Florida's Forgotten Railroad

By BRUCE ROBERTS Tampa Tribune Correspondent, April 11, 1954
Article is copyrighted & used with permission of the Tampa Tribune.

Updated by John Leynes April 4th, 2004

Note: Nothing remains today of the locomotives described in this story.
The Maddox Foundry & Machine Works however, continues in operation.

ARCHER FLORIDA

There is a railroad in Florida, but the Civil War vintage railroad was "stranded" in the woods near Archer. Nearly 75 years ago the tracks leading to the main line were taken up and sold for scrap metal. Now the rolling stock including antique locomotives are a permanent part of the landscape.

In 1954 vines grew through the cowcatcher. A lizard sunned himself in the cab, and the only "passengers" of the once-swank train that ran between Fernandina and Cedar Keys were scorpions, ants and dragon-flies. Birds built their nests in the ancient smokestacks.

But let's start at the beginning, in this case, the pre-war year of 1860. In the Fall of that year the distant echo of a steam locomotive and workmen's sledge hammers penetrated the dim and gloomy recesses of the forest near the Waccasassa River. One hundred workmen were pushing the "chain" rail tracks of the Florida Railroad Company through the swamp west of Otter Creek. They were working to meet a deadline; the tracks had to reach Cedar Key by spring under the terms of the construction contract.

On March 1, 1861 an old second-hand eight-wheeler locomotive named Abner McGehee kept the terms of the contract, and chugged into Cedar Key over newly laid tracks, and became the first locomotive to reach the Gulf of Mexico from the Atlantic Coast.

To connect the Atlantic coast with the Gulf had been the dream of David Yulee, Florida Railroad pioneer. Eight years before the realization of his dream he had organized the Florida Railroad Company with a stock of $1,000,000 and started building a railroad down from Fernandina near the Georgia line where connections to the major rail lines could be made.

During the years which followed, the track, which was imported from England, pushed down to Gainesville and on to Archer. It was slow going, the woods at places being almost impenetrable. Trestles had to be built to bridge the swamps.

Objections even came from the people living back in the woods. The farmers' wives claimed the tracks broke their eggs when they drove their carts over them on the way to market.

Backwoodsmen objected to the turpentine operators who followed the railroad into the forest. They said the turpentine men ruined the land for hog ranges and put all the blame on the railroad. But the 155 miles of track from Fernandina to Cedar Keys was completed on March 1861 which was a good thing as the railroad had issued a time-table several months before.

In 1857 when 50 miles of track had been constructed, the company purchased its first new locomotive, an eight-wheeler named the Gov. Broome. Up until then the only power on the line had come from the old Abner MeGehee built in 1839 for the Montgomery Railroad Company. After some 20 years the Montgomery Railroad had retired old Abner from a sawmill railroad where thel Florida Railroad picked him up.

However in 1860, just as the line was about completed the company purchased two more new engines, the Alachua and Marion both eight-wheelers. Two passenger and 14 freight cars made up the rest of the rolling stock. But just as the company got the line in operation the Civil War broke out and Federal troops landed at Cedar Key and blew up the telegraph office and depot and captured two of the companies 14 freight cars. However, the company still was able to run a few trains on the tracks between Fernandina, Gainesville and Archer.

During the reconstruction days the company had its troubles. The rails which were made out of soft English iron had not been kept in condition during the war began to turn up at the ends. These upturned points were called "Snake Heads" and reduced the running speed of the trains to a bumpy 15 miles per hour and on the morning of May 16, 1876, the south bound passenger train for Cedar Key bounced off the track near Fernandina demolishing four cars.

Financially the company was in worse shape. By 1872 it, couldn't pay the 1 per cent interest on its bonds. That year it went into receivership and was reorganized under the exotic name of the Atlantic Gulf and West Indies Transit Company. Later after being tossed about the company was taken over by the Seaboard Airline Railroad in 1902. However, conditions in Cedar Keys improved and by 1880 it was a busy place. The population was much, larger than Tampa's at the time and three big sawmills were turning out wood for pencils.

Travel reached a new high in 1881 and the company started running two trains a day into the city. The tracks ran out to a large loading dock where goods could be loaded directly from ocean-going ships which docked at Cedar Key.

On Thursdays the railroad ran special excursion trains to the city from Jacksonville, and the beaches were filled with people. General Grant toured the line in his special car. Upon his arrival at Cedar Key he congratulated the engineer, J. A. Ferlara, and gave him a box of his special big black cigars. Ferlara left the box of cigars in the engine cab where an Indian found them and started passing them out to the crowd that had gathered to see the general off in an excursion boat docked at Cedar Key.

The cigars must have been strong or the people not accustomed to smoking, for as General Grant gazed down at the crowd from the deck railing he noted almost everyone was sick and having convulsions.

But the railroad was doing fine and in December of that year the editor of the Gainesville Bee wrote: "The company while possessing more rolling stock than any other road in the state is still slightly deficient in this respect. We are informed by an official of the Transit as the line was then popularly known, that a night train with sleeping cars attached will be added to the service. Passengers will then be able to make the trip to Cedar Keys from Fernandina without changing cars. "The Transit is on a big 'boom' and we predict the day is not fart distant when it will eclipse all other roads in the state."

An extension of a branch line was started from Wildwood south to Plant City. However a long trestle at Panasofkee had to pass over a swamp. After several attemps, piling was driven into the swamp bottom which was found to be more than 150 feet deep. Several months after the tracks had been laid on the trestle it sank below the water and disappeared for good.

After the turn of the century the trees for the sawmills in Cedar Key started to give out and the boats began to dock at other ports. Later a road was put through to Cedar Key and that just about finished the railroad.

In 1931 the Seaboard filed for permission to end rail service on the line from Archer to Cedar Key and in 1932 the Interstate Commerce Commission granted it.

The last trip out was made by a worktrain which took up the rails as it went. The railroad had come and gone from Cedar Key and left nothing but memories.

Article is copyrighted & used with permission of the Tampa Tribune.