Rentz Lumber Company
Ocala Northern RR
Donald R. Hensley, Jr.
Rentz Lumber Company #3 on the Pine Branch, west of Ft. McCoy circa 1910
Photo Courtesy of Florida State Archives Photographic Collection
By the mid 1890’s there was
great interest by the people of Ocala, Florida in building a railroad
between their town and Palatka. One abortive attempt was the Silver
Springs & Western which we touched on earlier. The Western just didn’t have
the capital to complete the road and the traffic between Ocala and
Silver Springs could not sustain their operations. By the turn of the
century other interests were stirring in the woods between Ocala and
We now turn to the firm of Daniel & Lester which purchased 17,000 acres of timber lands East and North of Silver Springs early in 1900. Pharos Rufus Lester was the driving force of this purchase. Born in Millen, Georgia on December 3rd 1868 he grew up during the great Georgia lumbering boom which shaped his future. He quickly learned the sawmill business and with the profit of his first mill in Bullock County, Georgia he headed south to the virgin forests of Florida. Here he met real estate man R. G. Daniels and they founded their partnership in Ocala. They formed the Ocklawaha Lumber Company in 1901 and begin building their mill north of Silver Springs. They quickly built a 40,000 a day mill which employed 65 men and built a short spur to the Seaboard Air Line tracks at Silver Springs. They also began building a logging spur North towards Ft McCoy. Their first locomotive, was purchased from a sawmill that was going out of business in Georgia in July of 1901. This engine was built by George Fifield of Newfields, NH sometime in the 1870’s. Fifield was building these specialized log rail engines for the Garbutt Lumber Co. of Ogeechee, Ga. While originally five foot gauge, they were converted to standard gauge and new wheels for steel rails were added. While I have yet to find a plan or photo of this engine, I imagined that they would look similar to an early Climax with its vertical standing boiler and wood sides.
The operation then got down to business and the little Fifield engine was busy hauling pine logs to the mill and bringing loads of finished lumber down to the Seaboard Air Line interchange track. However this old engine needed major repairs and she was sent to the nearby Ocala Foundry and Machine Company in May of 1902. While given a quote of $285 to repair the engine to first class condition, when Mr. Lester returned with the cash a month later to pick the engine up, the Ocala Foundry wanted $580! This led to a series of litigation which ended up in the Supreme Court of Florida in 1905, when they ordered Mr. Lester to pay $324, so finally this rare engine was back with the Oklawaha Lumber. In the meantime, the lumber company was paying W.E. Boone, $150 a month in locomotive rental fees.
Mr. Lester was more of a trader than an operator. Soon after the judgement he sold the Oklawaha Lumber Co. to the Silver Springs Lumber Co. during the summer of 1905. He then purchased a turpentine operation in Mulberry, Florida and turned it around in two weeks and resold it for a smart profit. He then purchased the Clark Ray & Johnson turpentine operation at Martel and quickly resold it to C.E. Melton of Micanopy, Florida. Then he purchased 73,000 acres of pine near Mulberry and then resold it for a huge profit. Sadly he unexpectedly died in Tampa in 1908 at the age of 40.
The Silver Springs Lumber Co. was owned by F.C. Belin, M.J. Scanlon, W.E.Scanlon and J.E. Foley of the giant Brooks-Scanlon Lumber Co. This was their first foray in the state of Florida, but it was short lived. TheSilver Springs Lumber Co. operated for just a few months before being sold to Edward Pierce Rentz on October 17th, 1905. Brooks-Scanloninstead turn their attention to building a giant mill near Jacksonville, Fl and bought pine lands in Jefferson, Dixie andLafayette counties to feed it.
The Silver Springs Lumber Co. operated for just a few months before being sold to Edward Pierce Rentz on October 17th, 1905. Mr. Rentz was born on January 2nd, 1863 to Edward Joseph and Katherine Rentz in Henry County, Alabama. His father was a Methodist Preacher and they traveled quite a bit. Rentz was in south Georgia during their great lumber boom of the 1880’s and quickly learned the business as by 1900 he owned the largest mill in Dublin , Georgia. But the big boom in Georgia was ending while Florida’s was just beginning.
