars and flat-cars; where seven days a week four passenger trains loaded and offloaded passengers, mail and federal express shipments; where the depot, including the restaurant, was open for business twenty-four hours a day seven days a week. Trainmen and other railroad employees congregated there before and after work. Townspeople came to visit, or meet before a hunting or fishing trip, or to watch the trains come and go, or simply to be there.

The tracks from St. Petersburg had gotten so far north before they reached the Trilby vicinity they approached the town from almost due west, necessitating a wide sweeping northward bending curve the terminus of which was a Y shaped junction. The depot was within the arms of the Y very close to where they came together. A tin roofed, concrete floored shed extended north from the building for about two hundred feet. It was edged on both sides by the merging tracks.

Beneath the shed there were a half dozen floats: large, green, long handled four wheeled carts. Their decks were chest high and their wheels thigh high. They were used to load and offload passengers’ checked luggage, freight, bags of mail and parcels from the baggage, U.S. Postal Service and Federal Express cars that were typically the first cars behind the engines of passenger trains. The shed had ceiling mounted electric lights that made it an inviting nighttime venue for socializing. When not in use the floats served as comfortable props to lean against or platforms to sit upon. Sometimes in the middle hours of the night — if no trains were in town and the employee, called the operator, manning the depot office could be relied upon to take no official notice – one of the floats might also serve as a table at which five or six quietly serious men played serious hands of nickel-dime poker.

Two very tall palm trees just south of the depot and an expanse of water immediately west of it gave the scene a tropical aura. The water began on the other side of a graded road that bordered the St. Petersburg tracks. It was known by various names and was of a size that varied according to weather conditions. (It is now cow pasture, a result of the state’s severely lowered water table.) Essentially circular, depending on how wet or dry the season it could be as much as a half mile or a little as a quarter mile wide. Much of the surface was covered with dark green lily pads which were occasionally decorated, sparingly, with yellow lilies.

This body of water was politely referred to as either Trilby Pond or Lake Malaria. A less palatable name by which it was sometimes called was Outhouse (or a coarser, more explicit term) Lake because toilet facilities for train passengers, railroad employees and the general public were at the T-head of a pier that extended a couple hundred feet out over the water. Droppings fell directly into the water. Consequently, although the lake teemed with bass and bream the only fish taken from it were shiners (small silvery fish that were used at the river or other lakes for bass bait). But the taboo against eating fish from Outhouse Lake did not extend to frog legs and frogs were there in abundance. A common sight on summer nights was of several barefoot boys wading the shallows with lights strapped on their heads and frog gigs in their hands. The shoreline and shallows also abounded with cotton mouth (water) moccasins but in my frog gigging days none of us were bitten. Perhaps there is a modicum of truth in the ancient adage that the Lord looks after fools and drunks and heedless male children.

If you were into people watching, the depot was the place to be. You could have seen:

Locomotive engineer Dunbar — or Crutchfield or Skipper or one of several other notable characters — climb down from his monstrous machine to visit the depot restaurant. Perhaps, if before climbing down Dunbar spotted you, a little boy gaping up at him and if he knew your daddy he might have motioned for you to come up to him and when you were there in the locomotive cab with him he might have instructed Lazarus, his fireman, to open the firebox door, causing you, when it clanged open, to jump back in fear and astonishment; ever after when you heard a preacher speak of the fire and brimstone in hell you would remember that enormous firebox with its expansive array of glowing, red burning coal and the searing heat that came from it.

Had you followed Dunbar to the restaurant and lingered there you might have heard one of his many tales, such as:

Yeah, last year about this time we had to pull off into a side track right in the middle of that big wilderness area between here and St. Pete. We were sitting there for an hour or so waiting for the yellow Sperry track-tester to pass.

(Two sentences into his story Dunbar has the rapt attention of the restaurant’s hired help and patrons: Behind the counter Mayzie, coffee pot in hand, has stopped ‘hot’n up’ her clientele’s cups of coffee, Annie Cherry stands in the kitchen door, wiping her hands on her apron, listening; the customers have stopped eating for the moment to twist around toward Dunbar. Knowing him well, they all wonder how much if any of what he is telling them is true.)

