Seminole Gulf Railway
An EMD GP9 of the Seminole Gulf Railway — Fort Myers, Florida.
|Dates of operation||1987–|
|Track gauge||4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge|
|Headquarters||Fort Myers, FL|
Seminole Gulf Railway's main line (CSX's former Fort Myers Subdivision) runs a distance of nearly 80 miles from Arcadia south through Punta Gorda, Fort Myers, Estero, and Bonita Springs before terminating just a mile south of the Lee/Collier County line in North Naples.
The company also runs a separate nearly 20 mile line from just south of Bradenton in Oneco south through Sarasota. The line (CSX's former Sarasota Subdivision) went as far south as Venice when Seminole Gulf acquired it, but was truncated to Palmer Ranch (just south of Sarasota) around 2004. The Sarasota line also includes a short 5-mile branch from downtown Sarasota back north to Matoaka.
Seminole Gulf began operating the lines in late 1987. The main line connects with CSX's Brewster Subdivision in Arcadia and Sarasota line connects with CSX's Palmetto Subdivision in Oneco. The Seminole Gulf Railway has a commonly owned affiliated company, the Bay Colony Railroad Corp. (reporting mark BCLR), which is based in southeastern Massachusetts.
Seminole Gulf is the primary freight railroad operating through Southwest Florida along with South Central Florida Express, who operates tracks farther inland near Clewiston. Freight transported by Seminole Gulf Railway includes lumber, newsprint, propane, stone, steel, scrap metal, and other commodities.
Murder Mystery Dinner Train & Excursions
In addition to carrying freight, Seminole Gulf Railway also operates a popular Murder Mystery Dinner Train from Fort Myers. The dinner train runs five nights a week, year-round from a station at Colonial Boulevard. It generally goes north to a point just south of Punta Gorda before returning utilizing a fleet of 1930s-era vintage rail cars named "Sanibel", "Captiva", "Gasparilla", and "Marco" (named after nearby barrier islands). The train includes a five-course dinner and has featured over 80 different murder mystery productions throughout its history.
Seminole Gulf has also operated general excursion trains in the past. The Murder Mystery Dinner Train and excursion trains began in 1991 and were initially based from a small platform in North Naples near Railhead Park, but moved to the current station at Colonial Boulevard shortly after.
Arcadia to North Naples Line
What is now Seminole Gulf Railway's main line came into existence incrementally in the late 1800s and early 20th century. The first segment was completed in 1886 between Arcadia and Punta Gorda by the Florida Southern Railroad (a subsidiary of Henry Plant's system of railroads). It was the final segment of the Florida Southern's Charlotte Harbor Division, which originated in Lakeland (Florida Southern's original track north of Arcadia up to Bowling Green was removed in the early 1980s; CSX's line and connecting track was originally part of the Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railway). In Punta Gorda, the line initially terminated at a dock facility in the Peace River near Charlotte Harbor, known as the Long Dock, just west of where Fisherman's Village stands today. Punta Gorda became the southernmost point the Plant System ever reached, and the railroad's arrival is largely responsible for Punta Gorda's development as a city, which was incorporated four years later.
Henry Plant was reluctant to have the line continue south to Fort Myers, which had already been established as a city at the time unlike Punta Gorda. Upon Plant's death in 1899, his heirs sold his entire system of railroads to the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. Serving Fort Myers then became a top priority for Atlantic Coast Line president Henry Walters. The extension of the line to Fort Myers was completed on May 10, 1904, making it the Coast Line's first expansion of the former Plant System. The extension included a wharf along the Caloosahatchee River at the end of Monroe Street (which existed until 1944). Fort Myers also experienced major growth after the arrival of the railroad and would remain the southernmost point of the entire Atlantic Coast Line Railroad system until the Florida land boom of the 1920s.
Once the land boom was underway, the Coast Line partnered with a number of local businessmen including advertising entrepreneur Barron Collier, who owned large amounts of land in Collier County (which was named for him). Through this partnership, they acquired the dormant charter of the unbuilt Fort Myers Southern Railroad, and the line was extended further south, reaching Bonita Springs by late 1925, and Naples (in the eastern part of town) by December 1926. The line ultimately reached Collier City on Marco Island in mid 1927. Simultaneously, the Coast Line's competitor, the Seaboard Air Line Railroad, built their parallel Seaboard-All Florida Railway from Fort Ogden to Fort Myers and Naples. Seaboard's service to Naples commenced eleven days after the Coast Line, although earlier they managed to quietly secure their more centrally located route closer to downtown Naples (along present route of Goodlette-Frank Road).
