Seaboard Air Line Railroad

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Seaboard Air Line Railroad
Seaboard RR logo.png
Reporting mark SAL
Locale Virginia
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 4,490 miles (7,230 kilometres)
Headquarters Norfolk, Virginia

The Seaboard Air Line Railroad (reporting mark SAL) was an American railroad whose corporate existence extended from April 14, 1900, until July 1, 1967, when it merged with longtime rival Atlantic Coast Line Railroad to form the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad.

At the end of 1925, SAL operated 3,929 miles (6,323 kilometres) of road, not including its flock of subsidiaries; at the end of 1960, it reported 4,135 miles (6,655 kilometres). The main line ran from Richmond via Raleigh, North Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, to Jacksonville, Florida. From Jacksonville, SAL continued to Tampa, St. Petersburg, West Palm Beach and Miami.


The complex corporate history of SAL began on March 8, 1832, when its earliest predecessor, the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad, was chartered by the legislatures of Virginia and North Carolina to build a railroad from Portsmouth, Virginia, to the Roanoke River port of Weldon, North Carolina, shortcutting a long, three-sided water route. The line reached Weldon in 1837. The new railroad was not successful, and in 1846 it was purchased by the Virginia State Board of Public Works, leased to the town of Portsmouth, and reorganized as the Seaboard & Roanoke Railroad. In the early 1850s, control of the railroad was acquired by a group of Philadelphians who also controlled the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad (RF&P) and the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad.[1][2]

The Raleigh and Gaston Railroad (R&G) was completed in 1840 between Raleigh and Gaston, North Carolina—not present-day Gaston but a town a few miles up the Roanoke River from it. In 1853, it was extended a few miles east to Weldon, connecting there with the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad and several other railroads. During the Civil War, portions of the railroad were destroyed at various times by both Union or Confederate troops; parts were rebuilt and used by both sides, although it was not a particularly strategic railroad. Prosperity returned after the war, with the efficiently managed Seaboard Road showing a profit even during the Panic of 1873, and paying stockholders an annual dividend of 8%.[2] In 1871, the R&G acquired control of a line under construction south from Raleigh, the Raleigh and Augusta Air-Line Railroad. By 1877 that line had reached Hamlet, North Carolina, and a connection with the Carolina Central Railroad, a line from Wilmington through Charlotte to Shelby. By 1875 the Seaboard and the two Raleigh railroads were headed by one man, John M. Robinson, who was also president of the RF&P and the Baltimore Steam Packet Company. In 1881, Robinson gained control of the Carolina Central. The Robinson railroads were then known as the Seaboard Air-Line System (SAL).[1][3]

SAL had connected at Charlotte with the Atlanta and Charlotte Air Line Railway. In 1881 that came under control of the Richmond and Danville Railroad, predecessor of the Southern Railway (SOU). The SAL began construction in 1887 of a line from Monroe, North Carolina between Hamlet and Charlotte, to Atlanta — the Georgia, Carolina and Northern Railway. It reached the Georgia capital in 1892. In the late 1890s the Richmond, Petersburg and Carolina Railroad was completed between Norlina, North Carolina and Richmond, Virginia; by 1900, that line was named the Seaboard Air Line Railway.[1]

In 1896, John Skelton Williams of Richmond and a group of associates obtained control of the Georgia and Alabama Railway (G&A), a line completed in 1891 between Montgomery, Alabama and Lyons, Georgia. Williams leased and built lines to extend the G&A east to Savannah. In 1898 Williams acquired control of the SAL group of railroads, and in 1899 he took over the Florida Central and Peninsular Railroad (FC&P), which had a line from Columbia, South Carolina, through Savannah and Jacksonville to Tampa, and another from Jacksonville west through Tallahassee to a junction with the Louisville and Nashville Railroad at the Chattahoochee River.[1][4][5][6]

The FC&P traced its ancestry to the Tallahassee Railroad, organized in 1834 to build a line from Tallahassee to the Gulf of Mexico — the 22 mi (35 km) line was opened in 1836. The Jacksonville-Tallahassee route, opened in 1860, was built by two companies that were eventually united as the Florida Central and Western Railroad.[1]

