Unbuilt Jax: Florida Interurban Railway & Tunnel Co.

January 19, 2012 3 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Metro Jacksonville uncovers and shares the long-forgotten story of Jacksonville's Florida Interurban Railway and Tunnel Company.

First Passenger Interurban to Bellefontaine, Ohio July 1, 1908. Image courtesy of: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Interurban.jpg

The Florida Interurban Railway and Tunnel Company was nearly chartered 100 years ago in October 1912.  Incorporated by members of the well-known Bates-Dowling Company real estate firm, M.W. Bates was to be the president of the company, and John Mabry vice president.  Bates was known as "an old railroad man," having been connected with the Seaboard Air Line Railway.  Mabry, a newcomer to Jacksonville, was the director of New Orleans-based Pan-American Life Insurance Company.

Announced on September 18, 1912, the 45-mile electric railway would have included a tunnel under the St. Johns River, connecting Jacksonville with South Jackonville, Pablo Beach (now Jacksonville Beach), and St. Augustine.  The tunnel under the river would have been designed for electric railcars, pedestrians, and vehicles, thus becoming the first fixed river crossing for local traffic.

The purpose of the Interurban Railway and Tunnel was to spawn suburban growth and development between Jacksonville and St. Augustine.  Additional plans included an electric streetcar system for the city of South Jacksonville, and the power to acquire real estate, and establish townships, pleasure pavilions, power plants, warehouses, wharves terminals, and depots along the interurban line.  The exact reason the tunnel and interurban project never made it off the ground is not known.  However, the completion of the Acosta Bridge in 1921 provided the streetcar, automobile, and pedestrian connectivity the tunnel would have delivered, and the Florida East Coast Railway already had lines with passenger service to Pablo Beach and St. Augustine.

Source: Foley, B. (1983, September 11). Plan for under-river rail submerged in city's history. The Florida Times-Union, p. B-1.

What Is An Interurban Railway?

South Shore train in the streets of Michigan City, Indiana in 2002.  Image courtesy of: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Southshoremichigancity.jpg

An interurban is a type of electric passenger railroad; in short a hybrid between tram (streetcar) and train. Interurbans enjoyed widespread popularity in the first three decades of the twentieth century in North America. Until the early 1920s, most roads were unpaved and could become nearly impassable during wet weather. Travel was by horseback or carriage, and cartage was by horse-drawn wagon. The interurban provided a new predictable, durable, and comfortable way to travel and, in some cases, a way to get farm products including fresh milk into town. Nowadays, services that were formerly called "interurban" are variously categorized as commuter rail or light rail, depending on operation, and may include urban streetcar lines.

Interurbans were often extensions of existing streetcar lines running between urban areas or from urban to rural areas. The lines were mainly electrified in an era when steam railroads had not yet adopted electricity to any large degree. By 1910, there was a very large network of small interurban lines in the U.S., particularly in Indiana and Ohio. Many were financially weak from the beginning. An electric interurban railroad was expensive to build, and there were always construction surprises, such as an unplanned bridge, or a town that demanded streets for the interurban to construct, and franchise fees. In operation, interurbans were labor-intensive and physical plant expensive, and frequently passenger revenues were not as originally projected. Many did not survive the 1920s, following the country's growing adoption of the automobile and the onset of the Great Depression in 1930.

By emphasizing freight service, some interurban lines (such as the Cincinnati and Lake Erie Railroad, the Indiana Railroad, the Lake Shore Electric Railway, and portions of the Pacific Electric) struggled through the Depression but were abandoned just before World War II. Some lines barely made it to World War II, enjoyed a war-related surge in business, only to decline into abandonment after the end of the war. Examples are the Hagerstown & Frederick Railway, Illinois Terminal, Lehigh Valley Transit near Philadelphia, Sacramento Northern, and the remaining portions of the Pacific Electric.

Interurban lines that have survived to the present day often evolved into commuter railroads or freight short lines. Examples are the Chicago South Shore and South Bend Railroad, Philadelphia and Western, the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railway, and the Philadelphia Suburban Transportation Company.

The present day North American light rail movement essentially revived the concept of the interurban, but without using the word "interurban". Portland; the state of New Jersey; San Diego; Denver; Baltimore; and many other cities in Canada and the United States have built light rail systems with characteristics of the old interurbans: slow running in the center of streets, tight-radius turns in town but fast running on private right-of-way outside of town.

Examples of Former Interurban Lines in Florida

Grand opening of Coral Gables Municipal Railway in 1925. Image courtesy of State Archives of Florida.

Duval Traction Company

Owned and operated by Jacksonville Traction, this line ran between Jacksonville and Camp Johnston (site of NAS Jax). This route also operated over the lines of the Ortega Traction Company which gets a qualified nod too.

Manatee Light & Traction Company

Image courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

The Manatee Light & Traction Company was a shortlived interurban railroad chartered by Captain Hartwell Davis in 1903 connecting Fogartyville, Bradentown and Manatee on Florida's Gulf Coast. It also offered freight service but both it and passenger operations were only seasonal in nature. It lasted only until 1906 when the project was abandoned.

Coral Gables Municipal Railway

Image courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

The Coral Gables Municipal Railway served the Coral Gables area and once operated two lines from downtown Miami to Coral Gables as well as two other lines connecting southern and western points. After a hurricane hit the region on November 4, 1935 two of its lines were indefinitely knocked out of service and soon after all operations were suspended.

Pensacola Electric Terminal Railway

Image courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

Connecting Pensacola with Milton, the Pensacola Electric Terminal Railway began operations in 1897 after purchasing the defunct Pensacola Terminal Company. It converted to electric operation in November of that year and at its peak operated 21.4 miles of track and 45 passenger cars, of which the downtown region was double-tracked. It remained in operation until 1945 when it was purchased by Pensacola Transit, Inc.

St. Augustine and South Beach Railway

Image courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

This interurban line crossed the Mantanzas River from the pilings seen at the Santa Maria Restaurant to the east shore at the foot of the current Bridge of the Lions with a return track crossing the more famous bridge. The station which once sat on the dock at the Santa Maria location can be seen on the east side of US Highway 1, just a couple of blocks south of the St. Augustine Airport.

Fernandina and Amelia Beach

Image courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

This railway connected it's namesake towns, Fernandina Beach and Amelia Island.  The former right-of-way can be seen crossing the marsh south of East Centre Street, near the beach.

Source: Robert Mann

Article by Ennis Davis.