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By Jack M. Turner

    One of the leading destinations in the Southeast is Williamsburg, VA as that community and neighboring Jamestown and Yorktown are filled with history from America’s colonial period.  The train is a great way to travel to that region and my wife and I found ourselves at the Jacksonville, FL Amtrak station on the night of Friday, December 16, 2016 waiting on the northbound Silver Star.
   Fortunately, the train was timely as it pulled into Jacksonville within 15 minutes of schedule and soon we were tucked into our berths in a bedroom aboard Viewliner sleeper 62022, formerly named Mountain View but now devoid of that name even on the end doors.  Sleep came easily as train # 92 rolled through southeast Georgia on the smooth former Atlantic Coast Line rails to Savannah.  The occasional sound of the horn on engine # 174 was more relaxing than annoying as just that week the Silver Star’s sleeping cars and baggage car had been moved to the rear of the train for the winter.

    I awoke around 1:30am as we stopped in Savannah.  Thereafter it was hard to sleep for a while as the tracks became rough through lower South Carolina as the ex-Seaboard “S Line” route apparently is not as smooth as the ex-ACL “A Line”.  I finally fell asleep after we departed Denmark, SC and managed to sleep through the next four station stops.  There was no hurry to get up in the morning as the Silver Star presently does not carry a dining car.  This normally has been a deal breaker for me as viewing the passing scenery during meals is one of the great pleasures of train travel.  However, the Silver Star offers the best hours for detraining in Richmond, VA which made our choice of trains a no-brainer.  The ride aboard Train # 92 brought back memories of family trips with my parents in the 1970s when we rode the Silver Star from Miami or Jacksonville to Richmond on several occasions as well as a handful of personal trips in following years.  In those days the smell of bacon wafted from the dining car kitchen as we prepared to enjoy a stack of pancakes for breakfast.  In 2016 the absence of a diner left us with a choice of either purchasing a pre-packaged breakfast from the cafe lounge car or bringing our own breakfast with us.  We chose the latter which tied us over until arrival in Richmond.

    The impending arrival into Raleigh was heralded by passage through the North Carolina State University campus and things looked much as they did during our trips so long ago.  One thing that was different was the station in Raleigh as the colonial style Seaboard station was long ago replaced by a functional station located along the Norfolk Southern line that connects Raleigh with eastern North Carolina.  Overnight we had made up time as we waited several minutes for our scheduled 8:45am departure time from North Carolina’s capital city.

    While the old Seaboard line continued northward from Raleigh to Petersburg via Henderson and Norlina, NC, the NS routing takes the Silver Star and the Charlotte to New York Carolinian eastward to Selma where the “A Line” is joined.  The former route was long ago abandoned north of Norlina.  Meanwhile, our route took a curved connector track to join the CSX “A Line” without stopping at Selma and we noted several people waiting beside the station for the Carolinian which trailed us by about 90 minutes.  After passing through Wilson the Silver Star called at Rocky Mount where business was fairly brisk.  A notable feature of Rocky Mount is the rows of stores facing the railway just north of the depot and we enjoyed viewing these businesses as our train accelerated out of town.  At Weldon we passed above a former Seaboard line that hosted that railroad’s Tidewater which ran to Portsmouth, VA in the pre-Amtrak years.  Shortly we crossed a tall bridge over the Roanoke River and in a few minutes entered the state of Virginia.


Passing the station at Selma, NC on the interchange track to the CSX line

    An hour later we passed South Collier Yard near the location where the old “S Line” used the join the “A Line”.  At 11:23am we spotted the nicely ballasted connector track that hosts Amtrak’s New York to Norfolk train on its transition from CSX to Norfolk Southern rails just moments before the Silver Star crossed the Appomattox River on a high bridge.  At 11:30 train 92 discharged a few passengers at Petersburg which is served by ten Amtrak trains each day.  A few miles up the line we sailed past a US Army facility that houses a variety of military supplies then we rolled past Centralia where the former Seaboard line to downtown Richmond branches off.  Suburban neighborhoods soon enveloped the rail line through a thickly forested area then the trees gave way to reveal our crossing of the towering James River trestle.  The river was strewn with large boulders signaling that this is the river’s fall line.  A Norfolk Southern branch line traced the south bank of the James while the CSX coal train line linking western Virginia with the Hampton Roads area followed the north bank.


