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‘Sugar Express’ is a sweet trip to the past

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Last updated on July 5th, 2024 at 10:03 am

The Sugar Express is a fun ride aboard vintage passenger cars behind steam-puffing ‘No. 148’, a historic locomotive built in 1920 that once carted sugar cane out of the cane fields south of Lake Okeechobee to refineries near Clewiston..

The excursions are sponsored by Clewiston-based U.S. Sugar Company, the nation’s largest sugar producer.

The full season for the Sugar Express runs from October through the end of January with five distinct excursions, ranging in price from $48 per person up to $550 for a three-day marathon.

Featured trips are the Lake Placid Limited ($99), Moore Haven Meteor ($48), the Clewiston Comet ($99), Highlands County Crescent ($48) and the three-day Rare Mileage Special ($550).

In November, I rode the Lake Placid Limited, an all-day adventure embarking from U.S. Sugar’s railroad yards in Clewiston to the historic train station in Lake Placid (FL) with a two-hour layover for lunch.

The Lake Placid Limited

Next trip: Jan. 27, 2024
sugar express
The Sugar Express No. 148 at the historic Lake Placid train station. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

To be honest, I was hesitant to spend $99, the cost of coach. There are no Florida mountains in full fall glory to see, no cliff-hanging canyons or scenic valleys. Really, there’s not much more to see than endless fields of sugar cane and a few citrus orchards.

The trip was fun, actually. Maybe not my money’s worth, but I’m glad I went once. I like riding trains, and I can’t recall the last time I was behind the chug-chug-chug of a whistling steam locomotive.

There was, as expected, fields of sugar cane, an occasional cattle ranch, an orange grove or two, two river crossings, rural back yards and a glancing view of Lake Placid. We did not pass Lake Placid’s famous caladium farms.

sugar express passenger car
One of the passenger cars on the Sugar Express. Decorated for fall on our trip. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

The train was clean and the seats comfortable, and the ride through cane country was smooth. Rest rooms were comfortable and clean, though not spacious enough to allow persons with disabilities. The passenger cars are vintage, as the organizers explained in advance, dating to a time when little thought was given to such accessibility.

The train’s crew was polite and accommodating, answering questions about the train and the cane fields when asked. Complimentary muffins were served on the way out; chips and cookies on the way back; bottled water throughout the trip.

sugar express crossing the caloosahatchee river
Crossing the Caloosahatchee River at Moore Haven from the ‘open-air’ baggage car. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

Passengers were free to roam through the cars, and the “open-air” baggage car with its open doors was popular, especially for photographers who lean out to capture No. 148 as it steamed around curves.

I was surprised U.S. Sugar didn’t offer a presentation about how they grow and process sugar cane, especially given the criticism the company often faces about its stewardship of the Everglades eco-system. A basic introduction is provide in a brochure, and the train’s crew was available to answer questions.

The steam locomotive was only used in one direction, a diesel in the other. As explained in the promotional materials, there were no turnarounds at our destination.

As for destinations, Lake Placid (population 2,400) is a great choice.

The historic train depot is in the center of town, and the 2.5-hour layover allowed enough time to walk around and view the community’s wall murals, visit the tiny American Clown Museum across the tracks and enjoy lunch at one of 10 nearby eateries.

We enjoyed lunch at Morty and Edna’s Craft Kitchen, home of “The Notorious B.L.T.” We had been there before on a camping trip to Highland Hammocks State Park.

American Clown Museum in Lake Placid.
Miniature Big Top at the American Clown Museum in Lake Placid. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

THE LAKE PLACID LIMITED – January 27th, 2024. Departs from the U.S. Sugar rail yards in Clewiston,  900 W C Owen Ave, at 10-10:30 a.m. Arrives in Lake Placid at 12 noon. Departs Lake Placid at 2-2:30 p.m. and arrives back in Clewiston at 5 p.m. First-class tickets are $148 and deluxe coach tickets are $99.00.

Read more: Lake Placid charms with clowns & caladiums, good eatin’ & great yarns

Other excursions aboard the Sugar Express

CLEWISTON COMET – Jan. 13, 2024

The Clewiston Comet originates in Lake Placid and will carry passengers to Clewiston and back with a two-hour layover at the Market on Bond Street in Clewiston, featuring local farmers, fresh food, entertainment in downtown Clewiston.

This full-day excursion departs Lake Placid at 9 a.m., returning at 3:30 p.m. for a 6 p.m. arrival in Lake Placid. Your total time on the train is about six hours.

Deluxe coach tickets are $99.00 and first class seats in the Palmdale Dining Car are $148. Dining Car passengers receive complimentary drinks, light snacks, and appetizers.

