The Race to Tampa
Tampa of 1883 was a town in decline, steadily losing population
and in need of a railroad. Situated on the best harbor on the gulf
coast, the first railroad there would reap vast riches from the
potential growth of the port and would have control of shipping on the
Gulf of Mexico to the West Indies within their grasp. Also there was
the reward of vast amounts of land being offered by the State of
Florida and Hamilton Disston for the first railroad to enter Tampa.
Only one man would have the power and determination to push
the little narrow gauge South Florida Railroad to its destiny at Tampa
and he was Henry B. Plant, a shrewd Connecticut Yankee whose Savannah,
Florida & Western RR had pushed as far south as Gainesville and
Jacksonville, Florida. However Plant could not enter the territory of
the Florida Southern Railroad south of Gainesville and Palatka,
Florida due to an agreement reach between the two roads allowing the
Savannah Florida & Western to build over the Florida Southern’s
unfinished grade to Gainesville. Plant tried to buy the Florida
Southern but was unsuccessful, so in May of 1883 he instead purchased
the South Florida, which connected, to his railroad by way of the St.
Johns River steamboats. With Plant at their helm the South Florida
changed from a kitten to a roaring lion. Immediately he made deals with
all the roads building to Tampa except one, the Florida Transit &
Peninsular of Sir Reed. The Florida Southern was given territory south
of Bartow to Charlotte Harbor and North of Pemberton’s Ferry to
Gainesville in which Plant and his South Florida RR promised not to
invade these regions if the Florida Southern gave up its designs on
Tampa Bay. Plant also purchased a large block of Florida Southern
bonds to grease the wheels a little.
Henry B. Plant. Photo from the Henry B. Plant
Next came the Jacksonville Tampa & key West Railway which was
constructing a standard gauge railroad between Tampa and Jacksonville
and already had grading at Jacksonville, Tampa and Bartow. Plant made
them a deal where they would have exclusive territory between
Jacksonville and Sanford if they too would give up on building to
Tampa. Also Plant not only purchased their incomplete grades at Tampa
and Bartow, he also transferred the Jacksonville Tampa & Key
West’s charter in which the South Florida would also receive their very
liberal land grants, but the South Florida only had six months to
complete seventy-four miles of railroad through the tropical
wilderness of central Florida.
The International Railway that had constructed some grade in
Tampa and Jacksonville was simply bought off and they just disappeared
from the scene. This may have been part of the deal with the
Jacksonville Tampa & Key West as both roads were being constructed
side by side.
The race was now on with the Florida Transit and Peninsular
to be the first road in Tampa and to acquire the best port facilities
on the bay. Additional land grants from the State and from Hamilton
Disston were also at stake.
Plant quickly transfer his best and most able construction
engineer, Colonel Henry S. Haines to head up the South Florida
construction team. Put in complete charge he ordered enough 40 pound
rail to reach Tampa and seven new locomotives from Baldwin and Mason.
Material for 190 freight and 10 passenger cars were also ordered.
Delivery was promised in August.
Construction on the grade began on the first of June 1882
with 200 men laboring on the line west of Kissimmee. John C. Reynolds
was the locating engineer. On the Tampa end the railroad purchased
fifteen miles of grade from the Jacksonville Tampa & Key West and
shipped from Cedar Key 168 men and one locomotive, the “Herald”. By the
end of the month 25 miles had been graded from Kissimmee, which reach
Lowry Lake in Polk Count y.
South Florida number 6, the “E.B. Haskell” , photo
from the Harold Vollrath collection..
Rail laying began on both ends with over 1500 men at work in
August. Three schooners arrived in Tampa over the newly completed dock
with seventeen miles of rail along with one locomotive, number 6 “E.B.
Haskell” a Baldwin built 4-4-0, some cars and construction equipment.
All material to Tampa passed through the Florida Transit &
Peninsular’s port of Cedar Key, greatly benefiting their biggest
competitor. On the Kissimmee end all material arrived by boat at
Sanford and was loaded on special trains bound for the construction
site. It was reported by the Tampa Guardian on September 29, 1883 that
ten carloads of rail left Sanford on a special train, which was
preceded by the regular freight of 16 cars.
By October on the Tampa end material trains were running two
miles out but delays set in when local sawmills could not keep up with
the demand for ties, but to keep the men busy a 15,000 gallon water
tank was constructed at Tampa near Government Spring. During that
month on the Kissimmee end there was a delay caused by heavy trestle
at Reedy Creek. Also in October two more locomotives arrived at
Sanford, the number 7 “R.M. Pulsifer” and the number 8 “H.B.
Plant” both were built new by Mason and were 0-4-4 boogies. Also
arriving were twenty flat cars, 100 tons of rail and 100 workers. By
the end of the month 32 miles have been graded on the Kissimmee end and
28 miles on the Tampa end leaving only a 13 mile gap.
Rail laying was again delayed in November due to heavy cuts
at Lake Alfred and Fort Cummins where over 216,000 yards of sand and
clay were remove from the highland of Polk County. On November 20,
1883 a record was set in the south when 100 hands laid 11,200 feet of
track in a single day west of Horse Creek, which is near the town of
On December 10, 1883 the first time card was issue for both ends
of the extension and transfer service by stagecoach and wagon would
bridge the gap.
