Orange Belt Railway
A portion of CSX's Clearwater Subdivision in Pinellas Park, Florida in 2016 along the former right-of-way of the Orange Belt Railway.
|Locale||Central Florida and Tampa Bay|
|Dates of operation||1888–1893|
|Successor||Sanford & St. Petersburg Railroad
Atlantic Coast Line Railroad
|Track gauge||3 ft (914 mm)
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. It carried citrus, vegetables, and passengers; and it interchanged with two standard gauge lines: the Jacksonville, Tampa and Key West Railway at Lake Monroe, Florida and the Florida Central and Peninsular Railroad at Lacoochee, Florida.
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, 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. Sections are now part of rail to trails programs.
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.
The original Orange Belt Railway was chartered in 1885 by 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. 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.
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. Soon after the first train reached Oakland in November 1886, Demens decided to extend the line 110 miles to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Armour meat packing family in Chicago helped fund the line's extension from Trilby, Florida to San Antonio, Florida. The first train carried construction materials and arrived in San Antonio on November 27, 1887. The first passenger train arrived in San Antonio on February 13, 1888.
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. Around the same time, John Constantine Williams negotiated with Demens and offered part of his land holdings in exchange for a southern terminus near what Demens named St. Petersburg, Florida (after his childhood home in Russia).
On January 13, 1888, the Orange Belt Railway reached Tarpon Springs, Florida; and on May 1, 1888, it was completed to St. Petersburg. The rail line played a major role in the development of several towns along its route including San Antonio, Florida, Sutherland, Florida (now Palm Harbor), Ozona, Florida, Dunedin, Florida, Clearwater, Florida and Largo, Florida.
A lot of debt was run up in order to get the line completed and it was sold by Demens in 1889. The railroad entered receivership in 1893 and was sold by the court right back to its owners, who reorganized it 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. The railway became part of the Plant System and the most profitable section of its track, from Trilby to St. Petersburg, was immediately converted to 4 ft 8 1⁄2 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 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge to 3 ft (914 mm) narrow gauge to allow the sharing of equipment on the two lines.
The Plant System became part of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in 1902, which merged with its rival, the Seaboard Air Line Railroad, in 1967 to form the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad. The line remained intact after the merger, though its importance to the combined Seaboard Coast Line was diminished. By 1972, service was discontinued on much of the line, and by 1978, tracks were removed from Tarpon Springs to Clarcona.
The Seaboard Coast Line Railroad became part of the CSX Corporation in 1980. In 1986, CSX announced its intention to abandon more of the remaining line between Tarpon Springs and Clearwater, which hadn't seen any rail traffic since the early part of the decade. Before the abandonment, the city of Tarpon Springs was granted permission by CSX in 1987 to run six final round-trip passenger runs on the line to Dunedin to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the incorporation of Tarpon Springs as a city, an event which immediately sold out. The tracks were removed immediately afterwards, 99 years after their installation.
Today, there are two still active segments of the Orange Belt Railway. Most notably, a section of the line running from Clearwater southeast to St. Petersburg remains active and is currently part of CSX's Clearwater Subdivision. Another short 3-mile segment of the line is also still active in Central Florida from southwest of Forest City to Clarcona, which is today operated by the Florida Central Railroad.
- Rails Across Dixie: A History of Passenger Trains in the American South, p. 322
- Donald R. Hensley, Jr. The Orange Belt Railway Taplines
- History of the Orange rail Line (Trains Magazine; April 1, 2011)
- 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
- WCP hosts Orange Belt Railroad auditions May 7, 2012 Tampa Bay Newspapers
- 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
- 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.
- Robyn Poppick A Historic Bike Ride: The Pinellas Trail is the Old Orange Belt Railway September 25, 2011 Palm Harbor Patch
- Tap Lines – History of the Orange Belt Railway
- Hensley, Don. "History of the Orange Line". Trains. Retrieved 13 January 2017.
- "Russian politics played a role in San Antonio train depot". The Laker/Lutz News. 9 December 2015. Retrieved 13 January 2017.
- Luisi, Vincent (2010). Railroading in Pinellas County. Arcadia Publishing.
- "Lake Monroe to Winter Garden". Abandoned Rails. Retrieved 7 January 2017.
- "Seminole Wekiva Trail". Seminole County. Retrieved 7 January 2017.