When Trains First Came to Central Florida

In the twentieth century, the railroads of central Florida would be dominated for over 60 years by two great railroad companies, the Atlantic Coast Line (ACL) and the Seaboard Air Line (SAL) railroad.

Except for a rail line from Fernandina to Cedar Key, central Florida had to wait some 20 years after the Civil War before rail service was again extended south from northern Florida.

The map below is a snapshot of railroad progress up to the end of the year 1886. Edward Reed's Peninsular railroad system (green lines on the map), turned several pre-War northern Florida railroad companies into a single railroad system, then began expanding them southward. The rival Plant System (red lines on map) would grow from a short Georgia railroad extension into Florida into a mighty railroad empire that would be the first to win the race to Tampa.
When Trains First Came to Central Florida
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During the Civil War, a railroad branch was constructed between Live Oak, Florida and Dupont, Georgia to move Confederate soldiers and supplies northward from Florida. Rails from the old Florida Railroad were taken up and used to build the Live Oak line. The Confederacy damaged other rail lines to slow the advance of Union forces, and other railroad infrastructures around Jacksonville were damaged by Union forces in the fighting. Just 38 percent of the 155-mile Fernandina to Cedar Key railroad survived the war intact.

Following the end of hostilities, restoration of damaged railroads became a priority during the period of Reconstruction. By the early 1870s, efforts to restore northern Florida railroads was being propped up by new European investors.

The election of Governor Bloxham brought legislation that offered cheap land to encourage railroad expansion and development. Hamilton Disston bought the largest tract, a total of 4 million acres.

Peninsular Railroad system

In April 1881, Sir Edward Reed and his European syndicate began to invest in railroads. The former Atlantic Gulf & West India Transit RR was sold at auction and the name changed to Florida Transit RR. This railroad (green lines on map) included a main stem (Fernandina to Cedar Key), the Peninsular Florida division (Waldo to Ocala), and the Fernandina & Jacksonville division.

Reed bought Tropical Florida Railroad in January 1881. Intended to eventually go all the way from Ocala to Tampa, by June of 1882 it had only been built to Wildwood.

In 1882, Reed bought the old Florida Central Railroad that extended from Jacksonville to Lake City, and purchased the Jacksonville Pensacola & Mobile railroad that extended westward from Lake City to Chatahoochee, combining both lines into the renamed Florida Central & Western RR.

In January of 1883, the Florida Transit, Tropical Florida, and Peninsular Florida railroads were combined into the new Florida Transit & Peninsular RR, continuing the dizzying sequence of reorganizations and renaming.

With an infusion of Hamilton Disston's land and new investors in 1884, the Florida Central & Western RR and the Florida Transit & Peninsular RR (along with the Fernandina & Jacksonville railroad) were consolidated into the Florida Railway & Navigation Company. Rails were extended to Tavares via Leesburg, and from Wildwood to Plant City, opening in 1886. But further financial problems slowed down further progress toward the south. That led to the need for still another reorganization, and this time Reed decided to step aside.

(Finally, by 1888, investor W. Bayard Cutting would reorganize the Florida Railway & Navigation Company into the Florida Central & Peninsular railroad. And Tampa would finally be reached from Plant City in 1890, six years after the arrival of the Plant System there.)

For a link to images of Peninsular system locomotives, go here.

Plant System of Railroads

Henry B. Plant of Connecticut and his Plant Investment Company (PICO) entered the Florida railroad picture in 1879 by purchasing Georgia's Atlantic & Gulf Railroad in 1879. The line included the rail link (red line on map) from Dupont to Live Oak that was developed during the Civil War. PICO then purchased the Savannah & Charleston Railroad. Plant combined the two railroads into his newly created Savannah Florida & Western Railway.

With a line into Florida, Plant sought a shorter route to the important railroad center of Jacksonville. Plant obtained a Georgia charter for the new Waycross & Florida Railroad to build from Waycross to the Florida line, and obtained a Florida charter for the new East Florida Railroad to continue the same line from the Georgia border to Jacksonville. Known as the Waycross Short Line, this shortcut was completed in April of 1881.

