Florida’s Railroad Barons, Part 1

William D. Chipley and Henry B. Plant

Businessmen commonly referred to as “railroad barons” solved Florida’s post-Civil War transportation problems and helped get the economy rolling by building more than 3,000 miles of railroad from 1874-1900. “Their domain contained more than just railroad track – they built hotels, roads and villages,” the Florida History Internet Center (FHIC) reports. “Their track gave birth to new towns and small trunk railroad developments.”

This article summarizes the exploits of the earliest railroad barons: William D. Chipley and Henry B. Plant.

William D. Chipley

Chipley, according to the FHIC, was the most important developer of the growth of West Florida. “In 1874, he received a charter to construct the Pensacola and Atlantic Railroad across West Florida to Apalachicola,” FHIC reports. “The Panhandle was dependent upon river transportation which only flowed southward until Chipley spanned the rivers and connected the Panhandle to northbound railroads in East Florida. Chipley’s railroad promoted large scale development of the Panhandle’s lumber and farming assets.”
Chipley’s railroads allowed goods that were shipped to Pensacola ports to reach the rest of the state by rail, adds the University of South Florida’s Florida Center for Instructional Technology (USF/FCIT). The Panhandle city of Chipley, originally called Orange, was renamed for the railroad baron in 1882.

Henry Plant

Plant, a Connecticut businessman, began building railroads throughout Florida in 1882, according to USF/FCIT.

Plant obtained a charter for a South Florida Railroad from Sanford on the St. Johns River to Tampa Bay, FHIC reports. “Plant’s railroad turned Tampa into a deep-water center for freighters and steamers from Cuba and South America,” FHIC adds. “The rail line opened up the region to citrus and vegetable growers for it no longer took 20 days to reach northern markets by boat.” FHIC also credits Plant’s railroad with attracting the Key West cigar industry to Tampa.

Plant City, about 20 miles east of Tampa and renowned for its surrounding strawberry farms, is named after the railroad baron. USF/FCIT reports that Plant also connected Florida’s railways to Georgia, “opening the way for interstate trading and travel.”

Read Florida’s Railroad Barons, Part 1