Atlantic Coast Line Railroad

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This article is about the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in the United States. For the Atlantic Coast Line in Cornwall, UK, see Atlantic Coast Line, Cornwall.
Atlantic Coast Line Railroad
ACL herald.png
Atlantic Coast Line R.R. Building, Jacksonville, Florida.jpg
ACL headquarters; Jacksonville, Florida
Reporting mark ACL
Locale Alabama
North Carolina
South Carolina
Dates of operation 1900–1967
Successor Seaboard Coast Line Railroad
Track gauge 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge
Length 5,743 miles (9,242 kilometres)[1]
Headquarters Wilmington, North Carolina (1900-1960)
Jacksonville, Florida (1960-1967)

The Atlantic Coast Line Railroad (reporting mark ACL) is a former U.S. Class I railroad from 1900 until 1967, when it merged with long-time rival Seaboard Air Line Railroad to form the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad. Much of the original ACL network has been part of CSX Transportation since 1986.

The Atlantic Coast Line served the Southeast, with a concentration of lines in Florida. Numerous named passenger trains were operated by the railroad for Florida-bound tourists, with the Atlantic Coast Line contributing significantly to Florida's economic development in the first half of the 20th century.

At the end of 1925 ACL operated 4924 miles of road, not including its flock of subsidiaries; after some merging, mileage at the end of 1960 was 5570 not including A&WP, CN&L, East Carolina, Georgia, Rockingham, and V&CS. In 1960 ACL reported 10623 million net ton-miles of revenue freight and 490 million passenger-miles.[citation needed]


19th century[edit]

ACL 1882 advertisement showing component lines and steamship connections.

The history of the Atlantic Coast Line (ACL) began in 1830 with the organization of the Petersburg Railroad, which opened between its namesake city in Virginia and the north fork of the Roanoke River opposite Weldon, North Carolina.[2][3] The Richmond & Petersburg Railroad (R&P) was organized in 1836 and formed a connection with the Petersburg Railroad in 1838, after an initial period during which the two companies interchanged freight and passengers with riverboats but not with each other.[1]

In 1840 the Wilmington & Raleigh Railroad was opened from Wilmington, North Carolina north 161 miles (259 kilometres) of Weldon. Its initial destination had been Raleigh, but the citizens of the state capital were not interested in the project. It was renamed Wilmington & Weldon (W&W) in 1855. The Wilmington & Manchester Railroad (W&M), from Wilmington west into South Carolina, was opened in 1853. Connecting with it at Florence, South Carolina was the North Eastern Railroad, whose line to Charleston, South Carolina opened in 1857.[2]

After the Civil War, William T. Walters of Baltimore gradually acquired control of the W&W, W&M, North Eastern, Petersburg, and R&P railroads, forming a route known as the Atlantic Coast Line — an association of more or less independent railroads.[2] In 1889 Walters formed a holding company to control them; it was renamed the Atlantic Coast Line Company in 1893.[4]

The R&P merged the Petersburg in March 1898 and in November of that year was renamed the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad of Virginia. In April 1900 it merged the Norfolk & Carolina Railroad (Norfolk, Virginia-Tarboro, North Carolina), the W&W, the Southeastern Railroad (an 11-mile (18 km) line from Elrod to Ashpole, North Carolina), and the ACL of South Carolina and renamed it simply the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. The new railroad stretched from Richmond and Norfolk, Virginia, to Charleston, South Carolina and Augusta, Georgia.[4]

The Atlantic Coast Line runs through many states Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia along the eastern coast line.

20th century[edit]

After the turn of the century ACL grew quickly into a large system of railroads, some leased, some controlled, some wholly owned.[1] With the acquisition in 1902 of the Plant System (the Savannah, Florida & Western Railway and its leased lines and subsidiaries, plus steamship lines and hotels), ACL expanded south from Charleston, South Carolina into Georgia and Florida. Henry B. Plant had been superintendent of the Adams Express Company at the beginning of the Civil War. In 1861 he organized Southern Express, which much later became a component of Railway Express Agency.[2] In 1879 Plant acquired the Atlantic & Gulf Railroad, whose main line ran from Savannah to Bainbridge, Georgia.[1] Plant also reorganized it as the Savannah, Florida & Western (SF&W) and constructed several lines: west from a point of a few miles east of Bainbridge to Chattahoochee, Florida, to connect with a Louisville & Nashville Railroad (L&N) predecessor; southeast from Waycross, Georgia to Jacksonville, Florida; and south from Live Oak, Florida to Gainesville. In 1893 the Plant System absorbed the South Florida Railroad (Sanford-Port Tampa) and in 1899, the Jacksonville, Tampa & Key West (Jacksonville-Sanford). Among the other components of the Plant System were the Charleston & Savannah, the Brunswick & Western (Brunswick through Waycross to Albany, Georgia), and the Alabama Midland (Bainbridge to Montgomery, Alabama). All three were merged with the SF&W in 1901. That same year a cutoff was constructed from Jesup to Folkston, Georgia, bypassing Waycross.[1]

