Today’s Withlacoochee State Trail runs along more than 40 miles of what once was an important corridor belonging to the Atlantic Coast Line. The ACL, or Coast Line as it was also known, operated a vast system stretching several thousand miles from Richmond, Virginia, to South Florida, with routes reaching as far west as Atlanta, Georgia, and Montgomery, Alabama. Its Floridian network was also vast, spanning much of the state’s central region from Jacksonville and Perry southwestward to Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota, and Lake Harbor. To reach Miami, the railroad relied on friendly connections with the Florida East Coast. The Withlacoochee State Trail follows the ACL’s former main line between Dunnellon and near Dade City, which once connected southern Georgia to the north and Naples to the south. When freight traffic declined, the line was eventually abandoned by successor CSX Transportation in the 1980s.
The west-central region of Florida in the Tsala Apopka Lake region was relatively devoid of civilization during the mid-1800s. However, that changed when the phosphate and timber industries laid down roots in the area later that century. Naturally, the most efficient means of transporting these natural resources at the time were railroads. The first notable system here was the Silver Springs, Ocala & Gulf Railroad (SSO&G), opening a route between Dunnellon and Inverness in 1892. (This section now forms the northern half of the Withlacoochee State Trail). The SSO&G was first inaugurated in 1872, and at its peak reached as far as Ocala to the northwest and Homosassa along the Gulf Coast. Following the completion of its Dunnellon–Inverness line, the SSO&G was acquired by the growing Plant System. At around the same time Plant had completed a new route from Pemberton’s Ferry (Croom) to Inverness running via Floral City.
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The burgeoning Plant System was quite massive at its peak, put together by and named after Henry Plant, who had acquired numerous smaller railroads operating between Charleston, South Carolina, and Montgomery in the north to South Florida between the mid-1800s and early 20th century. It would comprise most of the Atlantic Coast Line’s southern network, which acquired Plant in 1902. Under ACL operation, the corridor that now makes up today’s trail became its primary north-south route across western Florida, ending at Naples. Over the years, freight on the route consisted predominantly of phosphate and lumber, with more than 30 plants once located within Citrus County to extract the former; the latter featured the large Hanbury Lumber Company near Inverness that provided the railroad with significant traffic. This company also had its own logging railroad to move raw logs to the mill.
Two other railroads also played an important role in the region: the ACL’s primary rival Seaboard Air Line (SAL) came to operate its own line between Inverness and Dunnellon. The entire corridor was an inside-gateway secondary route between Jacksonville and St. Petersburg that branched at Waldo. There was also the Standard & Hernando Railroad, a SAL-owned short line that operated a route between Hernando and Dunnellon and terminating at Port Inglis along the Gulf Coast. The region’s freight rail transportation further improved in 1928 when the ACL opened the Perry Cutoff, a new route running northwest from Dunnellon to Thomasville, Georgia, where it connected with its east–west main line to Montgomery. Along the way, the tracks served such towns in Florida as Wilcox, Perry, and Monticello. In the coming years, the cutoff also witnessed heavy use by long-distance passenger trains reaching faraway places in the Midwest and Northeast.
Unfortunately, the timing of the cutoff’s opening coincided with a downturn in rail service around Tsala Apopka Lake. The onset of the Great Depression was felt hard in the region, and the Seaboard Air Line was soon reducing its operations. It pulled up the tracks into downtown Inverness and also abandoned its Standard & Hernando subsidiary in 1930. The ACL continued on much as it always had, and World War II brought renewed economic growth as troop trains and freight traffic surged. After the war, passenger service subsided and eventually ceased in 1957 as improved highways and speedy airliners took away ridership. During the summer of 1967, the ACL and SAL merged to form the Seaboard Coast Line, which subsequently abandoned much of the former SAL trackage between Hernando and Brooksville in the 1970s. In 1981, the section to Dunnellon was also removed. This left only the ACL line still intact but was seeing less and less freight. There were discussions of selling the entire Perry Cutoff to the Southern Railway or upgrading it for use as a high-speed passenger/commuter route, but neither proposal ever materialized.
By the 1980s, the SCL, and its predecessor lines, were merged with several other southern railroads to form the Seaboard System in 1982. That decade witnessed numerous systems fall under the CSX Transportation banner, including the Seaboard. In 1987, the ACL line from Inverness to Trilby was abandoned, and in 1989, it was further cut back to Gulf Junction (near Dunnellon). At this time, ideas sprang up to convert a segment into a rail trail; Florida purchased 47 miles between Citrus Springs (near Dunnellon) and Trilby for $1.8 million. Five years later, the Withlacoochee State Trail opened in 1993.
Railroad attractions include the Boca Express Train Museum in Boca Raton; Central Florida Railroad Museum in Winter Garden; Flagler Museum in Palm Beach; Florida Railroad Museum in Parrish; Gold Coast Railroad Museum in Miami; Largo Central Railroad in Largo; Railroad Museum of South Florida’s Train Village in Fort Myers; Seminole Gulf Railway in Fort Meyers; Southwest Florida Museum of History in Fort Meyers; Tavares, Eustis & Gulf Railroad in Tavares; TECO Line Streetcar System in Tampa; and the Walt Disney World Railroad at Lake Buena Vista.