Rails through the Palmettos

By Lewis L. Zerfas

Early railroads used wood rails to support wagons pulled by horses. Iron replaced the wood rails by 1776, but it was not until the turn of the century when the first steam train ran. By September of 1825 the first scheduled steam powered train, Stockton & Darlington Railroad Company, carried both goods and passengers ran in England.

The first successful railroad in the United States carried goods from Quincy to Boston, Massachusetts in 1827. Soon after, other railroad companies sprung up, including the famous Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1830.

Florida's First Railroad

The first railroad to appear in Florida ran from Tallahassee to Port Leon, near the Gulf of Mexico. Construction began in 1834 and when completed, mules pulled cartloads of cotton from Tallahassee to the ocean-going ships at Port Leon.

The Lake Wimico and St. Joseph Canal and Railroad was Florida’s first steam powered railroad train and began operations serving Port St. Joe in 1836. The “Tallahassee Rail Road” began operations the next year connecting Tallahassee to the Gulf at St. Marks. The Pensacola and Georgia Railroad, chartered on January 8, 1852 to built east from Pensacola, but started at Tallahassee. In 1855 the Pensacola and Georgia bought the Tallahassee Rail Road.

Crossing the State

Florida gained statehood in 1845. David Yulee, an influential politician who had served on the Florida Constitutional Convention spearheading the drive for statehood, had a dream of uniting Florida’s two seas, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, by rail. His intent was to allow shipping to bypass the hazardous Florida Straits (the “keys”), an area where ship sinking annual loses reached millions of dollars. Freight would be transferred from ships to rail cars at either port, one on the Gulf and the other on the Atlantic. Safe delivery, as well as eliminating about three days of travel was to the advantage of the merchants. This idea was similar to a cross-state canal proposed in the 1820’s.

Portrait photo of David Levy Yulee

Yulee chose the deep-water port of Fernandina on Amelia Island as his Atlantic terminus and main office. For the Gulf of Mexico port, he chose Cedar Key over Tampa because it had the deeper harbor and was closer to Fernandina by rail and New Orleans by sea.

Financing was a constant problem for Yulee, borrowing money to make payments, he had to mortgage his slaves and property to secure loans. Yulee assisted in the passage of a federal land-grant bill, which provided the Florida Railroad with about 500,000 acres of land.

Continue to Constructing the New Railroad

© 2006 Lewis L. Zerfas
Reprinted with permission