Next, Plant obtained a Florida charter for the new Live Oak Tampa & Rowland's Bluff Railroad to extend the Plant line below Live Oak to New Branford. Plant then obtained a charter for the Live Oak Tampa & Charlotte Harbor Railroad to extend the line from New Branford to Tampa.

But not much of this line was built before Plant realized that another railroad, the Florida Southern Railway, was already chartered to build a line along a similar route. Plant immediately began negotiating with the Florida Southern investors so that their routes would not compete. An agreement was reached in December of 1883 for the Florida Southern to give up its charter to build north of Gainesville (and the Plant System would not build south of Gainesville) in exchange for Plant's financial assistance to the Florida Southern to build their planned route to Charlotte Harbor.

By March of 1884, the Waycross & Florida, East Florida, Live Oak Tampa & Rowland's Bluff, and Live Oak Tampa & Charlotte Harbor railroads were all absorbed into Plant's Savannah Florida & Western Railway.

Florida Southern Railway

Operated by a syndicate of New England investors, the Florida Southern Railway built a railroad between Lake City and Palatka and Gainesville via Hawthorne and Rochelle, opening the branch in October 1881. After reaching its aforementioned agreement with the Plant System, the Florida Southern sold a controlling interest to Plant to finance its new railroad line down to Charlotte Harbor. (Phosphate deposits were discovered there in 1881, although it is not known if the railroad investors were yet aware of it.) Meanwhile, the Florida Southern completed its rail line construction below Rochelle to Ocala and Leesburg, then extended the line to Croom in 1884 and to Brooksville in January of 1885. After the extension of the line from Croom via Lakeland to Bartow was accomplished by the South Florida Railroad (as described later), the Florida Southern resumed building its line from Bartow to Charlotte Harbor (to what would eventually be called Punta Gorda) during 1886.

(The Florida Southern became the Southern Division of the Plant System in 1895.)

Jacksonville, Tampa & Key West Railway

The Jacksonville, Tampa & Key West Railway had obtained a charter in 1881 to build a line along the St. Johns River from Jacksonville to Sanford. They also held a charter to build an extension between Kissimmee and Tampa Bay. When the Jacksonville, Tampa & Key West Railway needed further financing to finish the Sanford line, Henry Plant agreed to assist in exchange for their charter to Tampa Bay. The Jacksonville, Tampa & Key West Railway finally reached Sanford via Green Cove Springs, Palatka and Deland in 1886.

(The Plant-controlled Jacksonville, Tampa & Key West Railway continued to operate independently until the Plant System was merged into the ACL in 1902.)

South Florida Railroad

The South Florida Railroad, operated by another syndicate of investors from New England, was building a line from Sanford to Orlando, reaching Orlando via Longwood, Maitland and Winter Park in December 1880. The line was extended to Kissimmee in March of 1882. Strapped for cash, the South Florida Railroad sold a 60 percent interest to Plant's investment company. Plant was ready to find a way to extend the South Florida line toward Tampa Bay, and engaged the Jacksonville, Tampa & Key West Railway as described above. Meanwhile, at the urging of Hamilton Disston who owned lands nearby, the South Florida Railroad extended its line from Orlando to Kissimmee in 1882.

When Plant found out that the Tampa Bay charter was due to expire at the end of January, 1884, he sped up the South Florida's construction of the line to Tampa via Lakeland and Plant City. The line opened just days before the charter expiration. The South Florida Railway built a line from Croom to Bartow in 1885, and also added an extension of its line from Lake Alfred down to Bartow in 1885.

(The South Florida Railroad finally became a part of the Plant System's Savanna Florida & Western Railway in 1893.)

For a link to images of Plant System locomotives, go here.


Pettengill, George W. Jr., The Story of the Florida Railroads, Railway and Locomotive Historical Society Bulletin No. 86, 1998

Turner, Gregg M., A Journey into Florida Railroad History, University Press of Florida, 2008

Turner, Gregg M., The Plant System of Railroads, Steamships and Hotels, Garrigues House Publishers, 2004
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