While the sound of
a steam whistle echoing through the pine forests of north Florida evokes
romantic images of a frontier past, the real impact of rail transportation
has been the development of the urbanized Florida we know today.
Although the period
of Reconstruction (1865-1877) had resulted in Florida rejoining the United
States, many Floridians found themselves cut off from the rest of the
country. Florida had few roads and needed to build more railroads.
Unfortunately, the state was in debt from the Civil War and had no
finances with which to expand.
businessmen, however, did have money and saw investment opportunities in
Florida. In 1881, a man by the name of Hamilton Disston bought 4 million
acres of land from Orlando to Lake Okeechobee for 25 cents an acre. This
single investment helped get Florida out of debt and back on the road to
A year later, Henry
B. Plant began building railroads throughout the state of Florida. He also
connected Florida's railways to Georgia, opening the way for interstate
trading and travel. He constructed many hotels along the railways. His
most famous hotel was the Tampa Bay Hotel, which was built at a cost of
nearly 3 million dollars. It was the most modern hotel in Florida at the
time with 500 rooms and electric lights. Plant also owned and operated
many steamboats and he continued building in Florida throughout the late
An entrepreneur by
the name of William Chipley built railroads that linked the Panhandle
region with the rest of Florida. This enabled the goods being shipped to
the Pensacola ports to be sent to the rest of the state by rail.
Henry M. Flagler
(pictured at right) settled in the east coast town of St.
Augustine. He built its first big
hotel, the Ponce de León, (pictured at left in an early photo.) which was the most luxurious of its time. To
encourage people to visit, he built railroads to help connect St.
Augustine and Daytona Beach to railways that could bring guests all the
way from New York. Flagler also developed the resort town of Palm Beach
and connected it, of course, by railroads.
By 1900, Florida had
more than 3,000 miles of railroad and its transportation problems had been
solved. Its economy thriving, Florida's growth had only just begun.
The Keys were
"put on the map" in 1912 with the completion of the Overseas Railroad. An
extension of the Florida East Coast Railroad, it linked the Keys to the
mainland (as well as to each other) and made them accessible to large
numbers of people, boosting commerce in general. Pictured at left is the
bridge at Knight's Key.
Before Henry Flagler constructed the railroad (also referred to as
Flagler's Folly and the Eighth Wonder of the World), travel to the islands
could be accomplished only by boat; transportation that was both
time-consuming and costly. It is said that Marathon was named by the
Flagler's workers on Pigeon Key who related the building of the railroad
from Miami to Key West with taking part in a marathon.
Defying the ravages of the Atlantic Ocean for 23 years, the railroad
finally succumbed to the infamous Labor Day hurricane of 1935. The
government purchased the roadbed, and just three years later, construction
of the Overseas Highway (which is actually superimposed over the
railroad's path) was completed and opened to traffic. Visitors could now
travel to the Keys by automobile to enjoy its tropical offerings, and the
rest, as they say, is history.
Check out the map below. Not only does it show the extent of railroad
tracks in Florida in 1862, it also graphically illustrates how much our
state has changes. Hey where's West Palm Beach?