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The Florida Trade

The weather outside is frightful

In the early days of railroading, the first short lines were built at the center of North America's population: in the area between New York City and Washington, DC. As the 19th century progressed, the tracks radiated out from there to the north, west and south like spreading ripples in a pond.

The Civil War had a profound impact on this pattern. After hostilities ended, railroads of the South began an independent development based largely on the corridor from Richmond via Atlanta to New Orleans. Development of the extreme southeastern part of the country, both in population and economic terms, was relatively slow in coming.

Florida, in particular, was left on the sidelines until the dawn of the 20th century. In 1880, this was still a largely undeveloped land of pine forests and swamps infested with alligators, mosquitoes and the still-unconquered Seminole Indians. It's only redeeming virtue was a string of coastal villages with pleasant sea breezes, sandy beaches and good fishing. As late as 1900, what little population base there was was in the northern part of the state around Jacksonville and St. Augustine.

Jacksonville, on the St Johns River estuary, had the advantage of being within striking distance of various regional and short line roads in eastern Georgia and the Carolinas as well as having a modest seaport and riverboat access into the deeps of Florida. From this natural positional advantage, Jacksonville grew into a regional rail nexus in the postwar period.

The fortunate combination of mild climate and a growing rail link to the northeast soon came to the notice of northern Plutocrats. A convenient (as such things went at that time) two day train ride would bring those seeking escape from harsh winters to the storied coastal cities of the Old South.

The inhabitants of Savannah and Charleston received these interlopers after a fashion. But even 20 years after Appomatox, vulgar Yankee "new money" was not entirely welcome in these bastions of Antebellum gentility.

There was, however, a bit of north Florida (above the pestiferous Everglades) that offered a certain rustic charm not unlike other bastions where the wealthy "roughed it" in places like eastern Long Island or Bar Harbor, Maine.

The first Florida services began shortly after the Civil War- regional trains for whom Jacksonville was just another destination. Jacksonville's pleasant climate and sandy beaches made it a quiet alternative to the bright lights of Charleston or Savannah. So it soon became a vacation spot of some note.

In December, 1884, the first real Florida Trade appeared in the form of a single interchange car from Jersey City to Jacksonville via the Atlantic Coast Line and the Florida, Central & Peninsular Railway. The Gulf coast received similar patronage with the arrival of a Jersey City to Tampa car in November, 1886.

At about the same time, the narrow gauge Jacksonville, St. Augustine & Halifax (with the help of ferry service across the St. Johns River) linked St Augustine to Jacksonville and St. Augustine began exerting its influence on Florida tourism.

St. Augustine has had a colorful history; the oldest existing white settlement in North America, Spanish Mission, haven for slave smuggling, then for blockade runners during the Civil War, before settling down to a comfortably obscure life around its small harbor. By 1880 it had a population of only 2500 or so. However, below Charleston, this was a metropolis. So a steady trickle of northeastern tourists began "roughing it" here as well.

The development of Florida came about as a result of a devoted husbands care for his ailing wife. The husband was one Henry M. Flagler, partner to none other than J. D. Rockefeller, who retired to the little village of St. Augustine so his wife could benefit from the mild climate.

As enjoyable as St Augustine may have been, it lacked a decent hotel. So Flagler built one: the Ponce De Leon: a Moorish palace that puts Hollywood to shame. This was completed in 1888 at the staggering cost of $1,500,000. While this was going on, Flagler realized that he would need a means to bring people down to St. Augustine to enjoy the tropic clime from the luxury of his new monument. The best way to do this was by railroad. So he bought one, in 1885: none other than the Jacksonville, St. Augustine & Halifax.

This resounding moniker was optimistic: the road came up short of Jacksonville by one technicality: a bridge across the St. Johns River, which Flagler also built in 1890. At that time, he standard-gauged the JStA&H and forthrightly renamed it the Florida East Coast Railway.

Not content to be a mere hotel keeper, Flagler then embarked on a regional development boom intended to turn Florida into the "Riviera of the United States". He standard gauged the J St A & H, bridged the St Johns River and sent his track crews south, building world class hotels at every likely spot along the way.

While Flagler was rampaging down the Atlantic coast, the Gulf coast was being steadily infiltrated by the Plant System, a regional created by one Henry B. Plant, owner of the Southern Express Company.

The Plant System reached the deepwater Tampa Bay in 1884 where it was soon joined by the F,C&P and its Jersey City to Tampa through sleeper. They then pushed further down the Gulf coast to tap the few population centers of that region.

In 1891, Plant responded to the Ponce de Leon by opening the posh Tampa Bay Hotel. Aside from Tampa's seaport, the Plant System in Florida was streak-o-rust serving a handful of cracker villages. This tourism boom looked like a sure fire winner.

Following Flagler's pattern, the Plant System began bringing tourist cars in - mainly from the west and northwest due to the traffic patterns. The Florida Trade was getting into its stride.

The 1890s saw the pace quicken. The Florida East Coast reached the village of West Palm Beach (with a short branch to Palm Beach proper and yet another resort hotel) by 1895. Miami (pop 1000) was reached in 1896 and the Royal Palm added to the tourist lineup.


The dawn of the 20th century was primarily devoted to consolidation. First off, the newly formed Seaboard Air Line absorbed the F,C &P. Eastern traffic began to appear in quantity at Tampa Bay. In 1902, the Atlantic Coast Line absorbed the Plant System and the Florida rail network was more or less complete. There remained only two significant trackwork projects, which would take place in the boom years of the Florida Trade.

