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From Jacksonville Beach, FL

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

When the Railroad came to Jacksonville

    Jacksonville's Union Terminal was built in 1919.  During the WWII years, it was one of the busiest depots in the nation.  This illustration pictures the way it looked in the early 1950's/late 1940's. (illustration is a section of drawing by D. West)
There's always been something romantic about trains.  I personally love to ride them.  One of my long-time wishes is to ride the Orient Express and see what train luxury was like.  The Orient Express aside, Jacksonville, where I live, has had a long history of rail travel.  
The first railroad from Jacksonville to Alligator Town (now Lake City) was completed in 1860. It was named the Florida Atlantic & Gulf Central Railroad and was headed by Dr. A. S. Baldwin.

On its maiden journey, many excited Jacksonville residents rode to Lake City for the first train ride of their lives. Then the people of Lake City made the trip to Jacksonville where they were warmly greeted and fed barbecue. The engine that pulled the train was christened "Jacksonville."
Until 1881, this first line was the only railroad into Jacksonville. Trains from the north stopped in Live Oak, where transfer was made for Jacksonville. In 1875, a ticket from Jacksonville to New York cost $36.75 and the trip took between 75 and 90 hours.

 A problem was that rail tracks in those early days were different gauges (widths) which many rail companies preferred because of the extreme competition among the various lines. Finally, in 1888, the first train traveled directly from New York to Jacksonville through Savannah, over Florida & Western tracks, and made the trip in 29 hours and 30 minutes.

In the late 1800's and early 1900's, many railroads developed, merged, and changed. A few of the many important names in the Jacksonville area were Florida Railway & Navigation Co., Fernandina & Jacksonville, Florida Central & Peninsular Railroad, Atlantic Coast Line, and ultimately, the most influential, the Florida East Coast Railway.

Henry Flagler opened the entire east coast of Florida from St. Augustine to Key West with the Florida East Coast Line. Towns were developed along the tracks as the train line progressed down the state. For Jacksonville, the culmination was  the railroad that opened the Jacksonville beaches. The Jacksonville & Atlantic Railway Co. built a line from south Jacksonville to Pablo Beach (now Jacksonville Beach). Beach Boulevard was later built over the old track bed.  That's one reason the road is so straight.

The present downtown Union Terminal Building replaced one that Henry Flagler built.  As its first president of  the JTC, Flagler built a depot in the classic Spanish mission style, opening on February 4, 1895, but not completed until January 15, 1897.  The Flagler Depot, as it came to be called, by 1912 handled as many as 92 trains a day, and in that same year planning began for a new and even larger station, which became the current building.   It opened in 1919. 

During the years of  World War II, as many as 100,000 servicemen and civilians passed through the Jacksonville Terminal on the busiest days.
Those were the years when everybody who was anybody passed through Jacksonville by train. The famous and the infamous, from John D. Rockefeller to Al Capone; the high and the mighty, from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman; and most celebrities of stage and screen passed through on their way south at one time or another. (Florida Railroad )

The story of the railroad in Florida and Jacksonville is romantic and complicated. The Union Terminal building saw its last train depart on the night of January 3, 1974. I remember the impetus to save the building and find a new use for it. Several huge so-called Terminal parties were held in the building to raise money. I attended the first one and it stays in my memory as one of the best, craziest parties I've known--shoulder to shoulder people, music and drink in every room, and all for a worthy cause.  The building was saved and is now the Jacksonville  Convention Center.      

Union Terminal as it looked in the 1930's when it was in use as a railway terminal. (Photo from Florida Photographic Collection.)

Information from: 

  •  History of Jacksonville, FL by T. Frederick Davis (reprinted 1990 by San Marco Bookstore)
  • Florida Railroad,

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