Setting there, Dunbar continues, waiting for the rail-checker to pass, looking around, I happened to notice a buzzard nest high up in a sweetgum tree. Never thinking he’d do it, I told Lazarus I’d give him five dollars if he’d climb up there and get me two or three of those buzzard eggs. Well, Lazarus must a needed that five dollars real bad because off he went. And sure enough, he came back with three eggs. But he’d earned his money, that’s for dang sure. He was tree bark scratched and buzzard pecked and he smelled terrible, I mean real terrible. He’d gotten himself buzzard puked. A skunk’ll spray you if he feels threatened but a buzzard pukes on you. And in case you don’t already know it, I’m here to tell you, smell wise, buzzard puke is a bunch worse than skunk spray, a whole bunch worse. I let Lazarus hand the eggs up to me but I wouldn’t let him back in the cab until he stripped naked and washed himself and his clothes in a creek that was a couple hundred yards ahead of where we were stopped.

So you want to know what I did with those buzzard eggs? I took them home. Gave them to the wife. Told her they were wild turkey eggs that I wanted her to have one of her setting hens — she always has a couple setting on a clutch of eggs – to hatch ‘em for us. I had a hilarious picture in my mind about the fit she was going to pitch when she discovered the turkeys she was raising in her chicken yard were buzzards. A couple of weeks after I gave her the eggs I asked her if they’d hatched out yet. You know what that woman told me? Sweet as pie, she said, “No, honey, I was running short on eggs when you gave me those so the next morning I scrambled them for your breakfast.”

Engineers such as Dunbar were the stars, the elite of railroad workers but in the accomplishment of the trains assigned tasks they were subject to the instructions of their train’s conductor. Hanging out at the depot, you might have seen one of the more notorious of these, Jess Osteen, leaving his caboose to stride purposefully into the depot office. There, he would give Trilby ACL agent Glen Adger (Whit) Whittington, Sr. the benefit of his opinion about the mess the marshaling yards were in in general and, specifically, about the inconvenient way several strings of boxcars he needed to add to his train were mixed among many others. — This at a time when Whit’s regular clerks Jeff Couey, Cotton Hinds and Lois Thomas had gone off to the war and he was forced to rely upon the willing but woefully inadequate help of several inexperienced old men to keep track of what at any given time was in the yards and where, among a jumble of two or three hundred railcars, each one was located.

If Norman Rockwell had wanted a circa 1940’s trainman model for one of his Americana illustrations Jess Osteen would have served him well. Clad in the traditional striped overalls over a blue shirt, wearing a trainman’s billed, blue and white cap, of sturdy build and average height, with weather bronzed face on which a dour visage was made enigmatic by an almost suppressed grin, he was then in his late middle-aged years. He had, as soon as his mildly fudged age permitted, escaped the drudgery of a family farm to become an ACL trainman and over the years had worked his way up through the ranks of brakemen and flagmen to get the only job he had ever wanted, freight train conductor. Having that job was probably why a grin always seemed to lurk behind his characteristic dour expression. (Only the unrelenting dictates of a mandatory retirement age would force him to finally give the job up some twenty years later.)

And there was a brief time back then when depot characters included a sturdy little fellow still in diapers – He was the last of section foreman and Mrs. George Black’s children: the last and likely a surprise — Mrs. Black did not attend her oldest daughter’s wedding out of fear she would disrupt the ceremony by birthing the child at the church. Traditionally, this family was patient in awarding a name to its male offspring. The firstborn son was nearing school age before he was given his father’s name, George. Until then, he had been called Buddy and thereafter, except in formal circumstances, he was known as Buddy, not George, Black. They called the lastborn son Brother while they awaited giving him a name.

The family occupied a large house directly across the St. Petersburg tracks from the depot. Had it not been for the tracks and the graded road that bordered it the depot would have abutted their front yard. From the time Brother Black was sufficiently mobile to occasionally escape the custody of his mother and older siblings he considered the depot part of his domain. He was treated there, good-naturedly, as a young princeling and with the passage of time he graduated from the diapers and acquired the swagger and some of the colorful, even some of the pungent, language of his adult subjects. There is or was a photo of this boy as a still unnamed four-year-old standing in front of the depot restaurant door with a Pepsi Cola in one hand and someone’s discarded cigar butt, probably one of Shorty Daly’s, stuck in his mouth. He was eventually given the name Douglas McArthur Black. To the surprise of some, this swashbuckling youngster grew up to become a beloved Church of Christ minister. He also fathered a son that he and his wife Martha named Scott. Yes, Scott Black, a dedicated collector of Trilby memorabilia and the moving force behind the annual reunion called Trilby Day.

A note to readers: This is one of several articles I have promised to write for this site. Emailed critiques, corrections and comments will be welcome at

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