Sanford – Auto Train, FL (SFA)
The new station opened in late 2010 and includes a large waiting room, cafe and gift shop. A soaring, gently curving wall of glass allows natural light to flood the interior.
600 South Persimmon Avenue
Sanford, FL 32771
Annual Station Ridership (2016): 238,448
- Facility Ownership: Amtrak
- Parking Lot Ownership: Amtrak
- Platform Ownership: Amtrak
- Track Ownership: Amtrak
For information about Amtrak fares and schedules, please call 1-800-USA-RAIL (1-800-872-7245).
The Sanford station is the southern terminus of the Auto Train, Amtrak’s only rail service to simultaneously transport passengers and their motor vehicles, including cars, SUVs, trucks, motorcycles, small boats, and water-skis. With more than 200,000 passengers a year, Sanford ranks as the busiest Amtrak station in the state.
The Auto Train, which includes locomotives and passenger, dining, lounge, and auto-rack rail cars, is considered the longest passenger train in the world, often measuring about ¾ of a mile long. To start their journey, passengers drive through a vehicle gate, at which they receive a claim-check number that is also affixed to their vehicles. Proceeding to the loading area, the vehicle is dropped off, video-documented, and loaded into a double-level auto-rack rail car. Passengers continue on foot into the station with their overnight luggage to await general boarding.
Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), Amtrak received $10.5 million to reconstruct the Sanford station, as the original facility sustained extensive damage during the 2004 hurricane season. In May 2009, ground was broken for the new building, and it opened to the public in October 2010. Planning for the new facility took into account the needs and interests of Amtrak, Seminole County, and the city of Sanford. In addition to the construction funds, the Sanford station also received $161,000 under ARRA’s Mobility First initiative. Part of these funds was used to install a new wheelchair lift and the remainder will be used for tactile edges on existing concrete platforms. Anticipating increased traffic around the complex, Congressman John Mica helped direct $750,000 to the project for the design and construction of improved access roads and new signage in the station area.
Sited to the northwest of the old one-story depot, the new station covers almost 10,000 square feet and is roughly four times larger than its predecessor whose functions were spread out over three separate structures. The original depot, constructed in 1971 and renovated in 1995, was not large enough to accommodate growing demand for the Auto Train; after the hurricane damage, part of the waiting room was sheltered in a tent. Designed by d+A design + Architecture, LLC of Yardley, Pennsylvania, the modern structure contains a waiting room for 600 travelers, ticket counter, café, restrooms, and a gift shop. The new building also incorporates a number of energy-saving features such as glass coatings that minimize solar gain and efficient HVAC and lighting systems. A portion of the old station abutting the new structure will be reconfigured into administrative offices and will open in early 2011.
The primary façade references the Lorton station with its extensive use of glass. Each end of the rectangular structure is composed of a wall whose base is made of light gray concrete masonry units above which rises a rectangular grid pattern of translucent panels. Between these solid bookends there is a gently bowed wall of glass two stories in height that allows sunlight to stream into the interior and brighten the waiting room throughout the day.
The roof over the waiting room dramatically slopes down towards the trackside façade which continues the material palette of the front elevation. The original platform canopy remains in place to protect passengers from inclement weather as they board or exit the train. The transition between the bulk of the new station and the remainder of the old depot is accomplished by a skinny pavilion whose roof slopes upward toward the trackside façade in opposition to the roofline of the adjoining waiting room. The pavilion is centered upon a deep porte-cochere that shelters passengers while they enter the station and register their vehicles for loading and storage aboard the train.
The concept for the Auto Train originated in a three-year, $3 million Congressional study to determine if auto-ferry service could be as successful in the U.S. as it had been in Europe. Eugene K. Garfield, formerly of the U.S. Department of Transportation, used the results of this study as the blueprint for the privately-owned Auto-Train Corporation, which he founded in early 1969. It took some time for money to be raised and trackage agreements to be signed, but on July 15, 1971, the Auto-Train Corporation went public by offering 700,000 shares at $10 each. Seven million dollars were raised to purchase equipment for this new common carrier—the first established in more than 50 years.
The Lorton-Sanford Auto-Train was successful, so much so that within a few years the company opened a new route between Sanford and Louisville. Unfortunately, this new service was not profitable and it drained the corporation’s finances; coupled with operational difficulties on the original East Coast route, the business was forced to close in 1981. Within two years, Amtrak decided to revive the operation with a tri-weekly service, now called the Auto Train (no hyphen). The popularity of the route quickly prompted an upgrade to daily service, and many former customers returned for the Virginia-to-Florida run.
