The current Tallahassee-St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail was not only the first such recreational trail opened by the state during the 1980s, but it is also one of the oldest railroad corridors ever put into service. The route traces its history to the earliest days of the industry—the 1830s—when local businessman wanted a more efficient means of transporting their goods. Known as the Tallahassee Railroad (TRR), at this time the line didn’t even use steam locomotives but was entirely mule powered. As the years passed, the system was absorbed into larger Floridian railroads, which went through several bankruptcies and name changes before becoming the Florida Central & Peninsular Railroad in the 1890s. Finally, the growing Seaboard Air Line gobbled up the FC&P at the turn of the century to extend its reach deep into the Sunshine State. The former TRR remained in use until it was finally abandoned by the Seaboard System in 1983 and subsequently purchased by the state to form today’s 20-mile trail from Tallahassee to St. Marks.
Officially, the Tallahassee Railroad is Florida’s oldest incorporated such company, formed in 1834 to build a 22-mile line from the new state capitol of Tallahassee to St. Marks, along the banks of the St. Marks River. The purpose behind the TRR was the same as virtually every other early railroad established at that time: to move goods more quickly to market, often in conjunction with water transportation. In this case, local farmers and businessmen wanted to ship cotton, timber (in later years), agriculture, and other types of general merchandise much more efficiently via the St. Marks River, through the Gulf of Mexico, and either to the Northeast or across the Atlantic Ocean to England. Construction of the railroad took three years and was open by 1837 upon rudimentary wooden rails. The entire system was mule powered, and for a brief time was even open to Port Leon located about 3 miles to the south near the opening into Apalachee Bay. In 1843, a hurricane destroyed this section of the railroad and it was never rebuilt.
In 1855, the company was acquired by the Pensacola & Georgia Railroad, beginning a long series of various owners. The TRR played an important role in the Civil War, upon which time it had been updated with more modern amenities, including iron rails and steam locomotives. Because it lied near the Gulf, the railroad helped the Confederacy in moving troops and supplies to other strategic points, such as the capitol at Richmond. The railroad was also key in helping to win the Battle of Natural Bridge in March 1865.
During the latter half of the 19th century, the TRR’s property changed hands numerous times when several Floridian railroads either merged to form larger systems or were reorganized for bankruptcy. By May 1, 1889, this conglomerate was known as the Florida Central & Peninsular Railway, which was renamed on January 16, 1893, as the Florida Central & Peninsular Railroad. At the time, the FC&P was one of the Sunshine State’s largest such operations, connecting Tampa, Cedar Key, Orlando, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, and the Chattahoochee River. In 1893, the company leased the South Bound Railroad, which had completed a main line from Savannah to Columbia, South Carolina, two years earlier. The FC&P needed to link with its new acquisition and built the 138-mile subsidiary Florida Northern Railroad between Jacksonville and Savannah to do so. The route opened in 1894. The South Bound was pushed an additional 34 miles northeast to Camden, where it linked with the Seaboard Air Line (SAL), giving the FC&P a system totaling roughly 970 miles. This would be the peak of the FC&P, since it was acquired by the SAL in 1899 and merged into its network in 1903.
The Seaboard Air Line would become one of the South’s largest and most successful railroads. It had humble beginnings as the Portsmouth & Roanoke Rail Road of Virginia, which was chartered in 1832. Throughout the 19th century it grew; by the 1870s, it first got the name the Seaboard Air Line. Expansion continued, and by the 1890s, it served Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Thanks to purchases like the FC&P and Georgia & Alabama, the SAL was able to reach deep into Florida where additional acquisitions in the state gave it access to such cities as St. Petersburg, Sarasota, Fort Meyers, and its own line to Miami (something rival Atlantic Coast Line did not have). The two railroads served virtually the same territory, connecting Florida with Virginia and reaching into western Georgia and central Alabama. They would eventually merge on July 1, 1967, forming the Seaboard Coast Line. At the time both were incredibly well-managed and profitable companies and this continued through the merger.
In 1980, the Family Lines System (a marketing alliance between the SCL, Louisville & Nashville, Clinchfield, and West Point Route) would merge with the Chessie System to form CSX Transportation. As part of this new conglomerate, the Family Lines railroads came together in 1982 to form the short-lived Seaboard System. Through all of these mergers, the original Tallahassee to St. Marks line was still in service; however, that changed in 1983 when Seaboard filed a petition with the Interstate Commerce Commission to abandon the corridor, which was soon granted. A year later, the Florida Department of Transportation purchased the property to preserve it as a recreational trail.
Railroad attractions in Florida include the Seminole Gulf Railway in Ft. Meyers, Gold Coast Railroad Museum in Miami, Flagler Museum in Palm Beach, and Florida Railroad Museum in Parrish.