Mr. Rentz not only bought the Silver Springs Lumber Co. and it’s lands, but he also purchased half of all the land and timber bordered by the Seaboard Airline RR, Orange Lake, Orange Creek, Silver Springs Run and the Oklawaha River, for a price of $360,500. The Silver Springs Mill began cutting the nearby timber, while he formulated plans for moving his Adrian, Ga mill to Ft. McCoy.
Rentz Lumber Co. # 101 at the Ft. Mcoy shops circa 1914, this 4-6-0 was built new for the lumber company by Baldwin in 1911. After bankruptcy in 1915 she was sold to Georgia Car & Locomotive who sold here to Bagdad Land & Lumber Co. in Bagdad, Florida, and was lettered for their Florida & Alabama RR # 12. After that company quit logging in 1939, she was sold to the W.T. Carter Co. and was lettered for their Shreveport Houston & Gulf # 5. She has survived and can be seen today at the Polk County Museum at Livingston, TX. Photo Courtesy of Florida State Archives Photographic Collection
Mr. Rentz knew the key to his operation was transportation of not only his logs to the mills but also transporting the finished lumber to market in Jacksonville and beyond. This meant that a more direct route lay toward Palatka and he began planning for a railroad running north. He had experience in building railroads in Georgia, as he built the Dublin & Southwestern (sold to the Wrightsville & Tennille in 1906) in partnership with Simpson & Harper. A railroad running from Silver Springs to Palatka was planned as early as 1906 and as he consulted with the business leaders of Ocala he found that they were in favor of a connection. His first plan, developed around November of 1906 would use the tracks of the recently acquired Silver Springs & Western to reach the town. He already had 14 miles of track stretching North towards Ft. McCoy and Palatka.
As his Georgia operations were slowing down, Mr. Rentz decided to move his family to Ocala in February of 1907 to be closer to the developing Florida operations. He had to plan for both the location of his new mill and for his new railroad. By September 6th his railroad had a name, as a newspaper story that day gave an announcement that Mr. J.C. Walker had finished ten miles of grade for the new Ocala Northern Railroad. Mr. Walker of Ft. McCoy was in charge of construction. It was later revealed that corporate papers were filed on September 2nd.
The September 20th issue of the Palatka News’ headlines boldly stated “New Road to Enter Palatka-Will be in operation within One Year”. The story mentioned purchasing the old Silver Springs & Western and their old unfinished right of way between Ft McCoy and Palatka.
The dismantling of the Adrian, Ga Mill was finished by February of 1908 and the machinery was on its way to Ft. McCoy. Construction was in full tilt and by June three gangs of carpenters were busy building the shanties for the new company town. 40 acres were being surveyed for the town and they were also putting in the railroad spurs to the mill and commissary. Because of the scarcity of labor the mill contracted with the county to use convicts, thirty-six men in all. Thirty were used at the mill while the other six were used on the railroad. Their camp was located close to the new mill and they were guarded by a captain and his six guards.
Click here for a map of the mill.
Click here for a map of the Ocala Northern RR
Construction continued on the mill and by January 12 of 1909, all that was left was the placement of the boilers and the shafting and pulleys were being run. The construction of the commissary had been started. The mill was completed by April of 1909 and they were running two freight trains and one passenger train a day from Fort McCoy to Ocala via trackage rights over the Seaboard. By this time Rentz owned 5 steam locomotives. The State Railroad Commission issued rates in January of 1910. The construction of the extension to Palatka continued throughout the year.
