Orange Belt Railway

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A former Orange Belt Railway depot (Groveland train depot) in Groveland, Florida

The Orange Belt Railway was a 3 ft (914 mm) narrow gauge railroad established in 1885 by Russian exile Peter Demens in Florida. It was one of the longest narrow gauge railroads in the United States at the time of its completion in 1888, with a mainline 152 miles (245 km) in length between Sanford, Florida and St. Petersburg, Florida.[1] It carried citrus, vegetables, and passengers; and it interchanged with two standard gauge lines: the JT&KW at Monroe, Florida and the FC&P at Lacoochee, Florida.[2]

The railway changed hands several times in its early years due to debt run up during various phases of construction and a citrus freeze that affected freight cargo. Demens lost the railroad to financier Edward Stotesbury, who reorganized it as the Sanford & St. Petersburg Railroad in 1893. After the Great Freeze of 1894-95, the railroad was put up for sale. It was purchased by Henry B. Plant in 1895,[3] who converted it to standard gauge, and made it part of the Plant System. It became part of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad system in 1902. The Orange Belt Railway line brought settlers to towns along its route and fostered development in the region.[4] Sections are now part of rail to trails programs.


The original Orange Belt Railway was chartered in 1885 by three men seeking to build a 35-mile 3 ft (914 mm) gauge line from Lake Monroe, part of the St. Johns River, to Lake Apopka. They purchased $9,400 worth of crossties from Russian immigrant Peter Demens' sawmill in Longwood, Florida and had to turn over their railroad when they were unable to pay (according to a booklet on railroads by the late Rev. Marion Bowman, former abbot of Saint Leo Abbey). Demens formed the Orange Belt Investment Co, borrowed money from friends and launched a $50,000 bond issue to complete the rail line to Oakland, Florida, east of Clermont, Florida.[5]

The Armour meat packing family in Chicago helped fund the line's extension from Trilby to San Antonio.[5] The first train carried coterials and arrived in San Antonio on Nov. 27, 1887.[5] The first passenger train arrived in San Antonio on Feb. 13, 1888.[5]

Oakland, Florida pioneer James Gamble Speer gave Demens a half-interest in 200 acres to encourage Demens to bring the railroad line to Oakland. Demens agreed to move the headquarters and train maintenance shop of his Orange Belt Improvement Co. to Oakland from Longwood, Florida.[4] Soon ater the first train reached Oakland in November 1886, Demens decided to extend the line 110 miles to the Gulf of Mexico.[4]

While Demens was building the Orange Belt Railway in the 1880s with a planned western terminus in the Tampa Bay area, Hamilton Disston offered Demens approximately 60,000 acres (240 km2) of land to stretch his railroad to Disston City. Demens countered with a demand of an additional 50,000 acres (200 km2) but Disston refused, mistakenly believing that Disston City would thrive if the railroad merely came close to the area. Disston City never met Disston's expectations and became the small city of Gulfport, Florida, while St. Petersburg reaped the rewards of Demens's railway and became one of the largest cities in Florida.[6]

John Constantine Williams negotiated with Demens and exchanged part of his land holdings in exchange for a southern terminus near what Demens named St. Petersburg, Florida (after his childhood home in Russia). The Orange Belt Railway crossed Florida from Sanford, Florida to St. Petersburg. The project was underwritten by the Orange Belt Improvement Co. Demens had a timber and sawmill business in Longwood, Florida and acquired some railroad interests after the original owners became unable to pay their bill for railroad ties.[4]

The Orange Belt Railway was completed May 1, 1888,[7] but a lot of debt was run up in order to get it completed.[4] It was sold by Demens in 1889.[7] The rail line entered receivership in 1893.[7] The road was sold by the court, right back to its owners, and they reorganized as the Sanford and St. Petersburg Railroad. The Great Freeze in 1895 damaged citrus trees and hurt the citrus trade's freight business, causing the line to be sold to Henry B. Plant in 1895.[7] The railway became part of the Plant System, and the most profitable section of its track was immediately converted to 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge. The section from Trilby to Sanford remained 3 ft (914 mm) narrow gauge for the line's remaining years under Plant System stewardship and was run in conjunction with the connecting line of the Florida Midland Railway (also taken over by the Plant System), which was converted from 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge to 3 ft (914 mm) narrow gauge to allow the sharing of equipment on the two lines.[8] The Plant System became part of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad system in 1902.

Sections of the rail line are now part of the Pinellas Trail,[7] South Lake-Lake Minneola Scenic Trail and West Orange Trail. Stations included Sutherland (Palm Harbor) station and Ozona.[7] The rail line also played a role in the development of other towns along its route including San Antonio, Florida, Tarpon Springs, Florida, Dunedin, Florida; Clearwater, Florida and Largo, Florida.

A 2012 musical titled Orange Belt Railroad and based on the railroad line's history was created by West Coast Players member Richard J. Budin.[9]


  1. ^ Rails Across Dixie: A History of Passenger Trains in the American South, p. 322
  2. ^ Donald R. Hensley, Jr. The Orange Belt Railway Taplines
  3. ^ History of the Orange Line (Trains Magazine; April 1, 2011)
  4. ^ a b c d e Demens railroad ties build the railroad Orange Belt Railroad Whistles Up Prosperity Along Pioneering Track FLASHBACK - ORANGE COUNTY HISTORY April 2, 1995 By Mark Andrews Orlando Sentinel
  5. ^ a b c d A Railroad Ran Through It (2002) Includes image of an 1888 map of part of the line; article appeared in the Tampa Tribune on Oct. 18, 2002 By CAROLE JEFFARES HEDMAN
  6. ^ Hartzell, Scott Taylor (2006). "Hamilton Disston: In Search of a Metropolis". Remembering St. Petersburg, Florida: Sunshine City Stories. The History Press. pp. 24–28. ISBN 1-59629-120-6. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f Robyn Poppick A Historic Bike Ride: The Pinellas Trail is the Old Orange Belt Railway September 25, 2011 Palm Harbor Patch
  8. ^ History of the Orange Belt Railway
  9. ^ WCP hosts Orange Belt Railroad auditions May 7, 2012 Tampa Bay Newspapers

Further reading[edit]