Long hidden on the fringe of Florida’s Gulf Coast and overlooked by developers until well into the 1880s, Naples’ catalyst for settlement finally arrived forty years later when two rival railroads rolled into town within ten days of each other.
The Naples Depot was built in 1926 to serve the Seaboard Air Line Railway, which boarded its first passengers there in 1927. Those were the railroading boom days, and the rails allowed visitors, developers and materials to come in from all over the country, quicker than they would on a ship. Use of the trains encouraged generations of Southwest Floridians to use technology and transportation to conquer a vast, and seemingly impenetrable frontier.
Inside the Naples Depot Museum is a wonderful representation of that important time in the area’s history. The city of Naples is an upscale, glittering jewel today, so in the Museum, I wasn’t so surprised to learn that the first newcomers to the small town were not typical pioneers for that time. They mostly consisted of tourists, adventurers and frontiersmen.
There are many exhibits inside the museum that tell the story of how trade and travel helped to transform Naples into the city it is, but there are also representations of what the area looked like long before the trains entered the picture.
Seminole dugout canoes, a mule wagon and an antique swamp buggy are some of the examples of early transportation in the museum. Not surprisingly, there is a nice section on the development of the Tamiami Trail, which was an important road for all the burgeoning Gulf Coast towns.
Outside the museum, there are a few train cars, which are usually open to the public. I walked through an old caboose and learned that the first caboose was designated as such in the 1840s, when a conductor on the Auburn and Syracuse Railroad sought to find an unoccupied box car to do his paperwork.
In the other car I walked through was a docent, Elaina Gyure, who was there to speak about how the 1947 tavern observation car had recently been restored to its original grandeur. She pointed out some interesting facts about the car itself and then we spoke about what it must have been like to ride in luxury on your way to Florida from far-reaching places — to sit on those velvet, tufted seats and order a gimlet from the bar, as you watched the countryside go by.
Though you can’t actually ride in this historic Seaboard Air Line train car, you can rent it out, along with space in the Naples Depot, for special events. But I’m not sure anyone makes gimlets anymore, so you may want to change up your drink order.
Debbie Flessner writes the Live Like a Tourist column for the Sun newspapers. You may contact her at email@example.com.