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Bill “Boxcar” Leach: A History of Florida Railroads

Bill “Boxcar” Leach worked for the railroad in Central Florida for 40 years. Listen as he tells the history of railroads in Florida from the railroad bonds issued for Civil War debt to Sun Rail and Rails to Trails and the nearly 3,000 miles of right away given back to the State of Florida.   

LISTEN Part I  (16:33)


(text highlights are excerpts from recording)

…At the end of the Civil War the state of Florida was so in debt from the Civil War they had issued bonds for the railroad. In 1885 they allowed the railroad should have free land and in getting the free land they would build a railroad. Well, they incurred so much of an expense during the course of the Civil War, and at the end of the Civil War the state was in debt one million dollars with these bonds. They could not do anything to get railroads started again. So the governor at the time, he and Henry Sanford, who was a diplomat, got a hold of Hamilton Disston and they invited him to Florida because he was an avid sports fisherman and hunter, down to look at the state. When he got here they proposed what he could buy, and the price, and the deal was consummated in 1881.

Well, when he came here and he started developing the land, he virtually started draining the land. At this point in time a lot of the canals are still here; a lot of them have been changed. He virtually started what they started in the sixties with the Florida Water Management District. And, of course, they restructured the Kissimmee River which they put back largely. But the virtual part of the Kissimmee Valley… he drained a lot of that, and in draining it it became open for farm, for sugarcane, and all sorts of produce. And when they did that, they had to have trains…

Painting by Wayne Hovis

they started bringing a railroad down from Sanford to Orlando. It took one year to build it. And then eventually from Orlando to Kissimmee and from Kissimmee they went to Tampa. And this was done with the South Florida railroad. And the group that put it together was a man by the name of Henry Plant and the Plant System Railroad comprised at one time 19 different short line railroads. Well, the Plant System was the forerunner of Atlantic Coastline. That Atlantic Coastline came down from Jacksonville to Sanford. And the Plant System was Sanford to Tampa and from Tampa down to Naples, Fort Myers, and then up to Ocala, Live Oak and that area… They ran a branch line from Kissimmee to St. Cloud and from St. Cloud over to Narcoosee…

…the Plant System was bought by the Atlantic Coastline in 1902 and it all became Atlantic Coastline. The other competitor was the Seaboard Airline Railroad and that was basically what we call the S Line. It came out of Jacksonville, came to Waldo, Gainesville and came out the top part of Tampa. And they had a track from Wildwood that came to Orlando, but that was the closest the Seaboard came into the center part of the state as far as where Atlantic Coastline, they were almost separated except for certain areas. Orlando was the interchange point for the Seaboard… And in 1960 they approved the merger between the Seaboard Airline and the Atlantic Coastline…. so shortly after the merger the Seaboard freight office came to Sligh Boulevard and our freight traffic office that was at 76 W. Church Street where the old Church Street Station was they went to Amelia Street…

Now we’ll get back to Disston. And he was the man that bought the land and got Florida out of debt. The one million dollar debt. The Governor Watson at that time in 1881 they all corralled him and virtually showed him Florida and the possibilities of what he could do with all this land. And he did it….

LISTEN Part II (18:44)


My father had a very good friend by the name of Glenn Henson. Glenn Henson lived out on Lake Hart. His father worked for Disston in the turn of the century for the Disston Company. He bought all the land let’s say from South Orange Avenue from Taft all the way over to on the other side of Narcossee Road and then out to Lake Hart and Lake Mary Jane and the Isle of Pine. His father bought that and Glenn lived out there for a number of years and he was a cattle rancher. And the main story that I’m getting at, the property that they owned and he had cattle out there was the Pine Castle Air Force Base.

