Railroads first came to Florida in the 1860s with a line running from Fernandina Beach to Cedar Key. However, real development arrived after the Civil War with lines eventually becoming of Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railroad and Henry Plant’s Plant System. Later, the Atlantic Coast Line and Seaboard Air Line railroads built their tracks through Central Florida to the Gulf Coast. In the panhandle, Seaboard built a line west from Jacksonville to River Junction in Chattahoochee where it connected with the Louisville & Nashville Railroad west through Pensacola into Alabama. Also, the Southern Railway System pushed south from Valdosta, Georgia into Jacksonville.
Since the Florida Railroad Museum is located in the Gulf Coast area, we will focus on the Plant System and Seaboard Air Line in that region.
Henry Plant took over the Jacksonville, Tampa and Key West Railroad and expanded into Tampa to connect with his steamship lines running to Cuba and other destinations. He also built hotels and key locations along this line in the 1890s. In 1900, Henry Plant died and his railroad interests were soon purchased by the Atlantic Coast Line, along with several other acquisitions in Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. The Atlantic Coast Line made Tampa its major destination on the West Coast with maintenance shops, yards and shipping facilities located there. The ACL Florida main line ran from Jacksonville to Tampa via Orlando, Lakeland and Plant City.
The Seaboard Air Line, based in Richmond, VA, was a competitor of the ACL and came to Tampa in 1902, running tracks through Ocala and Plant City before turning west toward Tampa. Seaboard began building branch lines just after the turn of the century to St. Petersburg, Bradenton, Sarasota and Venice.
Both railroads also absorbed several short lines until their tracks intertwined throughout this region and laid the ground work for their eventual merger in 1967, forming the Seaboard Coast Line.
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The Florida Railroad Museum thanks Lewis L. Zerfas for the research and compilation of the following articles.