Remembering Railroad Row

March 21, 2012 29 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Ever wonder why Jacksonville lacks a famed district like New York's SOHO, Atlanta's Castleberry Hill, New Orleans' Warehouse District, or Dallas' West End? Twentieth century demolition removed the building fabric needed to spur such a district. Today, Metro Jacksonville remembers Jacksonville's Railroad Row.

The layers of downtown Jacksonville's economy were no more evident than in the layout of Railroad Row.  Dominating Bay & Forsyth Streets between the train station and Broad Street, this was an environment where the economic engines of the maritime and railroad industries met.  This beehive of activity created an atmosphere for a mix of uses creating one of Jacksonville's most interesting urban scenes, including the notorious Ward Street red light district.

Looking west down Bay Street at the intersection with Bridge Street.  Dominated by two to three story masonry buildings, the Railroad Row strip stretches for blocks in the background.  Many of these businesses were industrial and wholesale companies served by the railroad behind them.  Their West Bay Street frontage was dominated by wholesale retail operations and markets selling their products to the general public.  The practice of developing suburban zoning regulations which separated complementing uses at the pedestrian level would eventually eliminate this type of scene in Jacksonville by the late 20th century.

West Bay Street, just outside of the Jacksonville Terminal in 1921, was a vibrant place of activity.  Although the terminal was a mile outside of downtown, it was directly connected to the rest of the city by a streetcar line. 13,828,904 passengers rode Jacksonville's 42 mile street network in 1912.  By 1930, Jacksonville was known as the "Gateway City of the South" and featured 59 miles of streetcar track.  With the Terminal bringing in as many as 20,000 passengers a day, Railroad Row grew up between downtown and the terminal.  Railroad Row was unique in that uses we believe aren't complementing today, such as manufacturing, hotels, restaurants, and bars, all mixed together in a seamless compact pedestrian scale setting.

This Sanborn map of the block between Lee and Davis Streets indicates a mix of uses (hotels, shops, restaurants, wholesale companies, industrial uses, etc.) within a compact setting.

This aerial of the Jacksonville Terminal clearly illustrates the building density of Railroad Row around the intersection of West Bay and Lee Streets.  The mixed use nature of the buildings is evident with the presence of railroad sidings running parallel on both sides of West Bay Street.  Hotels operating on Railroad Row included the Desoto, Olympia, St. Charles, and Colonial Hotels.

This scene captures utility lines being laid down Bay Street, near Jefferson Street, looking west, in the heart of Railroad Row.  Like a scene resembling today's Pittsburgh Strip District, West Bay Street was dominated by the Atlantic & East Coast Terminal Company's railroad freight depot bounded by Bay, Jefferson, Forsyth, and Lee Streets.  By 1925, the leading industries in Jacksonville were ship building, lumber and cigar manufacturing.  The port, which was the deepest on the South Atlantic Coast at the time, specialized in lumber, cotton, phosphate, cigars, sugars, fruits and vegetables.  Companies operating along the West Bay Street strip included Crane Company Plumbing Supplies, Cudahy Packaging Company, Swift & Company, Dixie Warehouse Company, and the Atlantic Distribution Company Beverage Depot.

This Sanborn Map illustrates the location of the Atlantic & East Coast Terminal Company's depot and the building density surrounding it in the vicinity of Jefferson Street.

This image captures of the offices of the Atlantic & East Coast Terminal Company's freight depot at the intersection of Jefferson and Forsyth Streets.  Completed in 1910, it was demolished down in 1979 after its operations were relocated outside of downtown.  If left to remain, it would have been the perfect facility for a use like a public market within walking vicinity of the heart of the Northbank.  A similar structure in downtown Savannah was preserved, eventually being put back to use as classrooms for the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD).

Now the site of the new Duval County Courthouse, the intersection of Adams and Clay Streets gave off a completely different vibe during the 1946 Armistice Day parade.

By the mid 20th century, the east end of the district had transitioned into a furniture district between Bay and Adams Street.  This image captures E.C. Newsom Furniture Company in 1948 at the intersection of Adams and Broad Streets.  This building and several around it were demolished in the mid-2000s in anticipation of new development that many thought the new courthouse would bring with it.

11 Broad Street was representative of many of the small masonry buildings that, when combined, created a unique urban environment.  The site of this building is now a pocket park at the intersection of Bay and Broad Streets.

This late 1970s aerial captures the district looking east from I-95 over Forsyth and Bay Streets.  By this time, the district was in decline as it's economic engines were relocated outside of downtown to other areas of Jacksonville.  When this image was taken, the maritime industry had already relocated to Talleyrand and Blount Island.  The passenger railroad station had been relocated to Northwest Jacksonville and the freight railroad terminal to West Jacksonville.  

With no railroad station bringing in 20,000 passengers a day to downtown Jacksonville, the majority of downtown's hotels would close by the end of the decade.  With no railroad passengers, no tourists, and a loss of thousands of manufacturing and maritime jobs from the core, all of downtown's major retailers would shut down by the mid 1980s.  

History suggests that the relocation of the railroad and maritime industry ultimately killed retail in downtown Jacksonville by the end of the 1980s.  Not white flight or suburban shopping malls, which were well into their third continuous decade of activity by then.


