Ghost Train

Decaying cars, $300,000 in expenditures, and empty promises — that's your new railroad museum.

At the end of the line of the Florida East Coast railroad is the Hialeah rail station yard, where a thousand cars a day sluice in and out, past scrubby grass and piles of old railroad ties piled like hurricane debris. On one lonely stretch of track sits a handful of cars that made their rounds decades ago. There's a 65-foot Southern Railroad mail car that was later made to resemble a circus car; "BUFFALO BILL'S WILD WEST" remains painted on its sides in large, flaking letters beside boarded-up doors. Inside sit bags of sand.

Farther up the track is a dark, mottled car with plywood sheets slipping out of the window holes, the Seneca Valley Car. This was a parlor car on the New York Central Railroad — reputedly a favorite of silent-movie heartthrob Rudolph Valentino — from which passengers could take in the scenery between Chicago and New York. The third, a "Jim Crow" car that carried a baggage compartment to separate black passengers from whites on the rest of the train, is in a state of such decrepitude that any interested visitor can circumvent the padlocked doors by scuttling beneath the rotted, rusted-out floor. Earlier this month, this old Central of Georgia car contained a shovel, a broom, a crowbar, and a table saw as evidence of productive human activity. Beside the car was a pile of scrap wood, doors, and asbestos from inside.

To date, a nonprofit called Dorothy Walker Bush Great Floridian 2000 has soaked up nearly $300,000 in state grants from the Bureau of Historic Preservation designated to restore the cars to their original splendor and operable condition.

According to the terms of the grant, the cars are supposed to be finished at the end of June for public display. That appears impossible; ten weeks before that deadline, they resemble condemned, 100-ton buildings on rails.

New Timescaught up with Tony Campos, director of the grant, last week at his office, a trailer moored beside the Tri-Rail and Amtrak station next to the Hollywood Boulevard exit from I-95. It's here that he's overseeing the renovation of the north end of the station, transforming it into a railroad museum that will be named after President Bush's grandmother.

The smiley, paunchy man with the swept-back hair and the silver Rolex at first identifies himself only as "a volunteer" with what appears to be an ID badge on a necklace tucked into his shirt pocket. He ducks into his office and reappears with photographs showing that the interiors of the cars had at least been gutted and, in the case of the Seneca Valley car, had some new wiring and paint. (During the interview, he never directly offers an introduction, though he repeatedly refers to himself in the third person.)

"Now, if you say, 'Tony, it looks like no work has been done on the cars,'" he says, "well, to an extent, they're being worked on off-site. If you look at them now, you might say nobody's done anything."

A safe assumption. But Campos offers assurances that progress has and will be made. He says Pembroke Pines-based Shadow Transit Service Inc. is progressing nicely on refabricating the wood window and door frames in its Fort Lauderdale shop. When reached by phone, though, Shadow manager Don Whatley declines to comment, citing a confidentiality agreement he signed with the museum. "I'm not allowed to divulge any specifics about that project," he says.

A degree of discretion is necessary because, hey, this is the Bush family name we're tossing around here, Campos says, when presented with Whatley's close-mouthed response.

Whether there has been documentable progress or not, Shadow has received $43,500 in state money every six months since the grants were allocated in the summer of 2004 for the three cars. The progress reports to the state list several accomplishments: rebuilding door frames, making welding repairs, ordering new air conditioning equipment, ripping out old wiring. In these improvements, Whatley's 35 years' experience in railroads doesn't come cheap. Documents state that Shadow Transit has been responsible for more than a quarter-million dollars' worth of work on the cars from July of 2004 through this past January, the date of the most recent progress report.

The Bureau of Historic Preservation's Dave Ferro suggests in an e-mail that the state is getting a little antsy about all of this. The agency has asked for more documentation of completed work, Ferro says, but he acknowledges that there have generally been "unavoidable delays" in the project in communities affected by recent hurricanes.

Of course, the railroad cars were in rough shape when they arrived in Hialeah. They originally came to South Florida in the late 1980s through the efforts of Fort Lauderdale railroad enthusiast and entrepreneur Dick Winer, who had hoped to develop a shopping center built entirely of old rail cars. He kept them for a while in Fort Lauderdale but was unable to get his shopping plaza off the ground, and the orphan cars eventually fell to Campos to restore. The mail car that Winer painted as the circus car was home to several stray people, who built fires inside that burned out the floor.

But the cars did have great stories. The Seneca Valley car, for one, had been resurrected as part of a traveling carnival company.

"When I got it," Winer says, "Royal American Shows was using it like a kitchen car, a train crew car, where the guys who maintained the train stayed, with a big generator there that provided electricity for the whole train." It was a "pie car," so called because the former plaything for movie stars was then kitchen quarters for carnies.

It will be some time yet before it is resurrected yet again to working condition. Despite the professed progress, Campos acknowledges that the cars' restoration is off schedule — by a good year — on what was supposed to be a two-year project. He cites five reasons: hurricanes, a break-in, sketchy historical source documents, not receiving another grant last year, and a PBS documentary crew's delays in filming the project. At least now, he says, the funds are "unencumbered."

The former deputy director of security for the first President Bush, Campos plans to incorporate the cars into the museum — which, though still months from being complete, at least has several finished walls. It will be named after the late wife of George Prescott Bush, mother to George Herbert Walker Bush, and a train aficionado in her own right.

In his capacity at the museum, Campos has two claims to fame. One was dropping a dime on Mohammed Amin, a Jordanian whom Campos says he saw with 9/11 ringleader and former Hollywood denizen Mohamed Atta at the train station in 2001. Campos saw Amin again at the station in 2002; Amin was arrested and, the last the local press noted of him, slated for deportation.

Campos' other claim to fame was helping to renovate the Hollywood station to look as it did in 1927. As he led a visitor around some of the improved and authentic station amenities, a wiry old passenger in sunglasses, looking a bit confused, asked, "Where are the schedules?"

"Are there no schedules?" Campos replied. "Is there no one from Tri-Rail working?"

"No," the old man said. "This place is all fucked up anyway."

Not a history buff, it seems.

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