At the time of the first European colonization of North America, the area from central to northern Florida was occupied by an American Indian group known as the Timucua. Hernando de Soto and other early explorers encountered the Timucua and recalled in words and images how their bodies were covered in tattoos that indicated social status. They lived in circular houses constructed from upright poles dug into the ground; this created a framework upon which palmetto leaves were laid to keep the interiors dry. Villages were usually surrounded by a tall stockade for protection. The Timucua fashioned dug-out canoes that helped them navigate the region’s waterways. Their wide diet included fish, wild fruits, game, and a bread made from a starchy root.
Introduced to European diseases and suffering from attacks by British-backed tribes to the north, the Timucua were virtually extinct by the time that Florida fell under American jurisdiction in 1821. Amid a series of wars between American forces and regional Native American groups that lasted throughout the first half of the 19th century, an American fort was established in 1836 along the upper navigable reaches of the St. Johns River on the south shore of Lake Monroe. The St. Johns was strategic as it allowed navigation far into the peninsula’s interior from its outlet on the Atlantic Ocean at Jacksonville.
A few years later, a small settlement called Mellonville grew up around the fort, but the surrounding area remained sparsely populated until 1870 when Henry Shelton Sanford purchased 12,548 acres near the lake. A member of an old New England family, Sanford had a distinguished career that included a period in the American diplomatic corps that had taken him to Germany, Russia, and France. As Ambassador to Belgium during the Civil War, he helped obtain supplies for the Union Army and worked steadfastly to block diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy.
Sanford laid out a town on his lakeside land just west of Mellonville, for he envisioned the community as a principle inland port for central Florida. To promote settlement, Sanford advertised his new town in Europe and succeeded in convincing Swedish immigrants to move to Florida as indentured servants. After a year of labor, including the clearing of the land so that citrus groves could be planted, the Swedes were freed of their debt to Henry Sanford and each individual received a small parcel of land. Many stayed in the area where they established their own community west of Sanford which they called New Upsala. Sanford’s Swedish inheritance is celebrated yearly during the Saint Lucia Festival in mid-December which includes Swedish music, foods, crafts, and dancing.
Central Florida quickly became known for citrus, and Henry Sanford maintained his own groves as well as a garden where he experimented with crops such as bananas and other tropical or semi-tropical fruits. He constructed two lakeside hotels to promote tourism; a major publicity coup occurred in 1884 when President Chester Arthur vacationed in town. Early visitors enjoyed bird hunting along the region’s lakes.
By the late 19th century, Florida’s promoters began to tout the state as the perfect winter escape from cold northern climes. Unfortunately, access to the peninsula was hindered by its terrain which included large stretches of wetlands and rivers that made overland journeys difficult. Steamboat travel was initiated between Jacksonville and Lake Monroe in the late 1840s, but for visitors from the far north, this meant a long trip by train and boat to get to central Florida and the newly established resorts.
The access issue was addressed in 1880 when ground was broken for the South Florida Railroad to connect Sanford and Tampa on the west coast; former President Grant participated in the event, marking a rather auspicious start to Sanford’s railroad development. The connection to Tampa was very important, for as time went by and the state grew in population and economic power, the route gave Sanford contact with distant markets in the Caribbean and Central and South America. Within the next two decades, Sanford gained numerous rail links up and down and across the state that connected it to cities such as Jacksonville, Orlando, and St. Petersburg. The South Florida Railroad constructed an 800 foot long wharf on Lake Monroe where steamers could link up to rail service.
Due to the entry of so many lines into the area, the town boasted a handful of depots and other railroad related structures, of which only a few remain today. One of those is the PICO building, a combination hotel, depot, and office building constructed in 1887 on North Oak Avenue one block south of the lakefront. After reorganizations and buyouts, a number of the smaller railroad lines came under the control of the Georgia-based Plant System. Buying up bankrupt railroads in the Southeast after the Civil War, Henry B. Plant controlled most of the railroad and associated steamship lines in central and northern Florida and he formed the Plant Investment Company (PICO) to construct tourism infrastructure including hotels.
Sanford was one of the towns to gain a PICO hotel. Appropriate to a burgeoning tourist destination, the building designed by local architect W.T. Cotter is in a fanciful Middle Eastern-Byzantine style that includes a corner turret that once bore an onion dome. The two-story brick structure features large round-arched windows and doorways on the ground floor and gothic and horseshoe-arched windows on the floor above. The Middle Eastern theme is carried out to the smallest details, including crescent and star motifs on the pressed-metal capitals found in the paired windows. Elaborate Victorian brickwork abounds in the window surrounds, corbelling, recessed panels on the chimneys, and the zig-zag parapet of the central bay. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the building continues to have a magical effect on visitors.