HIGHLANDS COUNTY CRESCENT – Jan. 14, 2024

Enjoy a two-hour passenger train ride from Sebring through the orange groves and along the shores of Lake Placid for a roundtrip to and from the sugar-cane loading station site at Childs, Florida. Tickets are $48.00 plus tax. Children three and under who do not occupy a seat ride free.

For hotel accommodations in Sebring, go to: HOTELS.COM

RARE MILEAGE TRAIN – Jan. 20-22, 2024

This is a three-day event that will allow passengers to explore the entire South Central Florida Express, U.S. Sugar’s sprawling rail network with more than 200 miles of track.

This network was built in the early 1900s to access the agricultural communities that emerged from rich soils and muck around the southern shores of Lake Okeechobee. This “Black Gold” was once part of the massive Everglades eco-system.

u.s. sugar rail network
U.S. Sugar’s rail network, the South-Central Florida Express.

Each of the three days, old No. 148 will carry passengers on a 6- to 9-hour excursion to the far reaches of the rail network, a different route each day.

Day passes are $248 per person. The three-day pass is $550, and first-class table packages for four guests are $2,200.

MOORE HAVEN METEOR — Jan. 28, 2024 — “The Ice Cream Train”

This two-hour trip from Clewiston to Moore Haven and back is $48 for adults and $30 for children. There are two trains each day, at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

The “Ice Cream Train” includes complimentary ice cream sandwiches and frozen desserts.

The train follows the same tracks as the Lake Placid Limited but stops halfway at Moore Haven, a port of call for boaters crossing the state on the Okeechobee Waterway.

You’ll see the small town, clusters of boats, and the locks that offer transit from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River.

There is no turnaround in Moore Haven, so Old No. 148 will pull the train one way and the diesel locomotive the opposite direction.

Tickets are $48 for adults and $35 for children.

Parking and boarding for the trip will take place at 900 W C Owen Ave, Clewiston, FL 33440.

For detailed itinerary, more information and tickets, go to: sugarexpress … 2024-rare-mileage-tour

For hotel accommodations in Clewiston, go to HOTELS.COM

About U.S. Sugar Company

Old ‘No. 148’ is owned and operated by U.S. Sugar Company, the largest producer of sugar cane in the nation.

The Clewiston-based firm owns 230,000 acres of land in the massive Glades Agricultural Area of Palm Beach, Hendry and Glades counties, where imore than 700,000 tons of sugar cane are harvested each year, according to Wikipedia.

Aside from sugar cane, U.S. Sugar also produces sweet corn and oranges.

In order to transport the sugar cane to processing within eight hours of harvest, U.S. Sugar operates a truck fleet and rail network to haul the cane from far-flung fields to the company’s refinery in Clewiston.

Old 148 was first put to work hauling sugar cane in 1952 after faithfully serving the Florida East Coast Railroad on freight and passenger routes for almost thirty years.

Replaced by diesel locomotives in the 1960s, Old 148 was retired, worn out and left to die in storage. Six years ago, U.S. Sugar’s CEO ordered it out of mothballs for restoration and its new life to improve public relations.


Sugar Express

2024 Schedule

  • Sat, Jan 13 – Clewiston Comet — 6 hours; $99/person, coach; $148, dining car
  • Sat, Jan 20, 21, 22 – Rare Mileage Special — One-day pass, $248. Three-day pass, $550; First-class table packages, 4 guests for $2200.
  • Sat, Jan 27 – Lake Placid Limited — 6 hours — $99, coach; $148, dining car
  • Sun., Jan 28 — Moore Haven Meteor “The Ice Cream Train”

The season may be extended. For details and tickets, go to SugarExpress.com


During the holidays, ride the Santa Express

Over three weekends in December, the Sugar Express becomes the Santa Express, offering 1.5-hour steam-whistling ride with Santa Claus on different dates from three inland depots at Lake Placid, Sebring and Clewiston.

santa express sugar express
Santa rolls through the Glades for the holidays. (Photo courtesy U.S. Sugar)

The 2024 schedule has not yet been released.

The trains are decorated in the holiday spirit and Santa Claus will provide the holiday cheer.Cookies and refreshments will be served, and each passenger will receive a commemorative ornament.

The rides are popular and availability limited. Tickets in 2023 were $50 for adults 15+, $40 for children age 4-14. Children 3 and under ride free.

The ‘Toys 4 Tots’ Santa Train

On one weekend in December, the Santa Express delivers gifts for Toys for Tots at four cities in its South-Central Florida service area. There are no tickets sold for this special trip, but there will be plenty of excitement for kids who line the tracks along the way.

Santa and his elves will be aboard the train, waving to children along the route, and the elves will distribute gifts to children at each stop.

Dates are not yet available for 2024.

For more information, go to: sugarexpress.com/toys-4-tots

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