The Florida Railroad was opened in March 1861 from Fernandina through Baldwin and Gainesville to Cedar Key, Florida to form a land bridge from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf. It became the Atlantic, Gulf and West India Transit Company, then the Florida Transit Railroad ("transit" having its older, less-specific meaning, rather than referring to streetcars, nickel fares, and frequent service). In 1883, it was consolidated with two other companies to form the Florida Transit & Peninsular Railroad (FC&P); in 1884 that company and the Florida Central & Western merged to form the Florida Railway & Navigation Company, which was succeeded in 1889 by the Florida Central & Peninsular Railway. In 1890 a line of the FC&P was extended south to Tampa, and in 1893 it built a line north to Savannah, where it connected with the recently opened South Broad Railroad to Columbia, South Carolina.[1][5][7][8]

This direct entrée into Florida did not escape the notice of Williams and his financial backers. In April 1899, Williams purchased a majority stock interest in the FC&P for $3.5 million.[9] In 1900, 91 miles (146 kilometres) of new construction between Columbia and Cheraw, South Carolina connected the Georgia and Alabama Railway and FC&P with the "old" SAL system, which by then, comprised 19 railroads in which it owned all or most of the capital stock. Williams proposed to build north from Richmond to connect with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, because the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad was controlled by the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad (ACL). The Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) and the state of Virginia, both owners of portions of the RF&P, applied pressure, and the SAL was allowed to sign a traffic agreement with the RF&P — and with the PRR, too.[1] The agreement allowed through passenger service from New York City to Tampa (which currently comprises Amtrak's Silver Star route).[10]

Two early SAL logos, used 1900–1916

Williams was out at the end of 1903 — he went on to assemble the Georgia and Florida Railway — but he had begun an extension west to Birmingham, Alabama by a combination of new construction and the acquisition of East and West Railroad of Alabama.[1] Thomas Fortune Ryan, who had opposed the Williams syndicate when it purchased the controlling interests in the various SAL companies, succeeded in assuming control in 1904. Ryan's policies proved disastrous; following the Panic of 1907, SAL entered a brief receivership and Ryan was ousted.[11] S. Davies Warfield, a SAL director and member of the railroad's executive committee, was appointed one of the receivers, and was subsequently named chairman. In 1912, Warfield became the majority stock owner of SAL.[12] The corporation underwent a reorganization in 1915 when the subsidiary Carolina, Atlantic and Western Railway was renamed the Seaboard Air Line Railway and took over the previous Seaboard Air Line. In 1918, SAL opened a new line from Charleston, South Carolina to Savannah. In conjunction with an existing line from Hamlet, North Carolina, to Charleston it formed a freight route with easier grades than the main line through Columbia. About that same time, SAL began to gather up short lines in the agricultural and phosphate mining area of central Florida including the Tampa & Gulf Coast (Tampa-St. Petersburg/Tarpon Springs), the Charlotte Harbor and Northern (Mulberry-Boca Grande), the East and West Coast Railway (Bradenton-Arcadia), and the Tampa Northern (Tampa-Brooksville).[1]

SAL's principal projects in Florida during the land boom of the early 1920s were the construction of their Florida Western and Northern line from Coleman, just south of Wildwood, southeast to West Palm Beach, and the Seaboard-All Florida Railway, which extended the line from West Palm Beach to Miami.[13] SAL's first passenger train arrived in Miami on January 8, 1927; a few months previously SAL had opened an extension down the west coast to Fort Myers and Naples (which was also part of the Seaboard-All Florida Railway). In 1928, SAL acquired the Georgia, Florida & Alabama Railway, a 194 mi (312 km) line from Richland, Georgia, south through Tallahassee to the Gulf.[1] The Florida land boom collapsed in 1926, just as SAL was finishing up its lines to Miami and Naples, and the stock market crashed in 1929. The SAL was not a strong railroad, and it was located between the ACL and the SOU, both properous and well-established operations. Overextended by its expansion program in Florida, it collapsed into receivership in December 1930. Government loans from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation helped the railroad begin a modernization program, and revenues from the busy years of World War II lifted SAL back to profitability. In 1944, the Silver Meteor alone turned a profit of over $8 million, nearly as much as the deficit of the entire railroad had been in the 1933.[14] The influx of cash permitted SAL to install block signals and centralized traffic control — the lack of automatic signals on most of SAL's lines had caused several accidents during the war. SAL was reorganized as the Seaboard Air Line Railroad in 1946.[1]