Finally on January 20, 1884 just five days before the Charter was
to expire, the last spike was hammered down at Saddle Creek, five
miles east of Lakeland. Regular train service was established on
January 25th by a special train carrying officials to a special
celebration at Tampa. Here the future of the South Florida Railroad’s
future was assured, as Tampa became a major city and port beating out
the Florida Transit & Peninsular and grabbing the best terminal
facilities in the area. The mainline would survive as a narrow gauge
for two more years but when the standard gauge Jacksonville Tampa and
Key West finally completed their line from Jacksonville to Sanford on
February 20, 1886 forcing Plant to prepare for the day to standard
gauge his line later on in the year. This was finished on September 21st
on the Sanford & Indian River and on the 22nd for the mainline.
Lv. Sanford 9:00 AM
Ar. Horse Creek 1:20 PM
Lv Horse Creek 3:00 PM
Ar. Sanford 6:50 PM
Lv. Plant City 8:30 AM
Ar Tampa 10:00 AM
Lv Tampa 2:00 PM
Ar Plant City 3:30 PM
On the Tampa end a mix train was operated while on the Kissimmee
end there was a regular passenger train, which would also carry a
stock car for hunters and explorers. By the 28 a new schedule was
issued for the Kissimmee end when the road was completed to Ft.
Collins, but the location of this point is lost to the world but was
probably near the future Haines City, which was named after H. S.
Haines in 1887 to induce trains to stop at the town and it succeeded,
they did stop.
South Florida Railroad’s Port Tampa facilities. From the
University of South Florida Special Collections.
In 1884 construction of the Bartow Branch began which was
completed by January 1, 1885 to comply with the South Florida Charter.
This Branch began at Bartow Junction (present day Lake Alfred) passing
through Winter Haven, Eagle Lake and Gordonville before reaching the
terminus at Bartow. This branch crossed some of the finest citrus
growing land in the state was soon standard gauged on September 23,
South Florida RR 12, a Baldwin builders photo from
To comply with the terms of the agreement between the South
Florida and the Florida Southern, the South Florida finished the
construction of the 57 mile Pemberton’s Ferry Branch in May of 1886.
This branch began in Bartow, running due north to Lakeland where it
crossed the South Florida mainline and from there ran north to
Pemberton’s Ferry where it interchanged with the Florida Southern which
had just reached that point. The Florida Southern held trackage rights
over the Pemberton’s Ferry Branch to reach its Charlotte Harbor
Division at Bartow. From there the Florida southern ran south to Punta
Gorda crossing the yet to be discovered Bonevalley phosphate mining
district. This branch held out the longest as a narrow gauge branch but
pressure to interchange phosphate cars bound for Tampa Bay forced both
the South Florida and the Florida Southern to standard gauge south of
Pemberton’s Ferry on August 7, 1891 ending the narrow gauge South
South Florida 19, a Baldwin builders photo from the
The South Florida was soon merged into the Plant System of
Railroads along with the Florida Southern and was included in the
purchase of the Plant System by the Atlantic Coast Line. Almost all of
the South Florida survives as CSX still uses the mainline from Sanford
to Tampa. Only a small part of the Bartow Branch survives in the
Winter Haven area operated by the Florida Midland Railroad. CSX
still operates a little of the Pemberton Ferry branch between Lakeland
and Dade City. Most of the Florida Southern has been abandoned in
SOUTH FLORIDA RAILROAD
TYPE BUILDER C/N
BUILT CYL DR NOTES
2-4-0 Porter 353
5/5/1883 explodes at
1/1881 9x16” 35”
To Orange Belt Ry 3 1886
36” Originally ordered for North
Pacific Coast “Moscow”. Order cancelled and sold instead to New York
& Manhattan Beach # 3 ”Sea Breese”. Resold to the South Florida RR
# 3 “Kissimmee” in 1881. Sold and off roster by 1886.
4 James T.
Sanford 4-4-0 Baldwin
1/1882 9x16” 42” To
Orange Belt Ry #4 in 1886
5 C. H.
7/1882 9x16” 42” To
Orange Belt Ry # 5, later to Simmons Lbr. Co. and Williamson-Brown
6 E. B.
3/1883 11x16” 42” To
Orange Belt Ry # 6, later to Albemarle & Atlantic # 6, to Norfolk
& Virginia Beach # 6, to Fosburgh Lbr. Co. # 6
13x16” 43” Off roster by
1883 13x16” 43”
Off roster by 1886
13x16” 43” Off roster by
10/1883 14x20” 45”
Converted to standard gauge 1891 and later sold to Savannah &
Statesboro RR, later to Alexander Lbr. Co. # 4
45” Destroyed by roundhouse fire on
11/1883 14x20” 45”
Converted to standard gauge in 1891 and later sold to
Charleston Mining & Manufacturing Co., Ft. Meade, Fl
11/1883 14x20” 45”
Converted to standard gauge in 1891 and later sold to the
Dutton Phosphate Co.
Gap in roster.
15x18” 52” To Ashley
Price Lbr. Co. after 1891
52” Converted to Standard Gauged and later
soldTo Atlantic Lumber Co.# 20 in Lake County. Later resold to
J.Ray. Arnold Lumber Co. at Groveland, Fla. Scrapped circa 1960.
Box Cars 101-175
Flat Cars 201-299, 176-200 , except 270, 273, 290
Stock Cars 270, 273, 290 plus one other
Baggage & Mail 45-56
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