Crossing the Appomattox River


The Petersburg Amtrak station


Crossing the James River whose rocks signify the fall line


Passing above the ex-C&O line used by CSX coal trains from western Virginia

    Moments later the Silver Star passed the wye leading to stately Broad Street Station which hosted passenger trains for decades until Amtrak moved operations to its own station off Staples Mill Road many years ago.  Just beyond the Broad Street cutoff we passed the junction with the route used by Northeast Regional trains to Newport News.  That line once carried Seaboard’s trains north of downtown before the merger with the ACL shifted service to the present route.  Our path into Amtrak’s station off Staples Mill Road was smooth and we arrived on-time at 12:07pm.  Within minutes a driver from a rental car agency arrived and we were on our way to Williamsburg with a brief stop for lunch on the outskirts of Richmond.


The northbound Silver Star at Richmond


An Amfleet II coach near the head end of the Silver Star

    The Williamsburg area offers much to see and do and Christine and I visited many of the area’s leading sights during our week-long stay.  Colonial Williamsburg is the centerpiece of visits to the region as it contains numerous important buildings dating from the colonial period of American history or faithfully reconstructed to match that era.  The Governor’s Palace is a beautiful estate that housed the colonial governor and hosted many social and political leaders of the day.  When one steps into its spacious dining room, they can easily imagine guests socializing over a delicious dinner.  A pleasant walk down Duke of Gloucester Street deposits visitors at the Colonial Capitol where laws were passed and many famous patriots gathered.  Shields Tavern stands adjacent ready to serve lunch and dinner to today’s tourists in the manner it served in colonial times.  Throughout Colonial Williamsburg there are numerous notable houses and trade shops where visitors can get a glimpse of colonial furnishings and watch the practice of trades such as jewelry making, furniture making and other woodworking, blacksmithing, etc.  In addition to Shields Tavern, there are several other taverns ready to serve guests in authentic colonial establishments.


Front of the Governor’s Palace


A variety of weapons are displayed in the entry room of the Governor’s Palace


The Brush-Everard House in Colonial Williamsburg


Homes in Colonial Williamsburg are decorated with wreaths for Christmas


Horse drawn carriages roll down Colonial Williamsburg streets


Duke of Gloucester Street is lined with colonial homes and shops

    Passes allowing access to all of the Colonial Williamsburg venues are available from the Visitors Center located approximately one mile from the Williamsburg Amtrak station.  Passes are not necessary to dine in one of the colonial taverns nor to stroll the cobblestone streets of the colonial area.  The latter is one of the great pleasures of visiting Colonial Williamsburg as motor vehicles are prohibited in the colonial area which provides an authentic atmosphere.  Observing the numerous back yard gardens and the craftsmanship that went into constructing the colonial homes and buildings within the village is a relaxing way to enjoy a walk through a virtual time machine.  Summer is a popular time to visit Colonial Williamsburg yet almost any season is perfect for a visit.  Our pre-Christmas visit was ideal as crowds were smaller than during the summer, temperatures were chilly which was a nice alternative to summer heat, and the holiday spirit was evident in the form of wreaths hung on many front doors.  In early evening a fife and drum corps marches along Duke of Gloucester Street and a sentinel lights baskets of kindling known as cressets that line the street much to the delight of large crowds that follow along.  Another popular holiday activity is an ice skating rink standing in the middle of Duke of Gloucester Street between the colonial area and modern day Merchants Square.