As the Florida Trade got into it's stride, more trains began to be added and more of these trains began running in multiple sections. Florida was an early recipient of the new Gothic cars due to their access into Penn Station, New York. Hastily laid track was upgraded, new branches laid, facilities and stations enlarged. Among the most impressive of these were two milestone events: the rebuilding of Jacksonville from a small town station into one of the busiest (in season) passenger complexes in the country; and the Key West Extension.

Along with tourism, there was a population boom under way. Florida needed hordes of people to work at all these fancy hotels and the industries that served them (such as the railroads). Moreover, Florida was 'discovered' and the permanent population began to rise. Agriculture, notably citrus, flourished.


In the Standard Era, the Florida Trade The Florida East Coast railroad was swamped with traffic and began an urgent double tracking project. On the Gulf side, the Seaboard was coveting Miami and built the Coleman Cutoff from Wildwood to West Palm beach and hence south to Miami. This was the last significant trackwork in Florida and very nearly the last major new track project in American railroading.


The Depression hit Florida hard.

One technical development helped the Florida tourist industry through these tough times and set the stage for a major change in Florida tourism. In the early 1930s, air conditioning had been perfected to the point where the first units were being installed on premiere trains. Prior to this, the only relief from the summer heat had been swamp coolers (which have been around since the turn of the century).

Swamp cooling gave Florida tourism major headaches. It was being used with great effect at resorts and hotels in California and the Desert Southwest who were draining off more and more of the remaining tourist trade. Swamp coolers are useless in humid Florida, but the new air conditioners helped restore the competitive edge.

With this new technical advantage, Florida began to break out of its traditional boom-and-bust seasonal tourism by offering off-season hotel rates, less crowding and air conditioned trains. This particularly appealed to the economy conscious, which opened up a whole new market for budget minded middle class tourism.

This economy travel demand created a whole new type of accommodation: luxury coach (an oxymoron in the railroad industry until then). Given the opportunity, two more technology players - Budd and EMD - joined forces to field a series of fast, comfortable economy trains with reclining seats and buffet service that equaled or bettered the timecards of traditional luxury Pullman trains. Not one to be left standing, Pullman quickly joined in and the streamlined lightweight concept soon spread to sleeper service as well.

In 1935, the Key West Extension was destroyed by a hurricane. At that time, the "Havana Special", the only scheduled service, which was cut back to Miami in a hasty rescheduling.


The post war period has seen a resurgence of the Florida Trade. Most Florida trains have been reequipped with lightweight cars (with a notable preference for silvery Budd products) and the new motive power are among the most colorful of diesel fleets.

Even in the declining years of the Railroad Age, the Florida Trade has remained profitable. Traffic loads are still good- supplemented now by air conditioned trains and hotels, making for a year round trade. The surplus of modern equipment on other roads makes the pickings easy. Almost all the principal Florida trains have been reequipped (with a few notable exceptions, such as the "Orange Blossom Special", which, aside from a few American Flyer coaches, has remained heavyweight throughout its career).


Epilogue

The first of the major players to fall by the wayside was not the most critical, but certainly an ominous portent for the future. In 1962, the Florida East Coast was brought to a standstill by labor unrest. After a few days, the railroad decided to terminate its Union contract and operate with non-union crews and improved work rules. Because of its marginal profitability (and due in part to the hazards of labor violence to passengers) the FEC embargoed all passenger trains below Jacksonville. The Miami station was torn down in September, 1963.

The ACL was able to reroute its shrinking fleet over the SAL's Coleman Cutoff to Miami. However, the ACL had its own problems- notably a rising conservatism in the Passenger Department that was making ACL trains increasingly uncompetitive. As the postwar years progressed, SAL gradually began to move ahead of the ACL as the leading Florida service provider.

The next blow came in February, 1968, when long standing grievances between the newly merged Penn-Central and the newly merged Seaboard Coast Line came to a head. While the SCL was still earning a modest Florida income, the Northeast Corridor had more than it's share of operating and physical plant problems. In the politically charged climate of northeastern railroading's death throes, the PC decided that passenger service had to go - including the one passenger operation that was still even marginally in the black.

The PC flat out refused to have anything more to do with Florida passenger operations. Their plan was thwarted for a while by political pressure and the promise of Amtrak, and the few New York trains kept running. (This adamant and unrealistic stand against passenger service also drove Pullman under.)

Interestingly, during this time of general decline, passenger service to Florida was actually increasing. The SCL holds the distinction of being the last road to add sleepers (second hand from the C&O) to its roster in March, 1970.

April 1, 1971 and the dawn of Amtrak saw termination of the last secondary Florida trains including the "Everglades" and the venerable "Gulf Coast Special" On the eastern routes, only the "Silver Star" and the "Meteor" remained, together with their rival, the "Champion", which would be discontinued a short time later.

Oddly, well after Amtrak began, there was one last attempt at New York to Florida service by the "AutoTrain". Using refurbished Heritage Fleet cars and triple rack auto carriers, AutoTrain did what the railroads should have tried. Although limited by its departure from Arlington, Virginia (the auto racks wouldn't fit the Capitol Hill tunnel and PC made it clear it had no intention of cooperating) Autotrain was successful in its first few years. However, misfortune in the form of a bad derailment, rising fuel prices and a stagnant economy took their toll. Autotrain reached the end of the line in 1979, effectively ending the epic.


Topics:

New York To Florida - - Chicago To Florida

SAL local power in Florida

Reference:

R, F & P - - Florida East Coast RR - - Seaboard Air Line - - Atlantic Coast Line


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North East Rails  Clint Chamberlin.
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