Rail Ventures: Traveling with Mitchell Wolfson, Jr.

“Trains to me symbolized freedom and discovery. I was born with train love,” said Wolfsonian founder Mitchell Wolfson, Jr., who as a boy dreamed of owning a railcar. As an adult, he surpassed that dream, ultimately owning three historic railcars, two of which he took on extensive trips across the United States and into Canada and Mexico during the 1980s and early 1990s.

All told, Wolfson, along with 438 guests, logged 124,450 miles during 24 trips, many of which lasted for multiple weeks, adding up to 505 days on the rails. These trips were the focus of the public program Rail Ventures on April 28, a panel discussion with Wolfson; John Reed, who organized the trips; and Sam Boldrick, former curator of the Florida Collection at the Main Library of the Miami-Dade Public Library System. The discussion was moderated by historian Paul George.

Rail Ventures was organized in conjunction with the exhibition Beyond the Rails: Notes on Trains, Travel, and Society on view at the Freedom Tower (MDC Museum of Art & Design) from March 27 through April 28. Drawn from the collection of The Wolfsonian–FIU/Downtown, the exhibition was produced by students as part of a year-long Museum Studies course held at the The Wolfsonian’s downtown facility for Miami Dade College and New World School of the Arts. The course was co-taught by Lea Nickless, collections manager for The Wolfsonian–FIU/Downtown. The panel discussion was organized by the students.

“Florida was made by the railroad. If not for the railroad, we would not be here today. The train is what really opened us to the world,” Wolfson said, adding that train travel is in the blood of Floridians. It was certainly in his blood, and he passed that enthusiasm along to his travel companions, although it could take a bit of time, as he recalled.

Many of Wolfson’s guests boarded the 1920s railcars anticipating a grand adventure, only to realize that they would be traveling, often for weeks, in cramped quarters with limited bathroom and shower facilities. “The first meal was always a nightmare. You could see the desperation in their eyes, wondering if they could get off at the next station. Then, after dinner, they would sit on the platform and when they came back inside they would be completely black with dust. We knew we had them then,” he said.

The railcars were The Hampton Roads, built by Pullman Company in 1926 and The Clover Colony, a standard Pullman sleeping car from 1920, acquired by Wolfson in 1985 and 1986, respectively. That first purchase came as a surprise to Reed, who managed many of Wolfson’s business dealings. “I didn’t know anything about railcars. When this man said, ‘I bought a new car,’ I thought he meant a Cadillac. He said, ‘No, you know, a Pullman,’ ” recalled Reed, who spent much of the next several years organizing the trips, including such adventures as a fifty-two day cross-country trek with stops in thirty-five towns and cities. “They were magical trips. People still talk about them,” he said.

“What was it like to travel with Micky?” George asked.

“It was Cirque du Soleil,” Reed replied.

That impression was reinforced as the panelists mentioned highlights of some of the trips. Wolfson told of traveling by rail directly to the front door of the governor general’s home in Quebec for a promised, lavish dinner; being chased through a railcar by an irate, knife-wielding chef in Montgomery, Alabama; making purchases en route, such as cemetery gates from Savannah and the back door of Buffalo’s city hall; and watching a turkey fly through the railcar after escaping from the kitchen of a newly hired Austrian chef.

“The best part of the trips was the other passengers,” said Boldrick. “Micky was able to put together the most diverse groups of people.” Wolfson spoke of guests as wide-ranging as Alexander and Mimi Romanoff and one of his family’s domestic employees, Cora Lee, whose first trip outside of Florida was on the railcar.

The rail travels ended with Hurricane Andrew in 1992. At the time, the railcars were housed in a shed at the Gold Coast Railroad Museum and during the storm the structure collapsed, crushing the railcars.

The trips themselves were in many ways a nod to the golden age of rail travel. “The jet ruined the railroad and it ruined steamship travel. You couldn’t complete with the jumbo jet, with six hours instead of six days,” Wolfson noted. But for several years, he and his guests had a taste of what rail travel once was. “The trips were all spectacular. People fell in love on the train. It was an amazing, amazing adventure.”

Captions (click below to enlarge):

Top:

Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. and Paul George
Photo: Courtesy of MDC Museum of Art + Design

Bottom:

From left, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr., Paul George, Sam Boldrick, and John Reed
Photo: Courtesy of MDC Museum of Art + Design

John Reed
Photo: Courtesy of MDC Museum of Art + Design

Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. with students from Miami Dade College and New World School of the Arts who completed the year-long Museum Studies course
Photo: Courtesy of MDC Museum of Art + Design

Installation view, Beyond the Rails: Notes on Trains, Travel, and Society
Photo: Courtesy of MDC Museum of Art + Design

 

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Rail Ventures: Traveling with Mitchell Wolfson, Jr.
Rail Ventures: Traveling with Mitchell Wolfson, Jr.
Rail Ventures: Traveling with Mitchell Wolfson, Jr.
Rail Ventures: Traveling with Mitchell Wolfson, Jr.