After Seaboard discontinued service to Naples in 1942, the Atlantic Coast Line managed to acquire the southernmost 7 miles of their former right-of-way. The Seaboard's route was connected to the Coast Line's track at a point just east of Vanderbilt Beach, and by 1944 they relocated all Naples passenger service to the Seaboard's former passenger depot on Fifth Avenue South from their original depot (which was located at the northeast corner of Radio Road and Airport-Pulling Road near Naples Municipal Airport). Once the main route was shifted into downtown Naples, service to Marco Island was discontinued, and the original route through East Naples to Marco Island was removed.
Intercity passenger service to Southwest Florida was discontinued in 1971 upon the creation of Amtrak, who opted not to serve Southwest Florida. In 1979, tracks into downtown Naples were removed when the line was cut back to its current terminus in North Naples, a year before Seaboard Coast Line would become CSX (nine years before Seminole Gulf would begin operating it).
There are no significant branches along Seminole Gulf Railway's main line, although there are a couple of short spurs that have historical significance. A short spur in Punta Gorda north of Taylor Road originally continued to the Punta Gorda docks along the Peace River (the Punta Gorda Linear Park today runs along the rest of that route). Another historic spur runs from the line just south of State Road 82 near downtown Fort Myers is all that remains of a wye and tracks that once served the Atlantic Coast Line's downtown Fort Myers passenger depot and the docks on Monroe Street. Another notable spur splits from the line just north of San Carlos Park and runs east along Alico Road. This spur, known as the Baker Spur, was built in 1973 and once extended beyond Interstate 75 to serve rock mines in eastern Lee County on land owned by the Atlantic Land and Improvement Company (known today as Alico, Inc.), which was once a subsidiary of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad and was the holding company for its real estate division. Seminole Gulf abandoned the easternmost three miles of the Baker Spur in 1994.
The John Yarbrough Linear Park trail runs beside some the line's right-of-way just south of Fort Myers.
The Sarasota line mostly operates on tracks built by the Seaboard Air Line Railroad, although the mainline between downtown Sarasota to just south of Fruitville Road and the branch to Matoaka were built by the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad.
The Seaboard first built their line, which extended from Durant (just east of Tampa), to Sarasota via Parrish, Palmetto and Bradenton in 1903. Some of the line ran along the former route of the Arcadia, Gulf Coast and Lakeland Railroad, an earlier unsuccessful railroad between Bradenton and Sarasota. The tracks originally continued south along Lemon Avenue through downtown Sarasota and served a dock facility in Sarasota Bay. In 1905, Seaboard extended the line east into Fruitville, which initially ran southeast along Pineapple Avenue and then east along what is now Alderman Street and Brother Geenen Way (reconnecting with the surviving tracks). In 1911, at the request of socialite Bertha Honoré Palmer, the line was extended south to Venice.
The Atlantic Coast Line came to the area later in 1924 as part of the Florida land boom when they built the Tampa Southern Railroad, which up until 1949 continued southeast as far as Southfort (along the Peace River), where it merged with the Coast Line's route to Fort Myers (coincidentally Seminole Gulf's Arcadia to North Naples line). The Seaboard and the Coast Line tracks originally ran directly beside each other through Fruitville. Spurs connected both lines to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus's Sarasota headquarters near Fruitville (which existed from 1927 to 1959, when the headquarters were relocated to Venice).
In 1967, the Seaboard Air Line and the Atlantic Coast Line merged to form the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad (who later merged with the Chessie System in 1980 to form CSX). The mergers led to consolidation of the two routes and abandonment of redundant trackage including the Seaboard's original route through downtown Sarasota and the Coast Line's tracks between Bradenton and Matoaka.
In the early 2000s, Seminole Gulf and CSX abandoned the little-used southern portion of the line between Palmer Ranch and Venice, which had continued to carry the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to their Venice headquarters up until 1992. The line's former right of way is now part of the Legacy Trail.
- "Lee County Rail Corridor Feasibility Study" (PDF). Lee County Metropolitan Planning Organization. Retrieved 2 July 2014.
- "About Us". Seminole Gulf Railway. Retrieved 23 January 2014.
- "Seminole Gulf Railway". Florida Weekly. Retrieved 2 July 2014.
- Turner, Gregg (2003). A Short History of Florida Railroads. Arcadia Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7385-2421-4.
- Turner, Gregg M. (December 1, 1999). Railroads of Southwest Florida. Images of America. Arcadia Publishing.
- "Seminole Gulf Railway, L.P.--Adverse Abandonment--in Lee County, FL". Surface Transportation Board. Retrieved 27 August 2014.
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