A fife and drum corps marches down Duke of Gloucester Street in the evening


A sentinel lights cressets along Duke of Gloucester Street

    One day of our stay was devoted to visiting nearby Yorktown including the brand new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.  The 80,000 square foot museum tells the story of the founding of America through use of fantastic indoor exhibits, short films, and an outdoor living history area that recreates a colonial settlement and continental army encampment.  During our visit to the living history part of the museum, we had a chance to watch the firing of a musket then held the weapon ourselves, dipped candles to experience the process of candle making, and listened to an interpreter demonstrate the role of the medical doctor in colonial times.  Most of our visit was spent examining the indoor museum displays which were fascinating as were brief films that enhanced our visit.  The highlight was an immersive film, presented in a half circle vision style, with special effects that bring viewers right into a redoubt (bunker) with British troops during the American Revolution.  Several special events are scheduled throughout the coming year and information can be found at the web site listed below.


The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown


A diorama of the Battle of Great Bridge


A plaster statue of George Washington that once stood in the US Capitol


A costumed interpreter fires a colonial musket


A colonial doctor displays tools used for severe battlefield injuries
    Nearby we found the Yorktown Colonial National Park operated by the National Park Service.  The highlight of a visit to this museum is a collection of tents dating to the American Revolution with parts of George Washington’s tents among the display.  Visitors can drive through the adjacent battlefield where the final major battle of the American Revolution was fought in 1781.  Nearby the small burg of Yorktown is worth a visit as both original and reconstructed buildings reflect life in the mid- to- late 1700s.  There are a few restaurants located in town along the York River and the cafe at the American Revolution Museum also serves a good lunch.

    The following day we visited Jamestown, site of America’s first permanent English colony.  Historic Jamestowne, operated by the National Park Service, offers a museum telling the story of the historic site and a self guided walking tour of the actual site where the original community was established.  The grounds are an active archeological dig site and visitors can watch as experts search for pieces of American history.


A statue honoring Captain John Smith and the original Jamestowne church

    We also visited Jamestown Settlement which recreates the Jamestown story in a most interesting way.  Visitors first tour a well organized gallery which tells the story of the founding of Jamestown in 1607 then may enjoy a pleasant walk to the James River, along the way visiting a replica Powhatan Indian village and a replica of a colonial fort.  Three replica sailing ships stand at the edge of the river allowing visitors to see what life was like aboard the ships that brought the first colonists to Virginia.  Throughout our visit to Jamestown Settlement we found interpreters to be knowledgeable and willing to explain items related to the colonists and the native Powhatan Indians.  Brief films provide background about Jamestown and help put the site into historical context.  An excellent cafe is located within the main gallery building which is important since dining facilities are sparse in Jamestown.


Entrance to Jamestown Settlement


Inside the fort at Jamestown Settlement


Replica ships in the James River behind Jamestown Settlement

    Both the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown and Jamestown Settlement are administered by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, an agency of the State of Virginia.  Combination admission tickets to both facilities are available on site.  See below for the foundation’s web site.  Meanwhile the National Park Service museums in Yorktown and Historic Jamestowne are operated by the NPS and are subject to NPS fees.  Yorktown and Jamestown are located on opposite sides of Williamsburg and are linked by the Colonial Parkway, a pleasant drive through woodlands and along the banks of the York and James Rivers.


The Colonial Parkway links Yorktown, Williamsburg, and Jamestown

    The final major attraction we visited on this trip was Busch Gardens Williamsburg which is located just east of that city off US 60 and close to the CSX rail line used by Amtrak Northeast Regional trains connecting Boston and Newport News.  This theme park represents several European countries such as England, France, Italy, and Germany among others, each in its own section of the park.  During the holidays the park is transformed into Christmas Town with the largest display of Christmas lights in North America.  Strolling the grounds and enjoying Christmas music that played everywhere was in itself a treat as was visiting the shops and dining establishments associated with each country.  Various venues offered shows such as an excellent presentation of the Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol” and a holiday themed ice skating show featuring Olympic silver medalist Elvis Stojko.  After dark the Busch Gardens steam train circles the park carrying passengers through lighted forests and past the various nations’ villages that comprise the park.  Three train sets make up the Busch Gardens Railway which operates on a loop stretching roughly 1 1/2 miles around the park.  The three steam engines that pull the trains were built in 1975 by Crown Metal Works of Wyano, PA which produced amusement park steam engines and passenger cars between 1959 and 1989. 


