The Lake Santa Fe Route
A short history of the narrow gauge Western Railway of Florida
By Donald R. Hensley, Jr.
Copyright May, 2009

Melrose, Fla
Narrow gauge train at Melrose depot circa 1890.
Photo from Florida State Photographic Archives.
    During the early 1880’s there was a push to exploit the virgin country between Green Cove Springs and Melrose, Florida , there by connecting the St. Johns River with Lake Santa Fe and the Santa Fe River system in Alachua County.  The first attempt was by the Green Cove & Melrose RR in February of 1882, but it was soon succeeded by the Green Cove Springs & Melrose Railroad soon after. Pushed by the team of Raphael Canova of Green Cove Springs and Adolph Vogelbach of Melrose, the GCS&M was to be the eastern division of a narrow gauge empire stretching between the St. Johns River and the Suwannee River. The western division would be called the St. Johns and Suwannee Railroad Company and would have operated between Melrose and Ft. Fanning on the Suwannee, via Gainesville. Unhappily for us it was never built, but the eastern part, the GCS&M was. Money was raised and the earth was being shoveled and a grade slowly was eked out into the wilderness west of Green Cove Springs in 1882. A reporter from the Florida Daily News of Jacksonville visited the town and its first railroad in June of 1882 (the edition of the 24) and reported: “On arriving at Green Cove Springs the reporter preceded to the offices of the Green Cove Springs and Melrose, where he was cordially greeted by the secretary, Robert W. Davis and the vice president, Major Vogelbach, the officers of the company have recently been removed to the larger and more spacious office of the company and more comfortable quarters. They report the road in a flourishing condition, and a large force of men still at work on it. The grading has been finished about seven miles and it is done very neatly.”  By March of 1883 the road was completed to Greens Creek, with 10 miles of three foot gauge 25 lb rail from the St. Johns River. The GCS&M owned one locomotive, nine flat cars and one combine for the passengers. But the railroad had ran out of money and was placed in receivership in 1884 with the public sale on July 6, 1885.

12/1888 Official Guide of the Railways
                Out of this mess arose the newly formed Green Cove and Midland RR, which still had Vogelbach and Canova on board, but the influence of the large sawmill firm of Buddington and Wilson was brought on board. The end of track at this time was renamed Sharon and Buddington & Wilson built a sawmill to cut the wealth of virgin Yellow Pine in the area. The railroad was extended 2.5 miles further south to Bellamy Road in August of 1885, the only building the GC&M railroad did in it’s short operational life. By July of 1885 the Green Cove Springs & Melrose was back like it never left (probably due to the bond holder’s influence) and the lumbermen formed the Western Railway Company of Florida to lease and operate the GCS&M on July 28, 1885. The majority owner was lumberman Dexter Hunter of Jacksonville who would use the line to haul logs for dumping into the St. Johns for rafting to his mill back in Jacksonville. Dexter Hunter also was the majority owner of the narrow gauge Atlantic & Western RR in nearby Blue Springs.
   Green Cove Springs in 1886 became the home of the Blaines Brother’s Car Factory, which built railcars for the local railroads like the Florida Southern at Palatka and the Jacksonville Tampa & Key West RR at Green Cove Springs. The GCS&M was the main conduit of logs and lumber to the car factory. The GCS&M also had a deepwater dock on the St John’s where ocean going ships could put in.  Offices and engine house were located in the city. It was here that Ozlas Buddington  controlled the railroad as superintendent, John Walsh as master mechanic and accountant and Clarence Tyler as agent. Buddington was in charge of the construction and by 1887 the railroad was completed another 4 miles, slowly inching toward Melrose. Meanwhile the lumber companies has pushed an eight mile branch south of Sharon. By this time they operated three locomotives (two leased from the lumbermen) and 30 flat cars(leased), one box car(leased) and the single combine.  That year also saw Buddington & Wilson building a new sawmill at Bellmore City, near the end of track. 
The railroad pier at Green Cove Springs
Photo from Florida State Photographic Archives.
    The Weekly News Herald of January 26thof 1888 stated that the GCS&M brings in 75,000 feet of Yellow Pine daily, most of it for the Blaine Brothers Car Factory. A new locomotive was received in February of 1888, bringing the total to four. But tragedy struck in April when on the 28th, John Walsh was crushed to death when the locomotive jumped the tracks at Terrell’s Creek, six miles from Green Cove Springs and fell down the 12 foot embankment.

A ventilated box car at the Melrose steamboat landing on Lake Santa Fe.
Photo from Florida State Photographic Archives.

    It was not until early 1890 was the railroad completed to Melrose, bringing the total mileage to 33 miles.  1892 and was reorganized as the Southwestern Railroad Company on July 1At this point the railroad operated four locomotives, 2 parlor cars, 1 baggage, 7 box cars, 57 flat cars and 3 company service gravel cars. The railroad connected with boats on Lake Santa Fe and its various canals and tributaries. Fruit, vegetables, fish, naval stores and lumber were shipped out while the basic necessities of life, mail and express along with tourists and settlers came in. However with the clear cutting of the forests along the line the local traffic was not enough to pay the bond interest and receivership reared it’s ugly head once more, on February 24, 1892. Both the GCS&M and the Western Ry were sold on June 6thst, 1892.

First timetable of the South-Western Railroad in July of 1892.
    The railroad limped along until the great Freeze of 1896 killed the Citrus Industry of North Florida and traffic completely dried up. Most of the farmers packed it in and headed South. The owners tried to scrap the line in 1897, but the courts forbade them to, until 1899 when they were finally allowed to suspend operations and abandoned the road.
Davis Lumber Co. #11 at Melrose with a box car.
Don Hensley Collection.

                Melrose having lost rail service in 1899, became one of the few communities which regain rail service, when in 1914, the Davis Lumber Co. of Orange Heights, built a logging line through Melrose. Clyde Davis ask permission of the Florida Railroad Commission for a special permit to provide common carrier duties for the people of Melrose. Thus the Melrose Railroad was born, providing cheap service to the small town. The seven mile long standard gauge railroad cost only $4,240 to build and operated two locomotives and six log cars which cost them $3,000. However the good times did not last long and the railroad was pulled up by July of 1917.

Roster (from Federal Court Documents of the 1892 receivership)

Locomotives (quite possibly all 4-4-0s)
1                     Original loco of GCS&M, leased to Western Ry of Fla.
2                     Dickson “Dexter Hunter Jr” owned by Dexter Hunter, leased to Wry
3                     (2nd)Baldwin       Hunter, Buddington & Wilson (HB&W) leased to WRY
4                     Owned by WRY, original #3(1st)
Passenger Cars
1                     passenger chair car leased from HB&W
2                     passenger chair car leased from HB&W
A             baggage car leased from HB&W
3              coach leased from HB&W

Freight Cars
39 flats leased from leased from HB&W various odd numbers between 103 and 201

8 box cars leased from HB&W various even numbers from 100 to 114.
3                     lever cars and 4 push cars

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