ON Depot at Ft. McCoy, FL Photo Courtesy of Florida State Archives Photographic Collection
ON train leaving Palatka
Photo Courtesy of Florida State Archives Photographic Collection
The Ocala Northern reached Palatka city limit by December of 1911. They crossed the Atlantic Coast Line and continued to a junction with the Georgia Southern & Florida. It was with the GS&F ($1487 a year) and the ACL ($420 a year) that Rentz bargained out trackage rights agreement for running into the Palatka Union Station by January of 1912. The lion’s share of freight received would be with the GS&F, as the ACL had its own connection between Palatka and Ocala.
Rentz did not rebuild the old Silver Springs and Western for his operations between Silver Springs and Ocala, instead he opted for leasing SAL’s Silver Springs branch and with trackage rights into the Ocala Station and yards. This arrangement would cost the ON $1500 a year and gave him access to both SAL's and ACL's freight yards.
Ocala Northern #106 purchased on 22 December 1909 from Southern Iron & Equipment Company # 609 for $2808.
This 2-6-0 was built by Baldwin in November of 1873 for the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern # 480. This engine was not on the June 1911 roster of the Ocala Northern and may have been transferred to the Rentz Lumber Co. (Donald R. Hensley, Jr. Collection)
Operations as a common carrier started in 1911 as reported in the annual reports made out to the Florida Railroad Commission. The first report stated that they operated between Ocala and Ft. McCoy using 40 lb. rail and sand and dirt ballast, a typical light Florida short-line characteristic. This first year was very good, an income of $77,178.14 versus expenses of $15,763.70. To manage the railroad they brought in a veteran railroader, Seth P. Hollinrake, formerly the Live Oak Perry & Gulf agent at Dowling Park, a very busy lumber shipping point.
Operations on both the logging lines and railroad were being handled by EP Rentz Lumber Co. engines, these were numbered in series from 1 to 5. During 1911 Rentz began trading in the old logging engines for used engines from various resellers, these were numbered beginning with 106. While these engines were lettered for the Ocala Northern, several were turned over to the logging company.
Click here for a complete roster.
Ocala Northern # 108 was purchased from Georgia Car & Locomotive # 103 in April of 1910. This ancient rebuilt Rogers 2-6-0 was purchased by GC&L from the Georgia Granite Co. #1. This engine was off roster before June of 1911 and may have been transferred to the Rentz Lumber Co. (Donald R. Hensley, Jr. Collection)
The 1912 report was the first with full operations between Ocala and Palatka, The railroad earned a respectable $67,080.30 against $32,667.70 for expenses. The railroad’s traffic was just as expected, mostly lumber related (39,520 tons) but there were some local agricultural traffic. Passenger, mail & express traffic was very good, accounting for about $17,000 for the year. However, as the local automobile roads improved this traffic would be on a downward spiral. The report also mentions the railroad bridges, twenty-one of them for a total length of 2300 feet, ranging from 20 to 1062 feet. The 1062 footer would have been the railroads crossing of Orange Creek.
1913 saw the road miss its first interest payments on its mortgage though the road carried its most lumber tonnage to date, 48,000 tons. The depot at Orange Springs was also built that year and the road operated with over 60 employees, however the cost of building the road was a staggering $531,241.26, in which only $155,000 was paid for with a six percent mortgage bond. The rest of the money came from the Rentz Lumber Company’s owners by stock issue, that debt would cause the railroad to miss most of its mortgage interest payments ($9300 twice a year) and caused a default in the mortgage. This led to the failing of both the sawmill and the railroad and on May 23, 1913, Mr. J. Boyd was appointed receiver, and the Rentz’s lost financial control of their railroad. Their lumber mills would follow as both mills would shut down by 1915 and the machinery and lands were sold.
Ocala Northern Offical Guide Timetable from 1914 - The 71 & 72 were Monday through Saturday trains, while the 73 & 74 were operated only on Sunday with a slightly faster schedule. (Courtsey of Russell Tedder)
Ocala Northern would last one more year before being sold to a group
led by its bondholders, and Charles Marshal of the Assets Realization
Corporation took over on April 16, 1915 as the Ocklawaha Valley
Railroad. We will continue with the Ocklawaha Valley and the Rodman
Lumber Company next time around.
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