And when WWII came they needed a new airport that could be built with long enough runways for the B29’s crews to train. That’s when they built two runways and that was the Pine Castle Army Airfield. Well, the Henson’s owned that land. It was taken under condemnation for eminent domain by the U.S. government. After WWII was over they gave it back to him…And when the Korean War started they reactivated it as Pine Castle Army Air Force Base. And my father and I would laugh because we would go out there, I forgot how old I was, I was probably nine years old, all the runways had cow pies on them. We often wondered who cleaned all that up… 

So when they took the air base over about 1951 or 52 course Henson had to get off the property again. But he owned all the land around the air base. Where you go out McCoy Road that’s called the Bear Road and it ran from Orange Avenue all the way out to Highway 15. And all the area where a lot of these car rentals, were all Henson’s property…     

…the Atlantic Coast and the Seaboard after the merger this was called the A line out here. And the line on the west coast the seaboard was called the S line. So if you read in the newspaper the A line and the S line well when the did the negotiation for Sun Rail CSX sold the usage for freight for the A line to the government for Sun Rail. A lot of the trains will be run on the S line. The S line’s over in Ocala. That’s the track that comes out of Jacksonville. It comes in the north end of Tampa down at Yeoman Yard, what we call Yeoman Yard, and then the A line came out of Jacksonville and it would stop at Sanford. Sanford at one time was a division itself. We had tracks that ran from Oviedo, Lake Charm, and then to Sanford over to Winter Garden and then from the track at Winter Garden it ran all the way down to the track at Dr. Phillips. We had a concrete plant down there. It went through Windermere and then there was Dr. Phillips Packing House at Dr. Phillips…

Atlantic Coastline Station it was built in 1927… they had the Atlantic Coastline Freight Office was at 76 West Church Street…In 1963 they started work on this building here. At this point in time this was the white waiting room and this was the colored. Well, after that period of time of the Civil Rights change the colored waiting room was no longer used. They all used that one. So this building was remodeled and turned into the new freight office for Atlantic Coastline. They had a warehouse up on Church Street and it was old, too. So they built a brand new warehouse on Sligh Boulevard .. and that became our new home for Atlantic Coastline… And in ’67 when the merger took place the only thing they did to the building was they took Atlantic and put Seaboard there. So virtually it’s pretty much the same. It’s air conditioned and it’s at Sligh Boulevard and that’s where the Amtrack Station is and that will be your depot for Sun Rail when that starts….

LISTEN Part III (10:56)


The first piggyback facility, well actually there were two, was at Pineloch Yard down by Southern Fruit; and there was another ramp at Kaley and it would only accommodate two to three cars. This was called circus loaded and they backed the trailers on each flat car and they tied them down. The ramp at Pineloch was discontinued in 1968, I believe. And the new facility at Taft we moved into in 1969.This is how we did it from the sixties and seventies until this came online and we started using side loaders. And they virtually could load and unload a train in half the time it would take to load them in the old conventional style.

To this day this is what goes on at Taft down there now. The only difference since I left, I retired in 2003, is that the domestic containers are handled at Taft. All the seagoing farm equipment comes into Tampa now. So they suspended that… they’re building a brand new multi, multi million dollar facility down there in Auburndale and Winter Haven. I’ve seen some overhead aerial pictures of it. It’s going to be even bigger and they’re going to incorporate the Tampa facility and the Orlando facility for the inter modal operation. And when they leave here at Taft there will still be the automotive division of CSX.

The merger between what we called the family line system on the CNO BNO was in 1980 and ’81. In the merger of the two railroads a lot of the branch lines have been closed… But there’s been over 2900 miles in the State of Florida of branch line closed and that’s the Rails to Trails that you see out here… nearly 3,000 miles of right of way have been given back to Florida,      

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BIll "Boxcar" Leach

Bill "Boxcar" Leach presents the history of railroads in Florida at Florida's First Transportation System: Steamboats & Trains hosted by the Pine...


Florida's First Transportation System: Steamboats and Trains exhibit sponsored by the Pine Castle History Committee at the Pine Castle Women's Club fe...

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