The England section of Busch Gardens Williamsburg is decorated for Christmas


The France section of Busch Gardens is all decked out


Beginning our 1 1/2 mile train ride on the Busch Gardens railway


Thousands of Christmas lights can be seen during the train ride


The second train departs its originating station


The third train begins its journey


Olympic silver medalist Elvis Stojko headlines the ice skating show

    Busch Gardens Williamsburg is also very popular during the summer months when its water park is in operation along with the various “countries” and its iconic roller coasters.  It is wise to consult the web site listed below to verify dates in which Busch Gardens is open during the off season.

    Among dozens of hotels in the Williamsburg area we selected the Hilton Garden Inn which is conveniently located off US 60 west (Richmond Road) and this choice proved excellent. The Hilton Garden Inn’s colonial design is in keeping with the area and its nicely appointed rooms and suites were quiet and comfortable.  The lobby restaurant served a delicious breakfast each day and was open through the evening.  The indoor swimming pool and hot tub looked inviting and are especially popular with kids.  We appreciated the hotel’s location which was just a few minutes from Colonial Williamsburg, the College of William & Mary, and Busch Gardens, with easy access to the Colonial Parkway to Yorktown and Jamestown.  A wide variety of restaurants are within a mile of the hotel in either direction and outlet shopping is just a couple miles down the road at a major outlet shopping center.


The Hilton Garden Inn reflects Williamsburg’s colonial style

    The former Chesapeake & Ohio rail line operated by CSX is across US 60 and there are numerous excellent places to watch Amtrak and CSX freight trains within a short drive of the Hilton Garden Inn.  The Williamsburg Amtrak station is worth a visit as four passenger trains per day stop at the attractive brick depot which resembles a colonial home in appearance.  These trains provide one seat service to the Northeast and offer connections from the west at Washington and New York.  Passengers coming from Florida face a long layover in Richmond and thus may want to consider renting a car as we did for the one hour drive to Williamsburg.  Other good locations to watch trains include Ashland, VA, approximately 90 minutes away by car (also accessible via Amtrak from Williamsburg) and anywhere along the Norfolk to Petersburg stretch of the Norfolk Southern line south of the James River, accessible by car using the free ferry boat at Jamestown.


The Williamsburg Amtrak station is served by four daily trains


Inside the Williamsburg train station


Westbound Amtrak train # 94 arrives in Williamsburg


Train # 94 makes a lengthy stop at Williamsburg to board a large crowd


Train # 94 departs for Richmond, Washington, and all points to Boston


Eastbound train # 67, the former Twilight Shoreliner, arrives in Williamsburg


Train # 67 prepares to depart for Newport News


Train # 67 departs as seen from a street crossing east of the Amtrak station


Train watching in nearby Ashland, VA is popular

    The College of William & Mary offers sports fans an enjoyable change of pace in the form of football, basketball, and baseball games.  During our visit Christine and I attended a W&M men’s basketball game and witnessed the Tribe setting the record for most three point shots made in one game.  William & Mary sports schedules may be found at the site noted below.


William & Mary basketball player shoots a three pointer against Savannah State

    Numerous other sights are located within an hour of the Williamsburg area including Berkley and Shirley Plantations along the James River west of Williamsburg; The MacArthur Memorial (a museum dedicated to WWII hero Gen. Douglas MacArthur), The Chrysler Museum of Art; and Norfolk Botanical Gardens in Norfolk; the Virginia Air and Space Center in Hampton; and the Science Museum of Virginia which is housed in stately Broad Street Station in Richmond.

