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Updated: 08/20/2014 08:00:02AM

Charlotte’s railroad history

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Good day to all! Did you know the area’s first train crossed Shell Creek in May 1886? Regular trains began running to Cleveland, just northeast of Trabue (Punta Gorda), shortly thereafter, with connections to Fort Myers via the steamer, Alice Howard. By July 24, track was extended the final 6 miles to Trabue, which then became the southernmost point on the country’s rail system. The first passenger train arrived Aug. 1. The railroad came to Florida’s Gulf Coast in 1861 when track was completed from Fernandina in northeast Florida to Cedar Key, north of Tampa. Practically destroyed during the Civil War, it was rebuilt in 1866 and by 1883, Henry Plant had completed the South Florida Railroad connecting Tampa with Jacksonville. After town founder Isaac Trabue convinced Boston investors, owners of the Florida Southern Railway, to make his town its southern terminus, rather than Charlotte Harbor on the river’s north bank, the Plant Investment Company contracted to lay the narrow gauge (3 feet wide) track from Bartow Junction for one third of FSR’s state land grant and a mortgage on the entire line. The FSR, formed in early 1879 as the Gainesville, Ocala and Charlotte Harbor Railroad, changed its name in early 1881. Completion of the line to Trabue was apparently a big deal, as it was reported in many cities’ newspapers, including New York, Boston and London. The young settlement was now connected to the outside world by both sea and rail.

The decision to build a narrow gauge line may have seemed questionable at the time since many connecting railroads were standard gauge (4 feet, 8 1⁄2 inches), requiring a change of “trucks” (wheel and axle assemblies) on each railroad car when transferred from line to line. However, for completing the final 76 miles from Bartow Junction, investors received a 760,000-acre state land grant, likely the most compelling reason for the railroad’s construction. With 299 miles of track, FSR was now the largest narrow-gauge railroad in the state and had received 2.7 million acres of land from Florida’s Internal Improvement Fund for its efforts. A companion corporation, the Florida Commercial Company, built a grand resort with just over 130 rooms, the Hotel Punta Gorda, which opened during the winter of 1887-1888. It boasted elegant furnishings, gas lights, steam heat, and open fireplaces. The Boston Globe published dispatches from the hotel soon after its opening. By 1890, FSR was in receivership, but by 1892 when Plant purchased it out of foreclosure, the track had been converted to standard gauge. He then reorganized it as the Florida Southern Railroad and now controlled lines to both Tampa and Punta Gorda. Some say Trabue was hard to get along with, perhaps evidenced by the town’s incorporation by a group of citizens in December 1887 as Punta Gorda rather than “Trabue,” and it seems he and Plant also had a disagreement at some point. The story goes that in 1895 when Plant ordered the track to the railroad’s Long Dock removed, essentially closing the town’s deep water port, he vowed that Trabue’s settlement would forever remain a small fishing village. I don’t know how you all feel about that, but thank you, Henry Bradley Plant!!

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