The Florida Railroad (From Fernandina to Cedar Key)
The rails have been important to Clay County from the late 1850’s when land grants were given for the Florida Railroad which would connect Fernandina with Cedar Key. David Yulee was the railroad president and an old Clay County resident, Joseph Finnegan, was the contractor who laid the tracks. Except for the Highland station, it lay outside the county. Its importance was in the very large number of odd-section railroad land grants in Range 23. E. N. Dickerson (E. N. D.). For a brief period, this railroad’s owners were the county’s largest land owners, being treasurer of the line and owning the even sections in the same area. The Florida Railroad was taken by the Union Army in March, 1862, and they remained in control of it through the war. The line changed hands at least six times, finally being called Seaborn when its tracks were removed in 1932.
Jacksonville, Tampa & Key West Railroad
The first railroad to become a thoroughfare for the county was the J, T&KW, which made its first run from Jacksonville to Palatka on standard gauge March 6, 1884. In 1886, it completed the stretch from Palatka to Sanford. It provided convenient travel all along the St. Johns River, which was especially important because of the poor condition of our local roads. Steam boating and the Hotel Era declined with the advent of this line. Nevertheless, passenger travel on the line declined as automobiles began to appear on improved roads, and also because of the 1888 Yellow Fever quarantine. A bankruptcy receiver operated it beginning in 1893 until it became part of the Plant System in 1899. Its Black Creek bridge washed out September 26, 1894 according to A. M. Reed. Beginning in 1902 it was known as the Atlantic Coast Line, and later as CSX.
The Jacksonville, Tampa & Key West Railroad survives today (part of CSX) and is the line we see running north-south through our county. Presently, it delivers coal from Appalachia to the Palatka power plant and hauls freight. Occasionally, we are lucky enough to see the Tropicana train pass through. From time-to-time there is talk of shifting the freight off this line to make room from commuter trains to Orlando.
Green Cove Springs & Melrose Railroad
A second important line was the narrow-gauge GCS & Melrose line from Green Cove Springs. Its main purpose was likely to transport logs and lumber from the interior of the Clay County to the mills and other transport points in Green Cove Springs. Evidence of this appears in an 1889 dispute between local timber operations and the owners of the railroad who were apparently charging too much ($2.62 on average per thousand hauled).
This railroad line extended six miles west in 1882 (see Board of Improvement Minutes), ten miles in 1884, then to Sharon (March, 1883), then later to Belmore (1886), and finally all 33.92 miles were laid to Melrose in 1890. The railroad, mainly owned by Ozias Buddington, went into receivership in 1886, but did resume operations.
General Clinch helped develop this line, so its terminus was at his Bayard Tract south of Green Cove Springs. The railroad was granted odd-numbered sections within six miles of the track all along the line. By 1889, 7,781 acres had been conveyed to the railroad and it begged for the remaining 30,618 acres it was owed. The Board responded by ordering swamp lands within twenty miles of the track to be given instead. This probably caused great difficulty for the company. Nevertheless, a host of new towns sprang up along the line starting in 1882. Governor Francis Fleming watched these proceedings while he was on the Board of Improvements. When he left the Board, he became an agent for the GCS & Melrose successor (The South Western Railroad Company), at which time he agreed to give up some land in exchange for being able to remove the rails. Many areas became ghost towns as the line went into receivership again in 1899. When it reached only so far as Belmore before being completed to Melrose, it was called the Green Cove Springs and Midland Railway (1888 Comptroller Report, pg 19). It carried the mail from Green Cove Springs to Melrose beginning on March 21, 1890.
An employee, John Walsh, died when the train jumped the tracks Apr 28, 1888. It was, by then, operating as the Western Railway, or Western Railroad. By 1895 it was the Southwestern Railroad (Comptrollers Report). It suffered greatly when freight declined after the 1895 freeze, and timber, by now, had been nearly completely harvested. By 1899, it ceased to exist altogether. The line is shown as the SWRR on the map. Ozias Buddington was an early owner, perhaps interested because of his sawmill business.
The Middleburg, Highland and Lake Butler Railroads
Some say temporary lines were often built willy-nilly to haul timber and cut lumber, and when the forest was denuded, the tracks would be picked up and moved. But, articles of incorporation haven’t been found, and there are a lot of creeks to cross in Clay County. One example is the Middleburg, Highland and Lake Butler Railroad whose officers included A. G. Chalker, W. R. Chalker, Jr., Henry Clark and Leroy C. Emory, and which was chartered in 1888. Engineering News (1889) indicates William Varnedoe was the superintendent and that it wasn’t yet completed.
The only other timber line which we have evidence of is an east-west line in the middle of the county shown on a 1917 map. Literally all of the long leaf pine had been cut north and south of this point by then. It ran between the MH&LB line to the north, and the GCS & Melrose to the south, both of which had already been pulled up. If you have information about this one, we’d like to hear from you.
The Line to Penney Farms
The only other line of importance was a line J. C. Penney ran from Green Cove Springs to Penney Farms, ending at the Long Branch Station. It’s likely that Florida Farms & Industries laid this down when they first tried to establish a colony there. If the line was pulled up, Penney reinstalled it to provide transportation once again.
The Georgia Southern and Florida
One other line ran through the southwest corner of the county, but is unlikely to have had much local significance: the Georgia Southern and Florida (1890 – 1950s).
Narrow-gauge shortline from Green Cove Springs to Magnolia Springs
Perhaps for tourists, a narrow gauge line ran from Green Cove Springs to Magnolia Springs, stretching all the way onto the piers at both terminuses.
In earlier times (1877) a two-mile line operated by Darby & Savage ran from a lumber camp, across Governor’s Creek into Green Cove Springs. Perhaps these two lines were related. (see Parade of Memories, pg 186)
The Middleburg line that was never built
The Interlachen, Jacksonville and Ocala Air Line was never built, but may be the one Middleburg citizens are said to have rejected (see Jacksonville Board of Trade Report 1885, pg 43)