Henry B. Plant: The King of Florida

July 21, 2015 20 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Jacksonville and much of Florida owes a lot of gratitude to this railroad tycoon, whose 19th century infrastructure investments have paved the way for a 21st century Florida.

Plant's Streetcar System Builds Urban Jacksonville

A Jacksonville Electric Company streetcar. This streetcar company was originally established by Henry B. Plant. It would grow to become Florida's largest streetcar system.

Plant didn't just introduce Jacksonville and Central Florida to the rest of the country with his railroads.  He also changed Jacksonville's urban landscape forever with his investment in the city's streetcar network.  In 1879, Plant and his associates formed the Jacksonville Street Railway Company. Soon his streetcars connected downtown with Fairfield, LaVilla and what would become Riverside's Five Points.

Jacksonville's CoRK Arts District occupies early 20th century warehouses built along the Plant System's railroad between Jacksonville and Sanford.

A year after LaVilla's Jacksonville and LaVilla Street Railway was established in 1884, Plant brought it out as well. Plant also acquired the Eastside's new streetcar line, the Jacksonville and Suburban Railway in 1887.

In 1893, Plant, along with the Florida Central and Peninsular Railway and the Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Indian River Railway purposed to build a grand union terminal station just west of downtown, chartering the Jacksonville Terminal Company with $1 million in capital. In 1895, his streetcar system was converted from mules to electricity and extended north of Panama Park. Plant would also acquire Springfield's Main Street Railroad, giving his companies 15 miles of streetcar lines throughout the city.

Plant System advertisements for Florida's West Coast during the Gilded Age. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

On June 23, 1899, Henry B. Plant died at the age of 79. After his death, his local streetcar network was reorganized into the Jacksonville Electric Company. On March 31, 1911, the company originally established by Henry B. Plant became the Jacksonville Traction Company. At its height, the Jacksonville Traction Company operated over 60 miles of streetcar routes (Florida's largest) throughout Jacksonville before being acquired by the Motor Transit Company  for $335,000 in January 1932. The Motor Transit Company then proceeded to shut down the city's streetcar lines, replacing them with new bus routes.

By 1895, the Plant System connected several southern states and Cuba with Florida.

In 1902, the Atlantic Coast Line (ACL) Railroad acquired the entire Plant System. In 1955, the ACL announced that it would construct its headquarters in Jacksonville instead of Wilmington (their historic headquarters city), Savannah or Charleston. Built on top of the wharves developed by Henry B. Plant 80 years earlier, the ACL's new downtown Jacksonville headquarters office complex was finished in July 1960.

After additional mergers the ACL became a part of CSX, Jacksonville's largest Fortune 500 company, July 1, 1986.

The 38.2 mile Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail in Downtown Dunedin. The trail was formerly a part of the Orange Belt Railroad route between St. Petersburg and Sanford.

The CSX Buildings sits on the site that Henry B. Plant developed his railroad's wharves during the 1880s. After his death, his system of railroads were acquired by the ACL in 1902. The ACL constructed this tower to serve as its headquarters in 1960.

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at edavis@moderncities.com

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