Based in the rather odd little town of Clewiston, FL, the U.S. Sugar Corporation is the largest sugar cane producer in the country and the mack daddy of Florida’s massive sugar industry, known collectively as Big Sugar.
Bringing in their 92nd annual Florida sugar cane harvest this fall, the company has had a massive role in state politics and Everglades environmental protections (or lack thereof), for the past century of Florida’s history. Centered around Clewiston, sugar cane fields spread over hundreds of thousands of acres across the lower middle of the state, covering an area so huge that U.S. Sugar has always operated its own railroad to manage it all. And a few years ago they expanded from just transporting things like sugar cane to shuttling around pleasure-seeking tourists and nerdy railroading fans as well.
The South Central Florida Express, the official name of U.S. Sugar’s railroad, has always squired cargo trains of sugar farming-related things, sugar foodstuffs, and sugary leftovers, up and down an extensive network of 171 miles of track through sugar cane fields and along the southern perimeter of Lake Okeechobee. The system is so big, it’s officially the largest privately-owned agricultural railroad in the United States. The “cane trains,” as they are called, take freshly harvested sugarcane to the company’s gigantic refinery just south of Clewiston for processing, after which more trains take the resulting sugar-related products, like refined white sugar crystals and molasses, to interchanges on each end of the line where they will then head off throughout the United States and into grocery stores and ultimately into your food.
The new heritage railroad, called the Sugar Express, debuted here a few years ago with a 100-year-old steam engine that has its own storied Florida history. This locomotive began life on the Florida East Coast Railway’s Key West Extension, also known as the famed Overseas Railroad (where the Overseas Highway is now), and was later used by U.S. Sugar to haul “cane trains” in the middle of the 20th century. Fully restored and used for tours, events, and special outings like a Polar Express-themed excursion for Christmas, that single heritage train has since expanded in size and scope, with an impressive collection of historic railcars, including a dining car, an open-air car, a former Pennsylvania Railroad lounge car, another steam locomotive that had been on display outside Jacksonville’s historic downtown train station since 1960, an entire turntable formerly used by the Wabash Railroad in St. Louis Missouri, which will now be used in Clewiston, and more.
Over the past few years, as the world tackled a pandemic and U.S. Sugar continued to restore its historic locomotives, railroad cars, and old pieces of infrastructure (like the turn table), and wider public ridership interest grows, events happened here and there. For the 2022-2023 winter season, they just announced a “Start of Harvest” train on October 1st, which will be a day-long excursion to Lake Placid, FL, including a two-hour stop in the quaint little town, for $148 per person, and a much more elaborate and extensive three-day tour of the entire SCFE railroad in January, for an appropriately sizable $400 per person.
Publicity photos of the Sugar Express via U.S. Sugar
Since Big Sugar is under attack for burning its sugar cane refuse– and causing respiratory diseases for everyone living nearby– you’d think that a multibillion dollar corporation would make those train rides free, you know, to score points with the public.