Record Land Purchase Opens Way for Florida Railroad Barons

Many Floridians were cut off from the rest of the country following the Civil War. “Florida had few roads and needed to build more railroads,” states “Growth of Florida Railroads,” a website of the University of South Florida’s Florida Center for Instructional Technology (FCIT). “Unfortunately, the state was in debt from the Civil War and had no finances with which to expand.”

Prior to the Civil War, the State of Florida had purchased millions of acres of land from the federal government’s Swamp and Submerged Lands program, reports the Florida History Internet Center’s (FHIC) website, “Florida of the Railroad Barons.” That land, held by the Florida Internal Improvement Fund, was to be for public sale and railroad construction. But during the Civil War, the fund found few customers for the land. For the customers it did have, “most payments were made in worthless Confederate script, rendering the entire system about a million dollars in debt and tied up in legal battles,” the FHIC website states. “Florida needed to clear the debt to expand.”

“Governor (William) Bloxham found a white knight to rescue the state in Philadelphia saw manufacturer Hamilton Disston,” the FHIC website continues. “Disston recognized the tremendous potential of Florida real estate south of Gainesville.” In 1881, Disston agreed to make what some historians say may have been the largest land purchase by a single person in the history of the world. According to the FCIT website, Disston bought 4 million acres of land from Orlando to Lake Okeechobee for 25 cents an acre.

“This single investment helped get Florida out of debt and back on the road to building!” the FCIT site declares. The FHIC site adds that the Disston Purchase stimulated interest in railroad building, “for the State of Florida could offer land deals to railroad development.” (A future article will discuss Florida’s railroad barons, some of whom began operations soon after the Disston Purchase.)

Disston and Agriculture

Much of the land that Disston purchased went into agriculture, according to the FHIC site. It reports that “Disston’s canal company immediately dredged large sections of fertile muck lands out of the Kissimmee (Kissimmee Basin) marshes. Overnight new agricultural regions opened up.”
Later, the FHIC site reports, “Disston himself started the successful Florida Sugar Manufacturing Company in the Clewiston area.”