Constructing the New Railroad

Actual construction of the new cross-state railroad began in September, 1855. The construction crews were made up mostly of slaves and a small number of white laborers. They cleared the dense forest and filled swamps placing the rails through a mostly uninhabited land, fighting insects and wild animals. It took almost a year to construct the first 10 miles. The first section from Fernandina to Lofton was completed on August 1, 1856, and Gainesville by February 1, 1859. When finished, it ran through 155.5 miles of wilderness, creeks, rivers, and marsh lands of Florida using only one locomotive to transport equipment and slave labor to lay the track.

When the Florida Railroad was completed in 1860, it was considered to have the best equipment in the state. It had two sixty-person passenger cars of the latest design, two baggage cars, fourteen boxcars and twenty-one flatcars.

On March 1, 1861, the first train arrived in Cedar Key. The completion of the railroad was also a major cause of celebration for the entire state of Florida. Trade between ports like New Orleans and those to the northeast no longer had to be routed around the Florida Keys.

The railroad also offered Florida residents the opportunity to see parts of their state that they had never been able to explore before, linking many communities with a common connection through a rural state.

Unfortunately, with Florida's entry into the Confederate States of America and the outbreak of the Civil War, all prospects of establishing the state as a hub for international commerce ended.

Enter the Civil War

On April 12, the Civil War began with the bombardment of Ft. Sumter. The railroads in the Confederate States were vital and became a critical transportation system for the south. But in Florida, with the exception of 4 miles of track built from Tallahassee west to just short of Quincy, in 1863, new construction of Florida railroads took a hiatus with the onset of the war.

On March 3, 1862, Yulee and his family were the last to leave Amelia Island. The USS Ottawa shelled the retreating train as it passed over the bridge to the mainland. Witnesses said that the Yulees waved their handkerchiefs at the pursuing Union forces.

Map of Florida Railroads
1862 Florida Military Map

Early in the war, Cedar Key was a major shipping port and in the hands of the Confederates. In 1862, the Union forces captured the port. Numerous Federal expeditions used the railroad bed to send forces inland.

Service on the cross state railroad was interrupted and the line was damaged heavily during the Civil War, but it was repaired by Federal troops shortly after the War's end.

Continue to Post War Development

© 2006 Lewis L. Zerfas
Reprinted with permission