A Day On The St. Mary's Railroad

November 18, 2014 24 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

While the greater Jacksonville region is the well known home of major railroad companies such as CSX and Florida East Coast, there are also several smaller class III railroad operations that call the First Coast home. Today, Metro Jacksonville takes a look at the behind the scenes operation of the St. Mary's Railroad.

Just across the state line, St. Mary's Railroad is is an 11 mile railroad that has been in operation since 1865.  Today, it operates as a Class III shortline based out of St. Marys, Georgia connecting with the First Coast Railroad at the small town of Kingsland, to the west.  Metro Jacksonville's day with the St. Marys Railroad would include picking up freight cars from a St. Marys rail customer and taking those cars to Kingsland where they would be dropped off for pick up by the First Coast Railroad.  At Kingsland, we would pick up a new shipment to take back to St. Marys.

What Is A Class III Railroad

A Class III railroad, as defined by the Surface Transportation Board, is a railroad with an annual operating revenue of less than $20 million (1991 dollars). The term only applies to United States railroads, but is sometimes applied to other countries.  Class III railroads are typically local short line railroads, serving a very small number of towns or industries; many Class III railroads were once branch lines of larger railroads that were spun off, or portions of mainlines that had been abandoned.

The History of the St. Mary's Railroad

The Gilman Paper Company on July 22, 1999.  Image courtesy of Alan Cressler. Several large wells supplied water to the mill during its operation.  When the mill closed for good, the wells were turned off and water levels in the Upper Floridan Aquifer increased several feet. There were once again flowing wells in the St. Marys area.

The St. Marys and Kingsland Railroad was founded in 1865 by Captain Lemuel Johnson. It received its charter from the state of Georgia, and its first two locomotives purchased were #207 and #308.

The SM&K eventually became the Atlantic, Waycross and Northern Railroad. After the death of Johnson in 1918, the railroad was sold to the Southern Fertilizer and Chemical Company in Savannah, Georgia with the sale being completed on January 24, 1918. The AW&N was sold in 1939 to Gilman Paper Company-St. Mary's Kraft Corporation and became the St. Mary's Railroad. The SM purchased its first diesel locomotive #500 in 1945 which was nicknamed the "Goat." Ten years later the railroad constructed a 4 mile spur to service the US Army's Kings Bay ammunition storage facility which is now the Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay.

The SM was merged into the Gilman Paper Company on January 11, 1999, and operated initially under the Gilman name. The Gilman Paper Company separated the railroad by establishing a limited liability corporation operating under the name of Saint Marys Railroad, LLC. On December 17, 1999, the paper plant and railroad were purchased by the Durango Paper Company (changing its name in 2000 to the Durango-Georgia Company) and the railroad was renamed the Durango Railroad. All federal reporting requirements for the railroad were filed under that name. The company declined to change its reporting marks however, thus the locomotives and rolling stock continued to use the St. Marys Railroad name.

The Durango Paper Company closed its doors in 2002 after two industrial accidents at the plant resulted in nearly $200,000 in fines from OSHA. All employees of the paper plant lost their jobs, putting the future of the railroad in doubt. The railroad continues to operate and the St. Marys Railroad right-of-way and assets remain intact. The railroad has always maintained its own locomotives and cars with a fully equipped shop facility in St. Marys.

In January 2007, the St. Marys Railroad, LLC was purchased by the Birmingham, Alabama-based Service Rail Group. The railroad continues to be fully operational with no change in its reporting marks.

2002, would be an event changing day for the City of St. Marys, Ga and its namesake railroad.  This was the year that the Durange-Georgia Paper Company, one of Camden County's largest employers since 1941, shut down all operations, putting 900 people out of work. Mexico-based Durango Paper Company purchased the mill from Gilman Paper Company in December 1999, two years after the former owner, Howard Gilman, died.  At the time, Gilman Paper Company was the largest privately owned paper mill in the United States, producing 2.6 million pounds of paper per day.  During the mill's heyday, it employed 1,600 and was the lifeblood of the railroad, shipping and receiving hundreds of railcars each day.  In addition, the waterfront mill site included a dock where it used to receive shipments of timber via barge.

The mill's downfall would come after an accident that killed two mill workers leading to an investigation by the U.S. Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

In 2006, Jacksonville-based LandMar Group purchased the site for $42 million with the intent to redevelop the property as a 2,200 unit mixed-used development.  Soon after LandMar demolished the plant, the company went bankrupt, leaving the site's future up in the air.

At the time, the +700-acre site was one of the largest, privately owned, deep water, rail served sites remaining in Coastal Georgia that was also served by public utilities; including water, sewer, electricity and natural gas.  With these assets in place, Camden County Development Authority believed that the site could become Georgia's third ocean port.

That dream appears to be coming true. In a recent Florida Times-Union article, developer ASM Capital intends to purchase the property and develop it into a deepwater barge port. If successful, the development could be a huge financial boost to the St. Mary's Railroad.

Next Page: A Visual Tour of the St. Mary's Railroad

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