Also in 1902 ACL acquired control of the L&N, which in turn controlled the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway. Later ACL and L&N jointly leased the Carolina, Clinchfield & Ohio and formed the Clinchfield Railroad to operate it.[2] ACL and L&M also leased the railroad property of the Georgia Railroad & Banking Company (closely affiliated with the Atlanta & West Point and the Western Railway of Alabama) and formed the Georgia Railroad to operate it. In 1926 ACL acquired control of the newly reorganized Atlanta, Birmingham & Coast Railroad (AB&C), which gave it lines from Waycross to Atlanta and Birmingham, where it connected with L&N. ACL merged the AB&C in 1945.[1]

Another member of ACL's family was the Charleston & Western Carolina Railway (C&WC) (Port Royal, South Carolina through Augusta, Georgia to Anderson, Greenville and Spartanburg, South Carolina). The first portion of the railroad, between Augusta and the coast, was financed by the Georgia Railroad & Banking Company. However, the Central Railroad & Banking Company (Central of Georgia Railway) gained control in 1881 not so much to stop the flow of traffic from Georgia to Port Royal as to tap inland South Carolina for the Port of Savannah. Central of Georgia lost the railroad in 1894; ACL gained control in 1897. By 1930 the C&WC was operated independently; its appearance was Atlantic Coast Line — secondhand ACL steam locomotives, including Pacifics for freight service, and silver and purple diesels. ACL finally merged the C&WC in 1959. Connecting with the C&WC at Laurens, South Carolina was another railroad controlled by ACL, the Columbia, Newberry & Laurens Railroad, a 75-mile (121 km) line joining the three cities of its name.[1]

The ACL acquired the East Carolina Railway in 1935, running south from Tarboro to Hookerton, although the 12-mile (19 km) extension to Hookerton was abandoned in 1933.[5]

Later history[edit]

The Atlantic Coast Line Railroad (ACL) was considered one of the three strong railroads of the South (the other two were the L&N and the Southern). The opening of the Perry Cutoff in the last quarter of 1928 between Thomasville, Georgia and Dunnellon, Florida shortened considerably the route between the Midwest and west coast points. ACL advertised itself as the "Standard Railroad of the South," and its route between Richmond and Jacksonville was fully signaled and mostly double track, much more than the parallel Seaboard Air Line Railroad (SAL) could boast. As with the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), which advertised itself as the "Standard Railroad of the World," there were some nonstandard items. Two are notable. ACL was one of the few railroads to consider the Pacific a dual-purpose engine (they were designed for passenger service vs. heavy-duty freight service), but the profile of its main line was such that a 4-6-2 could move freight at good speed. The other was the color choice for its diesels — purple (president Champion McDowell Davis, nicknamed "Champ," liked purple). The 4-6-2s yielded to EMD E-units for passengers and EMD F-units for freight, and purple on the diesels eventually gave way to black.[1]

ACL advertisement for New York-Florida trains, circa 1910

During the Great Depression ACL's freight traffic declined by approximately 60 percent[6] but the railroad survived without declaring bankruptcy; its success has been attributed to its leadership and careful financial practices, as well as owning 51% of the L&N, which remained strong through the Depression.[2]

During World War II ACL's passenger traffic increased 200 percent and freight traffic 150 percent. The railroad provided an alternate to coastal shipping, threatened by German submarines, and also served the fast-emerging military industry in the Southeast.[2] In 1942 Champion McDowell Davis became president of the ACL and immediately began an improvement program that finished in the mid-1950s, including the rebuilding of several hundred miles of track, the installation of modern signaling systems and improvements to freight yards.[6] The railroad spent over $268 million ($3,868,260,692 today) in upgrading its physical plant during this period.[2]

In 1955 the ACL announced its departure from Wilmington, North Carolina and made the move of its headquarters from Wilmington to Jacksonville, Florida in 1960. Jacksonville was selected from three candidate cities, the other two being Savannah and Charleston. Construction of the new office complex was finished in July 1960, with the move from Wilmington completed over the following weeks.[7]


