Florida’s First Steam-Powered Railroad and the Land Story behind It

Florida railroad history and Florida land history often go hand-in-hand. That’s certainly the case when it comes to Florida’s first steam-powered railroad, the Lake Wimico & St. Joseph Railroad in the panhandle near the Gulf of Mexico.

“On Sept. 5, 1836, the Lake Wimico & St. Joseph Railroad ran its first train from the Apalachicola River to St. Joseph,” says a Florida Department of State website. It took about 25 minutes for eight cars and 300 passengers to move along eight miles of track. Earlier trains that year had probably been pulled by mules or horses, “but by September two steam engines from the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia had arrived,” the website reports.

The Land Story

The website tells why the railroad was built in that part of Florida. In 1835, the U.S. Supreme court “ruled in a lengthy dispute over a land deal between the local Creek and Seminole Indians and a trading house called Panton, Leslie & Company. To make a very long story short, this company had convinced the natives in 1804 to sign over the title to over a million acres of land between the Apalachicola and Wakulla rivers to settle some debts. The Spanish had endorsed the exchange, but when the U.S. acquired Florida in 1821 authorities were less certain about it. The case made its way through the courts, and in 1835 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the trading company, granting it title to about 1.2 million acres of land, including the town of Apalachicola.

“This posed a bit of a problem for the residents of Apalachicola, many of whom had taken up residence without actually owning their land. Now the title to this potentially critical seaport rested with the successors of Panton, Leslie & Company, reorganized as the Apalachicola Land Company. The company offered to let the residents buy their property to obtain clear title, but the prices were so high the townspeople started looking for alternatives.

“That’s where St. Joseph comes in. St. Joseph’s Bay was located about 28 miles to Apalachicola’s northwest, well outside the territory of the Apalachicola Land Company. It was close enough to the river, however, that the townspeople believed they could build a new port at St. Joseph and still have all the trading advantages of Apalachicola. They would simply connect the new town to the Apalachicola River using a canal. St. Joseph would prosper, and Apalachicola would fade.”

A company with a charter to build the canal at some point decided to build a railroad instead. “The exact date of the railroad’s completion is unknown, but by March 1836 the route was finished as far as Bayou Columbus,” the website says. Florida’s historic first steam-powered railroad jaunt would occur a few months later.

The Demise of St. Joseph

“St. Joseph’s new railroad was a success, but the town’s dreams of becoming a major port were to be short-lived,” the website continues. “A yellow fever epidemic in 1841 killed many residents and drove most of the others away permanently. The railroad, which had suffered from financial troubles stemming from the nationwide economic downturn of the late 1830s, was auctioned off to a railroad contractor in Georgia. As St. Joseph began to disintegrate, a number of its buildings were dismantled and, ironically, rebuilt in Apalachicola. Meanwhile, a September 1841 hurricane finished off what was left of the fledgling port.”

Another Early Railroad

“There was at least one other railroad operating in Florida at the same time, although not powered by steam,” the website reports. “The railway connecting Tallahassee with the port at St. Marks was completed either in 1836 or 1837, but the condition of the road was so poor that steam locomotives could not be run over the tracks. Instead, horses or mules pulled the cars. This railroad does have the honor of resulting from the first railroad charter in Florida, given to the Leon Railway Company in 1831.”

Source: The Florida Department of State website, “Florida’s First Steam-Powered Railroad.”