Needless to say, with the power of the wrecking ball in the name of "urban revitalization" and "downtown redevelopment", Railroad Row is all but gone.  However, a few buildings still stubbornly cling to life.

The site of Hotel Desoto, which enjoyed a prime location across the street from the Jacksonville Terminal, has been reduced to an overgrown surface parking lot.  The Skyway provides transit connectivity, but the buildings that would have made transit viable are no more.

Above: The site where the Crane Company once stood at the corner of Bay and Lee Streets.

Below: The Crane Company building during the 1930s.  Designed by Marsh & Saxelbye, this structure was known for its decorative brickwork.

The Duval Motor Company, one of Jacksonville's earliest Ford dealerships, was located one block north of the Crane Company on the corner of Forsyth and Lee Streets.

927 West Forsyth is one of the few buildings remaining in the vicinity of the Jacksonville Terminal.  Constructed in 1909, for many years it was the home of the Southeast Wheel & Rim Company, shown below.

The remaining two buildings on the block shared by 927 West Forsyth have housed a variety of uses over years including City Meat & Slaughter House company in 1925.  927 West Forsyth, like all of the West Forsyth Street buildings between Lee and Jefferson Streets, once faced the massive Atlantic & East Coast Terminal Company's freight depot.

Interline Brands occupies by land that was once consumed by the Atlantic & East Coast Terminal Company freight depot and offices.

This image of Florida East Coast Railway staff was taken inside the Atlantic & East Coast Terminal Company's warehouse.  Standing on the left is John W. Martin.  Martin would become 24th Governor of Florida, in office from 1925 to 1929.

Across the street, near the intersection of West Forsyth and Madison Streets, this building dates back to 1902.  In 1915, the Jax Chero-Cola Bottling Company operated out of the structure.  Chero-Cola was founded in 1905 as the Union Bottling Works by Claud A. Hatcher in Columbus, GA.  Hatcher's first beverages were named Royal Crown, a ginger ale and a cola called Chero-Cola.  In 1912, the company's name was changed to Chero-Cola.  Over the years, the company's name has changed and it is now known as Royal Crown Cola International.

Sally Industries, at 745 West Forsyth Street, makes robotic characters and figures for use in theme parks, museums, motion picture, and retail stores worldwide.  Sally also provides electronic control and audio systems, staging, lighting, and sound track production.  In addition, the firm creates and installs entire attractions and interactive rides, such as Universal Park's E.T.'s Adventure.  The building housing Sally Industries was completed in 1950 for the Horne-Wilson, Inc.

Located next to Sally, at the intersection of Jefferson and Houston Streets, this building was the home of the Fairmont Creamery Company.

Cora Crane's The Court bordello at the intersection of Davis and Houston Streets.

A century ago, the intersection of Ward Street (now Houston Street) and Davis Street was the epicenter of Jacksonville's famed red light district.  

This Sanborn map illustrates the location of female boarding houses (labeled "F") also known as bordellos, in the vicinity of Davis Street and Ward Streets.

By the late 20th century, most of the bordellos had been replaced by additional warehouse space served by a railroad spur which ran in the center of the street.  While the railroad is long gone, loading docks that once were served by box cars remain in the facades of buildings still standing.

The Hotel Flagler was located one block north of The Court, at the intersection of Davis and Adams Streets.  Today, this site is a vacant lot.

The Covington Building at Forsyth and Jefferson Streets served as a military jail during the Spanish-American War.  Although it survived the Great Fire of 1901, it fell to the wrecking ball associated with the River City Renaissance plan of the 1990s.  Today, the block of surface parking bounded by Forsyth, Broad, Houston, and Jefferson Streets is arguably one of the worst looking areas in downtown Jacksonville.  Look closely and you'll discover its not a parking lot you're parking on.  It's actually the foundations of several demolished buildings that once gave the district its unique flair.  For many years, the majority of the block was occupied by the Pierce-Wall Furniture Company.

This Sanborn map illustrates the footprints of buildings that once stood on this derelict block.  Across the street two former furniture company buildings still remain.  At one point, they were considered for demolition by the JTA to make room for a downtown bus rapid transit station.

During its early years, this building was occupied by the Hart Furniture Company.

Located next door to the Hart Furniture Company was the Davis Furniture Company.  Before Davis Furniture occupied the building, it housed a poultry supplies entity known as the National Products Company.

Founded in 1889 by John A Cunningham, the Cunningham Furniture Company eventually grew to become one of the Southeast's largest home furnishing businesses before closing in 1984.  For many years, it was one of the tallest buildings in the area.  The image below captures the remains of the Cunningham Furniture Company at the intersection of Forsyth and Broad Streets.  Today, the foundation, which once supported some of the finest pieces of furniture in the city, is used for cheap surface parking.

The Railroad Row district has disappeared primarily due to isolated demolition of small buildings between 1970 and 2000.  The scene of the district today, with the comparisons of images from the past, visually highlights the importance of historic preservation in a pedestrian scale setting.  While we can't fix the destruction done to this once popular setting in the name of "revitalization", we can learn from our past when it comes to the preservation of remaining structures, such as the Laura Trio.

Article by Ennis Davis

Historic Images courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.