Florida Southern Railway
|Dates of operation||1881–1903|
|Successor||Atlantic Coast Line Railroad|
|Track gauge||4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge|
|Previous gauge||originally 3 ft (914 mm) gauge|
The Florida Southern Railway (later known as the Florida Southern Railroad) was a railroad that operated in Florida in the late 1800s. It was one of Florida's three notable narrow gauge railway when it was built along with the South Florida Railroad and the Orange Belt Railway. The Florida Southern was originally chartered to run from Lake City south through central Florida to Charlotte Harbor. However, with the influence of Henry B. Plant, it operated with two discontinuous segments that would make up the Plant System, which would later become part of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad.
The Florida Southern Railway was first chartered as the Gainesville, Ocala, and Charlotte Harbor Railroad in 1879, with a planned route from Lake City to Charlotte Harbor with a branch to Palatka to connect with steamboats on the St. Johns River. The name was then changed to the Florida Southern Railway in 1881.
The line was extended from Rochelle just south of Gainesville to Ocala by the end of 1881. Track from Gainesville to Ocala would be the main line and the track from Rochelle to Palatka would be the Palatka Branch. By 1883, the southern end of the main line reached Leesburg, and the northern end was extended from Gainesville to Hague.
Henry Plant’s involvement
In 1883, Henry B. Plant was in the midst of building his own system of railroads south from Du Pont, Georgia to Live Oak, Florida and south to Charlotte Harbor with plans to build in a similar path. When he learned of the Florida Southern's plans, he invested in the Florida Southern and made an agreement with them to avoid having two competing lines. In the agreement, Plant would not build his railroad, the Live Oak, Tampa and Charlotte Harbor Railroad, past Gainesville. He bought the Florida Southern's unfinished line and charter north of Gainesville.
Under the agreement, the Florida Southern would operate the combined network from Gainesville south to Pemberton Ferry where it would connect with a branch of the South Florida Railroad, another railroad Plant had invested in. The South Florida Railroad's Pemberton Ferry branch would then operate from Pemberton Ferry south to Lakeland, where it would cross and briefly join the South Florida Railroad's mainline, and then turn south to Bartow. In Bartow, the Florida Southern would resume and finish the route south to Charlotte Harbor.
The Florida Southern Railway reached Leesburg by 1883, where it connected with the St. Johns and Lake Eustis Railroad, which extended east towards Tavares, Astor, and beyond. The Florida Southern later leased this branch line.
Construction began on the southern segment of the line, known as the Charlotte Harbor Division, in September 1885 from Bartow along the Peace River (where large deposits of valuable phosphate was discovered in 1881) to Arcadia and Charlotte Harbor. Surveying work to determine the route for the Charlotte Harbor Division was accomplished by Punta Gorda civil engineer Albert W. Gilchrist, who would later serve as Florida's 20th governor. The Charlotte Harbor Division was completed with its first train to Punta Gorda (initially known as Trabue) on July 24, 1886.
The Florida Southern Railway went into receivership in 1890, though the Charlotte Harbor Division was operated independently through the receivership. It came out of receivership in 1892 and was reorganized as the Florida Southern Railroad. The Charlotte Harbor Division was converted to standard gauge in 1892.
The Florida Southern was fully absorbed into the Plant System in 1896, which was then sold to the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in 1902. The Florida Southern lines were initially of great importance to the Atlantic Coast Line. One of the Coast Line's first orders of business regarding the Plant System was extending the Florida Southern's Charlotte Harbor Division south to Fort Myers. Plant had been reluctant to have the line continue to Fort Myers (which had already been established as a city at the time unlike Punta Gorda) under his ownership as Charlotte Harbor was his ultimate goal, but the Atlantic Coast Line saw greater opportunity. The Atlantic Coast Line would complete the extension to Fort Myers in 1904 and would further extended the line to Naples and Marco Island in the 1920s. Along with the southern segment of the former South Florida Railroad's Pemberton Ferry branch, this line would be become known as the Atlantic Coast Line's Lakeland to Naples line.
The Florida Southern's northern segment also played an important role for the Atlantic Coast Line. Track From Palatka south along with the northern segment of the South Florida's Pemberton Ferry branch and the Tampa and Thonotosassa Railroad would serve as an alternate route to the Atlantic Coast Line's main line (the former Jacksonville, Tampa and Key West Railway and South Florida Railroad main line) between Palatka and Tampa.
The Atlantic Coast Line became the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad in 1967 after merging with their former rival, the Seaboard Air Line Railroad (whose mainline ran roughly parallel to the Florida Southern's main route). In the Seaboard Coast Line era, the former Florida Southern's main route operated as the Ocala Subdivision and Palatka Subdivision (east of Rochelle). The Charlotte Harbor Division operated as the Fort Myers Subdivision.
In 1980, the Seaboard Coast Line's parent company merged with the Chessie System, creating the CSX Corporation. The CSX Corporation initially operated the Chessie and Seaboard Systems separately until 1986, when they were merged into CSX Transportation. During the transition into CSX, the company sought to abandon many redundant routes and sell others to shortlines. By 1982, the company had abandoned the former Florida Southern's track from Palatka to Edgar, and track south of Rochelle was broken up into segments. These abandonments were mostly due to the line's proximity to CSX's S Line (the former Seaboard Air Line main line). By 1989, track was abandoned from Gainesville to Hawthorne. Track from Bowling Green to Arcadia was also removed by the end of the decade.
The Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail runs on the Florida Southern's former right of way from Gainesville to Hawthorne. From Hawthorne east to Edgar, the line remains and is now CSX's Edgar Spur (which now connects to CSX's S Line).
Two segments of the Charlotte Harbor Division are also still in service. Trackage from Homeland (just south of Bartow) to Bowling Green is now the southernmost segment of CSX’s Valrico Subdivision. From Arcadia south to Punta Gorda, the line is operated today by Seminole Gulf Railway (who also operates the line’s extension to Fort Myers and Bonita Springs built by the Atlantic Coast Line). The Seminole Gulf segment now connects to the rest of CSX's network via the former Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railway.
- Hensley, Donald. "Florida Southern's Narrow Gauge Years 1879-1896". Tap Lines. Retrieved 6 August 2017.
- Turner, Gregg (2003). A Short History of Florida Railroads. Arcadia Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7385-2421-4.
- "When Trains First Came to Central Florida". Tampa Bay Trains. Retrieved 7 August 2017.
- Turner, Gregg M. (December 1, 1999). Railroads of Southwest Florida. Images of America. Arcadia Publishing.
- Seaboard Coast Line Railroad Jacksonville Division and Tampa Division Timetable (1977)
- Seaboard Coast Line Railroad Jacksonville Division and Tampa Division Timetable (1982)
- "Parcel: 19801-300-000". Alachua County Property Appraiser. Retrieved 2 November 2012.
- "Florida Central, Midland, and Northern Railroads". Pinsly Railroad Company. Retrieved 7 August 2017.
- Surface Transportation Board Decision Document
- "Abandoned Railroad Rights-of-way". Google. Retrieved 4 October 2018.