South Florida Railroad

The South Florida Railroad was incorporated on October 16, 1878, by E. W. Henck, E.F. Crafts, H. Mercer, and Dr. C.C. Haskell, all of Orange County, Florida. These men hired F. C. Tucker as chief engineer, and he located a line running from Lake Monroe (on the St. Johns River) at Sanford to Orlando.

The road was projected to run down the state to Charlotte Harbor on the Gulf of Mexico. The South Florida RR was having trouble raising money, but the project progressed when Mr. Henck obtained the defunct LM&O charter.

E.W. Henck had a particular reason for wanting to build this railroad. Coming to the area in 1873 from Boston, Henck homesteaded a site near Myrtle Lake, which he platted as a small village. He named the town Longwood after a suburb of Boston he had helped to lay out. He knew that if he wanted to sell real estate, Longwood needed to prosper. And to do that, reliable rail transportation into the area from Sanford would be essential.

Mr. Henck convinced two prominent investors from Boston that a railroad from Sanford to Orlando and then onward to the Gulf through a new and undeveloped Florida was a solid investment. Henck was made president of the railroad. Traveling back to Florida, he purchased ten miles of rail and a little narrow gauge locomotive.

Construction began with ex-president Ulysses S. Grant throwing the first shovel of dirt in 1879. Despite this grand beginning, actual progress was slow as labor was hard to come by in the undeveloped region. The little locomotive “Seminole,” along with 75 tons of rail, arrived at Sanford by the end of January 1880. By May 20th, seven miles of iron had been laid to Shroder’s Mill. This increased to nineteen miles by the first of July, leaving only three miles to reach Orlando.

Unfortunately, by then, South Florida’s supply of rails had been exhausted, and because of the railroad building boom in the country, there would be a three-month lull in completing the road to Orlando. To make the most of this delay, Henck began
construction of the Lake Monroe-St. Johns River Wharf at Sanford. It was 800 feet long and could accommodate five steamboats at a time.

Finally, the rails arrived in October, and the last three miles were quickly laid. The first public timetable was issued on November 11, 1880. The Longwood station was on the south side of Church Avenue. There was a passenger entrance as well as a large area for freight shipments. Later, the “porch stand” was used to watch the Longwood baseball team play in the field next to the tracks.

The railroad still only owned the little “Seminole.” She hauled the northbound train, leaving Orlando at 7:00 AM and arriving in Sanford at 8:40 AM. After switching in Sanford for most of the day, the “Seminole” became the southbound train, departing Sanford at 4:00 PM and tying up for the night in Orlando at 5:40 PM.

In December 1880, Mr. Henck was ousted as railroad president because of the construction delays. With his replacement, his determination to build to the Gulf Coast also disappeared. There followed a period of several changes in philosophy about the direction and extension of the railroad’s construction. By March 1882, rail was completed to Kissimmee.

Plans again were to construct from there to Tampa. At this time, the South Florida Railroad was the southernmost railroad in the United States.

By the end of 1882, the South Florida Railroad owned five small wood-burning narrow gauge locomotives. Other equipment consisted of five coaches, two combination mail/baggage cars, express cars, fifteen box cars, and twenty flat cars. All the freight equipment was only 25 feet long and had a capacity of only 15,000 lbs. The timetable in 1882 consisted of four trains, two passenger trains, and two mixed trains—no trains ran on Sundays.

Tampa of 1883 was a declining town, steadily losing population and needing 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, the reward was vast amounts of land the State of Florida offered for the first railroad to enter Tampa.

On May 4, 1883, Henry B. Plant and his Plant System (headed by the Savannah, Florida, and Western SF&W Railway) bought 3/5 of the stock of the South Florida Railroad after an unsuccessful attempt to buy the Florida Southern Railway. Plant made a pact with the Florida Southern not to build the SF&W south of Gainesville or Palatka, the northern ends of the Florida Southern, but the existing South Florida was immune from this. Plant then made agreements with all the railroads building towards Tampa except for the Florida Transit and Peninsular Railroad. Specifically, the Florida Southern would not create any lines south of Pemberton’s Ferry and Brooksville or north of Bartow, and the South Florida RR would build their Pemberton Ferry Branch between the two and assign trackage rights to the Florida Southern. The agreement with the Jacksonville, Tampa and
Key West (JTK&R) Railway specified that that company would only build north of Sanford; in both cases, South Florida would give up its rights to the territories given to the other companies. The JT&KW had already done some grading at Bartow and Tampa and sold them to South Florida.

Thus, the two railroads remained on a race towards Tampa: the South Florida and the Florida Transit and Peninsular Railroad. The South Florida R/R managed to get there first and obtained the best ports (now known as Port Tampa). The Tampa end opened on December 10, 1883, and on January 25, 1884, service began over the full line, built to a three-foot (914 mm) narrow gauge. On February 20, 1886, the standard-gauge Jacksonville, Tampa, and Key West Railway opened to Sanford, and the South Florida was converted to standard gauge on September 22.

In 1893, the Savannah, Florida, and Western Railway (Plant System) directly acquired South Florida. In 1902, the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad acquired the Plant System, and in 1967, the ACL merged into the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad. The line eventually passed to CSX and now operates as part of one of its two main lines in the area, known as the “A” Line.

The South Florida Railroad is today used as part of the SunRail commuter system, which runs north to Deland and south to Poincianna, with a stop at Longwood station. The modern station is north of East Church Ave, across the street from the original station.