Cows vs. the railroad
All across the country, the proliferating presence of trains was causing all kinds of confrontations between railroad interests and cattle ranchers.
The conflict was especially keen in Florida, where not only did cattle ranches cover much of the land, but the cattle also were allowed “free range” to graze wherever they happened to wander.
With this many head of cattle and no fences, it is not surprising that high numbers of these animals were killed or injured as train service proliferated.
Even before the railroads entered the scene, there had been clashes between ranchers’ interests and urban growth.
For example, when stray cattle ate up the shrubbery and fouled the streets of the city of DeLand one too many times, a city pound was established to capture and sell the offending bovines unless the owners paid a fine.
In the late 1880s, one day the town marshal announced that he had “arrested” 12 head of cattle.
Two of the owners paid up, but the third one, dentist H.D. Bracey, flatly refused to do so.
Bracey arrived at the marshal’s office with a constable and a summons signed by a justice of the peace that ordered the marshal to release his cattle.
When the marshal refused, saying that the cattle were under the jurisdiction of the Police Court of the City of DeLand, Bracey stormed out. He marched over to the pound and proceeded to rip down the fencing so that all the cattle would be able to escape.
Another account of this incident gives further details of what happened next.
The marshal hauled Bracey to jail, but he was forced to sit with gun in hand outside Bracey’s cell to prevent other cattlemen from freeing the prisoner.
It’s easy to see how adding miles of train tracks across what the ranchers considered their pasture lands only increased the intensity of the grievances they were feeling.
This clash of interests would persist for several decades until Florida’s open-range laws were finally repealed after World War II.
Railroads versus steamboats
Despite the deeply held resentment of the cattle ranchers toward the expanding of the railroads, it was only a matter of time before long-distance, full-gauge railroad service would advance into all corners of the state.
In 1885, the Jacksonville, Tampa and Key West (J.T. & K.W.) Railway Co. began constructing its standard gauge line south from Jacksonville to Sanford.
The company intentionally planned to bypass DeLand 4 miles to its west to avoid a steep grade over the Orange Ridge that would have substantially increased construction costs.
DeLand city fathers entered into negotiations to bring the line through town, but talks failed when city officials balked at the price.
J.T. & K.W. planners then continued their original goal to bypass the high pine land and plotted their tracks through the flat woodlands to the Town of Beresford, just west of DeLand, and a narrow-gauge line was kept alive to continue to provide the only rail service for the city of DeLand.
On April 10, 1886, this line was officially named the DeLand and St. Johns River Railway, and soon gauge. was converted to standard
At this same time, the railroad that ran from Orange City to Blue Springs Landing had been extended through Lake Helen and on to New Smyrna Beach.
Now named the Atlantic and Western Railroad, its planners had a goal of constructing a line from Lake Helen, through DeLand, to a junction with the J.T. & K.W. at Highland Park, between DeLand and Glenwood, where there was then a flourishing village.
The roadbed was constructed between Lake Helen and DeLand, but the money gave out before tracks could be extended to Highland Park.
Even though taking the train between Jacksonville and Sanford was twice as speedy as going by steamer, steamboat transportation did not immediately die out as a result of the growing prominence of rail service.
One Florida traveler explained the reason he preferred steamboat travel over rail: “What could be more inviting than to sail along under sunny skies with this change of scene, the beauties of nature smiling above and all around? The steamboat has become one of the most delightful features of our life. … Cool, clean, comfortable and withal cheaper than the dusty ride on the railway.”
Thus, for several years, both steam and rail transports operated together, carrying freight and passengers in and out of Volusia County.
As the railroads expanded, steamboat transportation went into a precipitous decline. Comparative measures of ridership numbers make it clear that the rate of decline in steamer use was in inverse proportion to a rise in rail use.
A slow-paced meandering through long stretches of coastal scenery had lost its allure, and now seemed plodding and monotonous.
The wooden hulls and benches of steamboats seemed clunky and worn-out and, worst of all for innovation-loving Americans, steamboat transport was hopelessly passé.
Instead, travelers lined up to be whisked along on the upholstered seats of the sleek and shiny metallic rail cars that symbolized modernity and industrial power.
Whereas, at the peak years of the late 19th century there had been approximately 50 steamers on the St. Johns River, by 1914, only three remained in service, each making its last runs in the late 1920s.
A day trip to New Smyrna Beach … in 1887
Many economic and cultural improvements in Volusia County’s early days owed their existence to the steam and rail operations that were linked together throughout the area.
A surviving diary entry shows just how interconnected the various modes of transportation were in the lives of the citizens.
On May 25, 1887, the day after Adelaide (Addie) Austin, daughter of Henry and Hettie Austin, turned 18, she recorded a lengthy account of a day trip to New Smyrna Beach taken with her Sunday-school group.
“Oh! But I have had the grandest time today,” she wrote.
The cost of the trip was “Adults 50 cents, children 25 cents,” which struck Addie as a bargain even then.
The whole Austin family took part. They started their adventure early in the morning, taking their horse-drawn wagon from their house near Blue Lake to a livery stable in Lake Helen.
On the platform of the Lake Helen train station they waited and socialized as more families gathered — some 225 people in all.
When the train pulled in, there was a “grand rush” as the travelers boarded the passenger cars. The trip to the New Smyrna station took them approximately 1 ½ hours.
Getting accommodations to carry the many disembarking passengers across the Halifax River to the beach was the biggest logistical complication of the trip.
People milled around on the platform as they slowly boarded various watercraft, either a small steamer, or one of several rowboats that were available.
Addie’s group went by rowboat to “Ponce Park” on the beach side of the inlet.
“Those who went in rowboats did not go so far up the river and we ate our lunch in a real pretty grove. [Then], we started to cross the peninsula, a strip of land varying in width which separates the ocean from the river,” and took their time “wandering on the firm sands of the beach that were studded with tiny shells of different hues.”
— Call the West Volusia Historical Society at 386- 740-6813, or email firstname.lastname@example.org to order a copy of Ryder’s book.