This train was bound for St. Marks — very slowly.
The mule team brayed as the sweating, cussing muleskinner, in his dirty knee-length overshirt and broad-brimmed straw hat, snapped his whip in the stillness of the Tallahassee piney woods. The mules jerked to attention, settled into their harnesses and took up the slack on the leads attached to wagons stuffed with cotton bales. Slowly, the massive load gained traction on the iron straps covering the wooden rails. Ahead lay more than 20 miles of wilderness and seven hours of slow, steady movement through shifting sugar sands and shadowy forest. At the end of the day the train would arrive at the bustling warehouse town of Port Leon, across the St. Marks River.
All in a day’s work on the Tallahassee Rail Road, circa 1839.
End of the line This rendering of the Tallahassee railroad terminal was drawn by the Comte de Castelnau. In describing it, he said: “Florida already has a railroad, which although short renders great service.” Drawing courtesy Florida Archives
It was a time before steel rails, when steam locomotives were still a novelty. But that didn’t stop men like Richard Keith Call and other prominent Tallahassee leaders from establishing one of the first working railroads in the Florida territory (the other was the St. Joseph-Lake Wimico Rail Road in Port St. Joe). Tallahassee was a mighty little economic powerhouse by the mid-1830s, and it was all driven by King Cotton which, in turn, drove the need for a railroad.
“Middle Florida was a commercial epicenter in the 1830s,” Harvard railroad scholar Gregg M. Turner wrote in his 2008 work, “A Journey Into Florida Railroad History.” “While much of the state was tractless, impassable wilderness, the Red Hills region became rich and influential.”
As this influence rose, the fortunes of many depended on being able to ship the fluffy white textile commodity. Tallahassee itself became a central collection point for plantations throughout the Red Hills, and a better way of transporting goods down to ships waiting in the Gulf had to be established. Ordinary wagon wheels sunk deep into the soft sand, making it difficult to move goods to the St. Marks River. A railroad would work much better; in 1834 the Tallahassee Rail Road Company was created for just that purpose.
Pretty much any Tallahassee resident of wealth and power owned stock in the new company. Historian T. Frederick Davis, writing in the Florida Historical Quarterly, said Call was elected president when the first formal meeting of the company took place. Among the elected directors were Ben Chaires, Willis Alston, William Maner, William Kerr and Romeo Lewis. According to Turner, Call was the largest shareholder. In fact, because he owned so much interest in the company it was nicknamed “Call’s Railroad.”
Construction began shortly after the company was founded, and by the time it was open for business around 1837 (some accounts say it was 1838) it had the unenviable reputation as one of the worst lines in the country at that time. It was described by the famous French naturalist and diplomat Francis de La Porte, Comte de Castelnau, who visited the Red Hills region between late November 1837 and March 1838. He wrote down his experiences and impressions in a series of essays that published in 1843. He saw Tallahassee as a bustling town but was not impressed by the railroad.
“Considerable business is carried on through this city (Tallahassee), all the cotton of the neighboring plantations being brought there in bales on carts or wagons drawn by mules or oxen, and taken then to Saint Marks on the Gulf of Mexico by means of a railroad,” he wrote. “The latter, although certainly the very worst that has yet been built in the entire world, is however very useful, for without its help it would be almost impossible to take a heavy load of cotton across the sand that covers the country to the south, into which horses sink at every step. They have tried several times to put a locomotive on this railroad, but its construction is so poor that the plan has been admitted to be impossible. Two mules hitched to carts, or to a kind of uncovered truck, and driven by black slaves, make the trip of about seven leagues in seven hours.”
Around the same time the Comte visited the area, the rail line had been built all the way to Port Leon, a “company town” of warehouses that provided the line’s southern terminal. A railroad bridge spanned the St. Marks River about a mile and half north of Port Leon.
“Since I have been visiting this country they have built a little village on the eastern shore of (the St. Marks River), and about two leagues from St. Marks, in a low submerged locality, and they have given it the name of Port Leon,” he wrote. “The railroad now ends there. There are as yet only a few houses, but several big stores and a tavern. This location seems to me to be well chosen, since boats of ten to twelve feet draft may enter there, while only those of much less draft may reach St. Marks.”
Cotton wasn’t the only freight that moved down the line. It carried passengers as well, but the accommodations were nowhere near as comfortable as Pullman coaches of a later generation. On the early Tallahassee Rail Road, passengers rode in a wooden box that could seat only eight people. A passenger ticket cost a whopping $1.50. By contrast, cotton bales were shipped for 75 cents.
In 1838 about 30,000 bales of cotton traveled the line, and for all its primitive nature, was quite profitable. Freight traffic brought in $34,375 and passenger traffic amounted to $5,993. Warehousing charges totaled $3,427, and after expenses the railroad owners looked at a profit of $19,795.
Of course, the railroad was more than just livestock, wagons and wooden rails. A large support service was established to keep it up and running. In another book about Florida railroads, Turner wrote that in 1839 the Tallahassee Rail Road Company owned a sawmill a few miles south of Tallahassee that was used to make the wooden rails and cross ties. It also owned 4,000 acres of timberland, 23 slaves and a 1,000-acre plantation for growing corn to feed the horses and mules used to pull the trains.
While the company as a whole prospered, Port Leon was doomed from the start. A yellow fever epidemic struck in 1841, but the death blow came in 1843 when a hurricane devastated the town’s warehouses and that section of the rail line (only one death was caused by the storm). Shortly after Port Leon’s demise, St. Marks became the new southern terminus of the railroad. Port Leon’s survivors moved north of St. Marks and established a new town just west of the St. Marks River. They named it, appropriately, Newport.
When Florida became a state in 1845, “Call’s Railroad” was the only railroad firm in operation at the time, Turner wrote. Call would retain control of the company until the Pensacola & Georgia Railroad acquired his shares around 1856.
The P&G R.R. converted the old wooden rails to iron and the mules were replaced by two locomotives manufactured by the Baldwin Locomotive Works, according to Richard E. Prince in “Seaboard Air Line Railway: Steamboats, Locomotives and History.” Historian Herbert J. Doherty said in the Florida Historical Quarterly that with these improvements, “The road boasted that trains of eight to 10 cars daily made the 21-mile trip to St. Marks in only two hours.”
During the Civil War, the railroad took on a vital strategic role as it allowed Confederate troops and supplies to be shuttled quickly between the capital and outlying defensive areas. Its most important wartime contribution occurred in March 1865, when it enabled hundreds of Confederate troops to rapidly deploy against Union General John Newton at the Battle of Natural Bridge.
Over time, the rail line changed hands several times before finally being acquired by the Seaboard Air Line Railway in 1898. But as other rail lines and commercial centers began to flourish, the importance of the old cotton port of St. Marks dwindled. The old rail line lingered into the 1960s despite at least one attempt to have it abandoned. In 1984, the Florida Department of Transportation bought the old right-of-way and a grassroots organization sprung up to transform the rail bed into the state’s first “rails-to-trails” project.
Today, the Tallahassee/St. Marks Historic Railroad Trail follows the old rail bed and runs from the intersection of Capital Circle Southeast and Woodville Highway down to the St. Marks riverfront. After having served cyclists and hikers for some 20 years, the 16-mile-long trail was recently resurfaced and widened from 8 feet to 12 feet to meet new standards. Although the main feature is the paved trail itself, there are unpaved trails adjacent to it that allow for horseback riding and off-road mountain biking along the Munson Hills Off Road Trails in the Apalachicola National Forest.