In 1958 the ACL and SAL announced they were considering merger, and in 1960 they petitioned to merge as the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad. The two companies served much the same territory, and they had 75 common points. The principal argument for merger was the elimination of duplicate lines and facilities. The merger was approved by the Interstate Commerce Commission and took effect on July 1, 1967.[8]


ACL EMC E3 #501 pulled the Champion; it currently resides at the North Carolina Transportation Museum


During its early years, the ACL handled mostly seasonal agricultural products, but by World War II its freight traffic had become more diverse. During the 1950s, around 44% of all freight traffic consisted of manufactured and miscellaneous items, while bulk traffic like coal and phosphates also expanded during this time. During the 1950s, the ACL acquired some 13,000 new freight cars, to be used on high-speed trains offering reduced running times compared to earlier equipment. This allowed the railroad to remain competitive in the face of competition from the Interstate highway system.[2]


ACL carried the majority of Florida-bound passengers, turning Miami passengers over to the Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) at Jacksonville but carrying west coast passengers all the way — to Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota, Fort Myers, and Naples. ACL also participated in most of the Midwest-to-Florida passenger train routes.[1] In 1939, in response to SAL's popular streamliner, the Silver Meteor, ACL launched its first streamlined train, the all-coach Champion (named after ACL president Champion McDowell Davis). ACL invested heavily in its passenger fleet after World War II but passenger revenue fell from $28.5 million in 1946 ($344,674,915 today) to $14.1 million in 1959 ($114,071,575 today). Until the 1967 merger, the railroad continued to maintain and improve its passenger service.[2]

Notable passenger trains[edit]

All of ACL's New York-Florida trains operated over PRR tracks north of Washington, D. C., then via the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad from Washington to Richmond. Tampa/St. Petersburg trains used ACL rails south of Richmond. Trains for Miami operated over the FEC from Jacksonville to Miami, but after passenger service on the FEC ended with a long-lasting strike in 1963, ACL transferred its Miami-bound trains to SAL rails at Auburndale, Florida.

  • Champion (New York-Miami/Tampa/St. Petersburg)
  • Dixie Flyer (Chicago/St. Louis-Miami/Tampa)
  • Everglades (Boston–Jacksonville)
  • Florida Special (New York–Miami/St. Petersburg) (winter only; a rival to Seaboard's Orange Blossom Special)
  • Gulf Coast Special (New York–Tampa/Ft. Myers/St. Petersburg)
  • Havana Special (New York–Key West) (until 1935)
  • Miamian (Washington–Miami)
  • Palmetto (New York–Savannah/Augusta/Wilmington)
  • Vacationer (New York–Miami)

In popular culture[edit]

In Preston Sturges' 1942 comedy The Palm Beach Story, main character Gerry Jeffers (Claudette Colbert) boards the Florida Special in New York City's Pennsylvania Station.[9]

In the 1946 musical, The Harvey Girls, the ACL is name-checked in the song, "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe".

Map gallery[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Drury, George H. (1994). The Historical Guide to North American Railroads: Histories, Figures, and Features of more than 160 Railroads Abandoned or Merged since 1930. Waukesha, Wisconsin: Kalmbach Publishing. pp. 28–32. ISBN 0-89024-072-8. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Schafer, Mike (2003). Classic American Railroads, Volume III. Saint Paul, MN: MBI. pp. 9–17. ISBN 076031649X. OCLC 768623553. 
  3. ^ Nuckles, Douglas B. (1995). Seaboard Coast Line Railroad. Lynchburg, Virginia: TLC Publishing. pp. 1–3. ISBN 1-883089-13-1. 
  4. ^ a b "Atlantic Coast Line Railroad". Retrieved 13 February 2011. 
  5. ^ W. Terry Smith. "Farmville collector shares passion for railroads with Tarboro " TGIF " The Daily Southerner, Tarboro, NC". Retrieved 13 February 2011. 
  6. ^ a b "The Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, Standard Railroad of the South". Archived from the original on 17 March 2011. Retrieved 12 February 2011. 
  7. ^ Goolsby, Larry (2010). "The ACL Moves to Jacksonville". Lines South (White River Productions) 27 (3): 14–21. 
  8. ^ Griffin, William (2004). Seaboard Coast Line & Family Lines. TLC Publishing. pp. 4–16. ISBN 0-9766201-0-3. 
  9. ^ Dirks, Tom. The Palm Beach Story (1942) Filmsite movie review, accessed 23 February 2012