During the decade after WWII, SAL prospered along with nearly every other U.S. railroad. SAL's position was bolstered by industrial development in the South and healthy traffic in phosphate rock — nearly one-fifth of SAL's tonnage — used in production of fertilizers. SAL's passenger business was also healthy, thanks to heavy traffic between the Northeast and Florida.[1] In 1958, SAL absorbed the Macon, Dublin and Savannah Railroad, which it had long owned, and in June 1959, SAL purchased the Gainesville Midland Railroad, a 42 mi (68 km) line connecting the mill town of Gainesville, Georgia with SAL at Athens.[1]

SAL is credited for the innovation of the talking defect detector. Placed roughly every 20 miles on their mainline, the brain of the detector was housed in large concrete block bungalows. For the first time, crews can hear a readout of the hot box (hot bearing) and dragging equipment check over their radios in their engine and in the caboose, rather than seeing an "OK" indication from a white light from the bungalow. Many on the former SAL line are replaced but some still remain today.

This is a defect detector located on the CSX Auburndale Subdivision at M.P. SX 829.3. The concrete bungalow housed SAL's talking defect detector's brain. This detector still has the same radio announcement since it was first installed.

Merger of the SAL with parallel—and rival—ACL was proposed in 1958. The benefits of the SAL merger derived largely from eliminating duplicate lines and terminals. The merger took effect on July 1, 1967, creating the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad (SCL).[1]

The Seaboard Coastline Building at Portsmouth, Virginia, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.[15] The Seaboard Air Line Railway Building at Norfolk was added in 2013.[16]

Air-line name[edit]

In the days before air travel, air line was a common term for the shortest distance between two points: a straight line drawn through the air, ignoring natural obstacles. Hence, a number of 19th century railroads used air line in their titles to suggest that their routes were shorter than those of competing roads. SAL never owned an airplane. In 1940 the railroad proposed the creation of Seaboard Airlines, but this idea was struck down by the Interstate Commerce Commission as violating federal anti-trust legislation.

During a spate of interest in aviation shares on Wall Street following Charles A. Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic flight in 1927, SAL shares attracted investor curiosity because of the name's aviation-related connotations; only after noticing that SAL was actually a railroad did investors lose interest.[17]

Passenger trains[edit]

Following is a partial list[18][19] of several passenger trains operated by SAL during the first half of the 20th century, some of which were continued by successors Seaboard Coast Line (SCL) and Amtrak. Trains originating in New York were handled by the PRR New York–Washington; RF&P Washington–Richmond; and SAL Richmond to points south.


The term heavyweight refers to trains consisting of passenger cars with all-steel construction. By 1910, nearly all major railroads were replacing their wooden passenger fleets with cars of heavyweight construction.

  • Florida and Metropolitan Limited
  • Atlanta Special
  • Suwanee River Special
  • New Orleans–Florida Limited
  • Orange Blossom Special
  • Southern States Special


The following trains constituted SAL's "Silver Fleet" of streamliners, with lightweight fluted-side stainless steel cars pulled by colorful EMD diesel locomotives:


Two former Seaboard cars, dining car #6113 and tavern-lounge-observation #6603, were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001 and are on display at the Boca Raton Florida East Coast Railway Station.[15]


SAL was one of the few railroads that named its freight trains. Among these were:

  • Merchandiser: Richmond–Miami
  • Marketer: Miami–Richmond, Tampa–Richmond (joined into one train at Baldwin, Florida)
  • Tar Heel, #89: Richmond–Bostic, North Carolina
  • The Capital, #27: Richmond–Birmingham
  • Iron Master: Birmingham–Atlanta
  • Alaga: Montgomery–Savannah
  • Pioneer: Montgomery–Jacksonville


Use in popular culture[edit]

