Henry B. Plant: The King of Florida

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.

Published July 21, 2015 in History - MetroJacksonville.com

A Railroad Tycoon Falls In Love With Florida

The Orange Belt Railroad, between St. Petersburg and Sanford was completed in 1888 by Peter Demens. It was purchased by Henry B. Plant in 1895. Image courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/3533

In 1898, Success Magazine featured an article titled "Henry B. Plant, The King of Florida." According to the story, "South of Mason and Dixon's Line, probably no name is better known - unless it be those of the living Confederate leaders, than that of Henry B. Plant, founder and manager of the Plant System of travel."

By 1895, his Plant System employed over 12,000, with the Atlanta Constitution claiming, "Mr. Plant is one of those remarkable men who masters all conditions and creates environment. He is a builder - a creator. A whole state blossoms at the touch of his magic wand."

Orlando's Sunrail commuter rail system operates on the railroad Henry B. Plant established between Jacksonville and Central Florida, paralleling the St. Johns River.

The son of a farmer, Plant was born in Branford, CT on October 27, 1819.  At the age of 18, he began working as a captain's boy for the New Haven Steamboat Company. While with the Adams Express Company, Plant was transferred from steamboats to railroads.  In 1853, due to his wife's health, Plant arrived in Jacksonville and soon recognized the possibilities of future development in Florida.

During the Civil War, fearing the confiscation of their Southern holdings, Adams Express sold them to Plant. After the Civil War, with much of the South in ruins, Plant bought the Atlantic and Gulf Railroad and the Charleston and Savannah Railroad at foreclosure sales.

The Charleston and Savannah Railroad was reorganized as the Savannah, Florida and Western Railway on December 9, 1879. This railroad was extended from Waycross to downtown Jacksonville, near the present day Acosta Bridge in April 1881.

With these serving as the core, he began to develop a southern transportation network that included 2,100 miles of track, steamship lines, and hotels.

Magnolia Springs was just north of Governor's Creek. Called the Princess of Florida, the community was home to "The Hotel" at Magnolia Springs. The hotel burned in 1923. Courtesy of the Clay County Historical Archives.

Extensions south of Jacksonville, during the 1880s, into Central Florida began to open the rest of the state up to new development, giving Florida orange growers and phosphate mines quick and cheap access to Northern and international markets.

Downtown St. Petersburg

As he expanded his network, cities such as Sanford, Orlando, Kissimmee, Lakeland, Plant City (named after Plant), Tampa, Clearwater, St. Petersburg began to grow. New industrial cities, attracting thousands of immigrants also sprouted up along his railroad.

Ybor City was established as a cigar manufacturing town along Henry B. Plant's railroad to Tampa.

One example was Ybor City, just northeast of downtown Tampa. Founded in the 1880s by Cuban cigar manufacturers, the community attracted thousands of immigrants from Cuba, Spain, and Italy to roll millions of cigars annually.

This map illustrates the location of Plant's and Flagler's 19th century hotels throughout the state. Courtesy of Floridahistory.org

In addition, Plant developed several hotels and resorts throughout Florida, along his railroad lines. They included the PICO Hotel in Sanford (1887) for the accommodation of his railroad and steamship passengers to Central Florida, Hotel Punta Gorda (1887), Inn at Port Tampa (1888), Hotel Kissimmee (1890), Seminole Hotel (1891), The Ocala House (1883), and the Fort Myers Hotel (1898).

His most lavish hotels, the Tampa Bay Hotel, which served as the military headquarters during the Spanish American War, and the Belleview Biltmore (near Clearwater) were completed in 1891 and 1897.

Henry B. Plant's Tampa Bay Hotel is now a part of the University of Tampa's campus in downtown Tampa.

Inside the Henry B. Plant Museum in the Tampa Bay Hotel.  The museum preserves the character of residing in a 19th century lavish resort.

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

This article can be found at: https://www.metrojacksonville.com/article/2015-jul-henry-b-plant-the-king-of-florida

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