Tour Wars

Welcome Center
When it was announced that Bozard Ford was moving to SR 16 and I-95 and that their landmark location had been purchased for nearly $2.8 Million dollars by local hotelier Kanti Patel, rumors were flying about what was in store.

For the time being, any way, those rumors can be put to rest since Historic Tours of America, who operates the “green” trolleys in town, has entered into an agreement to occupy the building at 1700 North Ponce De Leon Blvd. For the past week, painters and sign makers have been busily readying the site for use as their latest “Welcome Center”.

This new development comes on the heals of the Historic Tours of America acquisition and conversion of the EXXON station into another “Welcome Center” located near the intersection of Castillo Drive and San Marco Avenue — right next door to their largest competitor, Ripley’s.

San Marco Welcome Center

Ripley Entertainment, Inc. bought the St. Augustine Sightseeing Train Company from local businessman A. H. “Hoop” Tebault. The red trains were the original franchised tour train operators in St. Augustine; started in 1953 by Joe McClure and his partner, Raymond Bravo.

From their inception, the “green” trolleys were a source of controversy between attraction operators, tour operators, the city and local drivers. While most of that has settled down, the part between the local drivers and the trolleys still raises its head from time to time.

The “red” trains, originally referred to as “trailer trains” in the 60’s and 70’s, were open air trams towed by an Oldsmobile purchased at Old City Motors. Later they were towed by a tractor then JEEP and eventually a customized train assembled in St. Augustine. The Sightseeing Trains were headquartered on San Marco Avenue directly across the street from what is now the Old Jail Museum.

Ripley's Sightseeing Trains

H. L. McDaniel, known as “Slim” to his friends, had a tire dealership on San Marco Avenue near the city gates. When the county moved the jail from San Marco Avenue to Lewis Speedway, they expected to demolish the building and advertised for bids to see who would remove the jail for the lowest cost. Rather than have the county pay him to demolish it, Slim offered to buy the building and the land. The commission agreed to sell it to him and McDaniel turned his purchase into the Old Jail Museum.

Things were fine, or so the story goes, until McDaniel and McClure had a disagreement. Some say it was over commissions on the sale of sightseeing train tickets in the Old Jail gift shop. Others contend there was an argument over where the sightseeing trains stopped. It could be that McDaniel refusing to sell McClure’s tickets led to the trains choosing a route that bypassed the Old Jail Museum, but, for whatever reason, McDaniel decided that he would conduct his own tour of St. Augustine’s attractions — and the two companies have been competitors ever since.

When they first began operation, the “green” trolley had a “hook”. The trolley was an enclosed shuttle offering the luxury of air conditioning to summer tourists — many of whom were experiencing Florida summers for the first time. Riding in an open tram, the “red” train patrons were subjected to not only the summer heat but also the winter cold, rain and wind.

Even though McDaniel and McClure are both gone, the “green” trolley — officially “Old Town Trolley Tour of St. Augustine” is again nipping at the heels of the Ripley Sightseeing Trains. It seems that we are destined to have “Welcome Stations” and “Tourist Information Centers” all over town; from North City to King Street and several locations in between. An unofficial count of “stations” puts them at nearly two dozen between the two companies. Add to that the fact that tickets are available at most hotels, several restaurants and dozens of other locations around town; all clamoring for a chance to show our visitors the 20 most interesting spots on their individual shuttle tours.

Photo credit Historic City Media news photographer Kerry McGuire

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