Johnny Cash can be seen sitting atop a Seaboard Air Line freight car on the cover of his 1965 album Orange Blossom Special with the title song about the passenger train that had on the Seaboard Air Line until 1953.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n 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. 298–301. ISBN 0-89024-072-8. 
  2. ^ a b Prince, Richard E. (2000) [1966]. Seaboard Air Line Railway: Steam Boats, Locomotives, and History. Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-33695-3. 
  3. ^ Classic Trains Magazine – Railroading History, Train Travel, Steam Locomotives – Fallen Flags: P-S
  4. ^ "The Seaboard Air Line Deal". The New York Times. January 6, 1899. Retrieved 2011-06-03. 
  5. ^ a b Turner, Gregg M. (2008) A Journey into Florida Railroad History. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida. ISBN 978-0-8130-3233-7
  6. ^ "New Railroad in Florida". The New York Times. December 13, 1892. Retrieved 2011-06-03. 
  7. ^ "Florida Central and Peninsular". The New York Times. Dec 21, 1893. Retrieved 2011-06-03. 
  8. ^ "Shorter Line to Florida". The New York Times. December 24, 1893. Retrieved 2011-06-03. 
  9. ^ "News of the Railroads: Sale of the Florida Central". New York Times. Apr 23, 1899. Retrieved 2011-06-03. 
  10. ^ "Seaboard Merger Move". New York Times. July 22, 1903. p. 3. Retrieved 2011-06-02. 
  11. ^ "Pritchard Names Seaboard Receivers". New York Times. Jan 3, 1908. p. 5. Retrieved 2011-06-06. 
  12. ^ "Southerners Buy Seaboard". New York Times. June 7, 1912. Retrieved 2011-06-06. 
  13. ^ Solomon, Brian (2005). CSX. MBI Publishing Company. pp. 32–34. ISBN 0-7603-1796-8. 
  14. ^ Welsh, Joseph M. (1994). By Streamliner: New York to Florida. Andover Junction, New Jersey: Andover Junction Publications. ISBN 978-0-944119-14-3. 
  15. ^ a b "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2010-07-09. 
  16. ^ Marcus R. Pollard (July 2012). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination: Seaboard Air Line Railway Building". Virginia Department of Historic Resources. 
  17. ^ Ross, Walter S. (1968). The Last Hero: Charles A. Lindbergh. New York: Harper & Row. pp. 170–171. 
  18. ^ Welsh, Joseph M. (1994). By Streamliner: New York to Florida. Andover Junction, New Jersey: Andover Junction Publications. ISBN 978-0-944119-14-3. 
  19. ^ Baer, Christopher T. "Named Trains of the PRR Including Through Services," Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society, 8 September 2009, accessed 25 October 2012
  20. ^
  21. ^ Routes and Trains on the Eve of Amtrak

20. Harmon, Danny Railfanning With Danny 5.20.12 Lakeland & Winter Haven

External links[edit]


  • Calloway, Warren L., and Paul K. Withers. Seaboard Air Line Railroad Company Motive Power. Withers Publishing, 1988. ISBN 0-9618503-1-0.
  • Johnson, Robert Wayne. Through the Heart of the South: The Seaboard Air Line Railroad Story. Boston Mills Press, 1995. ISBN 1-55046-144-3.
  • Harmon, Danny. "Railfanning With Danny 5.20.12 Lakeland & Winter Haven." YouTube
  • McIver, Stuart B. (1994) Dreamers, Schemers and Scalawags. Sarasota, Florida: Pineapple Press, Inc. ISBN 1-56164-034-4
  • Prince, Richard E. Seaboard Air Line Railway: Steam Boats, Locomotives, and History. Indiana University Press, 2000. (reprint of 1966 edition) ISBN 0-253-33695-3. The classic, authoritative history of the company, thickly detailed and profusely illustrated.
  • Schafer, Mike (2000). More Classic American Railroads. Osceola, WI: MBI. ISBN 076030758X. OCLC 44089438. 
  • Solomon, Brian. CSX. MBI Publishing Company, 2005. (SAL history is summarized on pp. 32–34.) ISBN 0-7603-1796-8.
  • Turner, Gregg M. (1999) Railroads of Southwest Florida. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing. ISBN 0-7385-0349-5
  • Turner, Gregg. (2003) A Short History of Florida Railroads. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing. ISBN 0-7385-2421-2
  • Turner, Gregg M. (2008) A Journey into Florida Railroad History. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida. ISBN 978-0-8130-3233-7
  • Welsh, Joseph M. By Streamliner: New York to Florida. Andover Junction Publications, 1994. ISBN 978-0-944119-14-3.