    Following lunch with my cousin and her husband in Richmond, we returned our rented minivan and were driven back to the Amtrak station off Staples Mill Road.  There was a huge crowd waiting on trains to the northeast and to Newport News as Friday December 23 was the beginning of Christmas weekend.  The Silver Star departed on schedule at 5:17pm after picking up only a few passengers in Richmond.  Our bedroom in car 62026 (formerly “Ocean View”) must have been occupied until Richmond as the car attendant directed us to the adjacent lounge car until he could make up the room.  Since there were only a couple of customers waiting we went ahead and picked up hot turkey and provolone cheese sandwiches from the take out counter and found them surprisingly tasty.  While a dining car meal would have been a much more enjoyable dinner option, at least the lounge car meal was better than expected.


A Viewliner II baggage car on the rear of the southbound Silver Star at Richmond


Amfleet II cafe-lounge 28008 provides the only food service on the Silver Star

    Soon our car attendant came by and advised us that our room was ready and we settled in to watch the passing sights.  Darkness had arrived by the time we departed Richmond so the main objects of our viewing were passing Christmas lights and street lights in the small towns along the railway.      The station stop in Petersburg was fairly busy and 35 minutes later we noted passage through Emporia which would seem well located for consideration as a stop by trains passing through in the daytime.  Near the North Carolina border we passed the northbound Palmetto which was running about three hours late; it should have been in Richmond at the same time as our train.  Ten minutes later the elevated track took us through Weldon then we rolled through the darkness to Rocky Mount, a busy stop for all Florida trains. 
   A great feature on the Silver Star was Amtrak Connect, a complimentary on board Wi-Fi service available to passengers.  The service remained reliable throughout the trip and included a map that showed the train’s location and speed.  This identified our location in real time which was a great help since it was impossible to read town names on passing water towers and post offices due to the darkness. 

    After passing through Elm City and Wilson, the Silver Star left the ex-ACL at Selma and charted its northwestward course for Raleigh.  We watched passengers come and go during our 20 minute station stop in Raleigh before departing on-time at 9:01pm.  Ten minutes later we reached our next stop, Cary, and once more the Star had to wait 12 minutes for the scheduled departure time of 9:23pm.  The next stop, Southern Pines, has always been one of the prettiest towns to view from a train.  The town was even better at night with Christmas lights transforming Southern Pines into a winter wonderland. 

    Before I was able to fall asleep we stopped in Hamlet, a small community that was once a hub for Seaboard routes in all four directions and home to an important SAL rail yard.  I managed to sleep through our stops in Camden and Columbia, SC but woke for the middle of the night stops in Denmark and Savannah.  Eventually we had to wake up at 6:00am to be ready for our early morning arrival in Jacksonville.  Normally we travel on the Silver Meteor whose arrival around 9:00am allows sleeper passengers to sleep until a more palatable hour and have breakfast in the dining car.  The Silver Star schedule fit our needs better on this trip since it dovetailed nicely with the rental car agency’s hours in Richmond and facilitated an early arrival at home on Christmas Eve.  Our 6:31am arrival in Jacksonville was 8 minutes early and after collecting our checked luggage we were on our way home to enjoy the holiday.
   Our round trip aboard Amtrak’s Silver Star had been very pleasant and certainly was preferable to battling holiday traffic on I-95.  Williamsburg was a  perfect destination for enjoying the week before Christmas and we enjoyed making one day visits to Yorktown, Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg, and Busch Gardens.  The links below provide useful information for planning visits to these sights.


Colonial Williamsburg

American Revolution Museum at Yorktown

Jamestown Settlement

Historic Jamestowne and

Yorktown Battlefield and Visitors Center

Busch Gardens Williamsburg

Hilton Garden Inn Williamsburg

College of William & Mary Athletics