While Plant was constructing his network of tourist hotels and railroads in west Florida, the state’s other great railroad builder, Henry Flagler, was doing much the same along the east coast, extending his Florida East Coast Railway as far as Key West at the far southern end of the peninsula. In 1902 the Plant System was purchased by the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, and through another series of consolidations and mergers, most of the Plant trackage today belongs to CSX Transportation, a major East Coast freight railroad. CSXT maintains a TRANSFLO terminal in Sanford where shipping containers are transferred between rail and truck as part of a greater intermodal freight transportation network.
The railroads transformed the region into an important citrus growing region that became known for its oranges; with good rail connections, the fruit could be shipped across the country. The South Florida Railroad laid out a rail yard northwest of town where a plant produced ice for the refrigerator-cars that carried produce such as cabbage, grapefruit, lettuce, and peppers northward. Sanford experienced a great fire in 1887 that destroyed a large swath of town that had been hastily constructed with wood structures in the settlement’s early days. With the citrus-based prosperity, townspeople quickly rebuilt but decided to forego wood construction in favor of fireproof brick. Many of these buildings still line the streets of downtown and have come to define Sanford’s historic core.
Although citrus grew well, it was not quite safe from frost, which could kill an entire grove and destroy the work of many years. The cold weather of 1894 and 1895, known as the “Great Freeze,” dealt back-to-back blows to citrus farmers. Afraid to hedge all their bets on oranges, farmers sought other cash crops and celery quickly became the primary agricultural product. Sanford gained the moniker of “Celery City,” and picture postcards often depicted fields of the vegetable as far as the eye could see. In 1937, the State Marketing Bureau reported that of the 3.3 million crates of Florida celery to reach the market, the great majority came from Sanford and surrounding towns.
Sanford continued to serve the agricultural community well into the mid-20th century after which farming moved further south to avoid the occasional winter frosts. During World War II, a Naval Air Station was established southeast of the city. Deactivated at the close of the war, it once again buzzed with activity during the Korean War and subsequently the ongoing conflict referred to as the “Cold War.” Finally closed in 1969, Sanford lost a large number of residents associated with the base, which was then converted into an airport serving greater Orlando.
From the 1970s onward, the city transitioned its economy away from agriculture to better serve the tourism market. The Auto-Train was established in 1971 because Orlando and Sanford were at the center of Florida’s developing amusement and theme park region, and within easy driving distance of beaches on both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Disney World opened the same year that the Auto-Train made its first run.
Although among some of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, Sanford manages to hold its own due to the visible signs of the past that line its streets. The city contains two National Register Historic Districts encompassing the main commercial zone and a residential area. Trees line the brick-paved downtown streets, encouraging visitors and residents to stop and window-shop among the antique and specialty shops, or enjoy a meal at one of the many restaurants and cafes. Most of the buildings in the commercial district date to the years after the 1887 fire and are usually two or three stories, helping to create an intimate and welcoming pedestrian landscape. Events throughout the year celebrate the revitalized downtown and often include music, food, and the opportunity to visit the stores and galleries during monthly open houses.
At the foot of N. Park Avenue, a lovely palm-line promenade juts out into the lake where one can observe the pleasure boats that ply the gentle waves. Those interested in testing the waters may take a cruise and view the city from the prospective of many early settlers who sailed down from Jacksonville. The lakeshore continues to host docks and marinas which are connected by gracious Seminole Avenue, a tree-lined roadway that affords beautiful vistas across Lake Monroe.
Henry Sanford’s life is chronicled at the museum that bears his name on the western end of Fort Mellon Park. Established in 1957 with the gift of Sanford’s personal library, manuscripts, and decorative arts, the city-run institution features exhibits about the city and central Florida. It also maintains a local history archive and research library open to the public. The eastern end of the park is kid-focused and sports a splash fountain and playground as well as shelters that can be used for special events.
Amtrak provides ticketing and baggage services at this station, which is served by two daily trains.
- Accessible Platform
- Accessible Restrooms
- Accessible Ticket Office
- Accessible Waiting Room
- Accessible Water Fountain
- Dedicated Parking
- Enclosed Waiting Area
- Help With Luggage
- High Platform
- Ticket Office
- Wheelchair Lift