Florida Railroad History

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about Florida railroad history. We will highlight the key developments and advances made in rail technology, and place these in historical context.

Florida and the Railroad

When you think about Florida, the railroad probably isn't the first thing that comes to mind. Chances are, palm trees, sandy beaches, oranges, sunshine, or even Disney World come to mind rather than the railroad. We often tend to associate the railroad with industrialized regions such as Pennsylvania, or maybe even with the American West.

Nevertheless, the state of Florida has an interesting rail history, going back to the 1830s. It would not be until the Civil War Era, however, that railroad construction really took off. Florida's non-mountainous terrain made it an ideal location to build a railroad, although overcoming marshes and swamps sometimes posed difficulties. The coming of the railroad brought economic growth to the area and had a dramatic impact on society. Let's learn more about Florida's railroad history.

The Railroad Comes to Florida

Railroad development began in the United States during the 1820s and 1830s. Initially development was concentrated in industrialized areas like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York. One of the earliest American railroads was the Ohio and Baltimore Railroad, which began operating in 1828. Although not a major industrial area, it was only a few years before the railroad arrived in Florida. The first railroad in the state ran between Tallahassee to Port Leon, and was constructed in 1834. However, this railroad was NOT powered by a steam locomotive. The rail-cars were pulled by mules. Port Leon was on the Gulf of Mexico, and the rail line was commonly used to transport cotton and other natural products from Tallahassee to the Gulf Coast, where they they were shipped overseas.

The first steam-powered railroad line in the state was the Lake Wimico and St. Joseph Canal and Rail, which began operation in 1836. The following year the Tallahassee Railroad began service, connecting north Florida with south Florida, running from Tallahassee to the Gulf Coast. In 1852, the Pensacola and Georgia Railroad was chartered to run east to west. The 'P&G' connected Tallahassee to the east with Lake City, Florida, and to the west with Quincy, Florida. In 1855, the P&G bought the Tallahassee Railroad. It also oversaw the construction of the Tallahassee Station in 1858, a historic train station that still stands.

An early American steam locomotive.
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Florida became a state in 1845. One of the men who fought for statehood was U.S. Senator David Yulee. Yulee envisioned a railroad running across the Florida peninsula, connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. Running from Fernandina to Cedar Key, the Florida Railroad was completed in 1860. The line was intended to establish Florida as a major center of commerce. However, the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, brought an end to this dream.

U.S. Senator David Yulee.
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Rail Transportation Takes Off: The Civil War and Beyond

With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, railroad lines became essential to the Confederate Army. They were used extensively to transport troops and supplies. The Florida Railroad was badly damaged during the Civil War. In 1862, both Fernandina and Cedar Key were shelled by Union ships, resulting in significant damage to Confederate rolling stock (locomotives). During the shelling of Fernandina, Senator David Yulee barely escaped with his life after a shell fragment killed the man next to him. The Union capture of Fernandina and Cedar Key effectively disabled Confederate use of the Florida Railroad.

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