Copyright ©1998-1999 DONALD R. HENSLEY, JR.


Sanford and St.Petersburg Railroad # 11

Sanford and St. Petersburg RR # 11, a Baldwin narrow gauge 4-4-0 (ex-Denver & Rio Grande) from the collection of Don Hensley

As the 1880's unfolded, Florida's frontier was being penetrated by a system of three-foot gauge railroads, spurred on by a generous state land grant. This story focuses on one of the last common carrier narrow gauge roads to be built in Florida, which was also one of the last to be converted to standard gauge.

Petrovitch A. Demenscheff was born in Petrograd, Russia in 1850. His family was of the nobility with large estates. He was the first cousin of Prince Petroff and a captain in the Imperial Guard. He received training as a forester managing his large family estates, which would serve him well in the future. In 1880 he was exiled from Russia, and with his wife, children and servant immigrated to America, Anglicizing his name to Peter Demens. For some odd reason he headed south to Florida and obtained a job as a laborer at a sawmill in Longwood, Florida. He worked hard and within a year was appointed manager. Later with the money he saved he became partners with the owners and then quickly bought them out. Demens became one of the biggest contractors in the state, building houses, stations, hotels and railroads through out Florida. One railroad contract was the narrow gauge Orange Belt Railway that he took over when they couldn't pay for the work.

The Orange Belt Ry at first was a real estate promotion, using mule power (his name was Jack) and wood rails from Longwood to Myrtle Lake. When Demens took the road over he formed an operating company called the Orange Belt Investment Company. He then obtained local financing to rebuild the line using 8 miles of 25 pound rail and purchased a steam locomotive from an Alabama road that was converting. He then pushed the line north to Lake Monroe, where he connected with the newly built standard gauge road, the Jacksonville, Tampa and Key West Ry. However Longwood had a rail connection with the North from the South Florida R.R., which was in the process of converting to standard gauge. Demens then turned his attention to pushing the road south-westerly to Oakland, a growing town in a rich agricultural section of the state. To do this he had to obtain financing from investors in New York. Here he met C.H. Armour of Philadelphia, brother of the famous meat packer of Chicago. It was announced however that Oakland would not be the terminus, the road would be pushed on to the Gulf of Mexico, and a new port would be built. Demens was a man of great energy as he worked hard on building this railroad and sunk his whole fortune in it. He worked harder than ever, supervising construction one week and meeting with investors the next in New York. The road came close to collapsing at times only to be shored up by last minute financial deals. He pushed the road to Oakland and had trains running on October 30, 1886. The road slowly inched toward the Gulf, reaching Tarpon Springs on January 13, 1888. By May 1, the line was completed to Saint Petersburg, named after the famous Russian city of his youth. By this time however, the Longwood Branch was no longer needed, so the rail and ties were pulled up and re-laid between Monroe and Sanford. This created a 152 mile long mainline between Sanford and St. Petersburg.

Click for Orange Belt Map

However Demens could only hold on to his railroad for one more year. In 1889 he was forced to accept a buy out and he left Florida for North Carolina where he bought another sawmill, which he operated for three years. He then went west, arriving in Los Angeles, California where he operated a steam laundry for four years. He sold out and bought citrus groves near Alta Loma, where he lived until his death in 1919.

Demens in my opinion, got out while he could. The railroad was built in a rural agricultural area, that produced traffic only in the late Winter and early Spring. The Orange Belt Investment Co. owned hundreds of thousand of acres, but growth was slow in this section. Also they had to compete against Henry B. Plant's South Florida RR and his port at Tampa. Only a third of the road was profitable and that was the line from Lachoochee (connection with the standard gauge Florida Central & Peninsular RY) to St. Petersburg. All the communities along the Gulf coast prospered. However the other two thirds of the railroad ran in the red, which brought the railroad into receivership in 1893 when they couldn't pay the interest on their bonds. The road was sold by the court, right back to its owners, and they reorganized as the Sanford and St. Petersburg RR. The road limped along until March of 1895, when Florida had the great freeze, killing all the Citrus trees. The ownership threw up their hands and meekly sold out to the Plant System of Railroads. Plant promptly standard gauged the profitable section of the road, while leaving the narrow gauge section in place from Trilby to Sanford. He also purchased the standard gauge Florida Midland from Sanford to Kissimmee, abandoning north of the Orange Belt and narrow gauging the line to Kissimmee. This was run in conjunction with the S&SP, using equipment from the Orange Belt and the Florida Southern RR which was converted in 1896. In 1902 the Atlantic Coast Line purchased the Plant System, inheriting the narrow gauge lines. The ACL slowly converted the road until the last portion was completed in April of 1908, ending the long run of the last narrow gauge common carrier in Florida.

The Orange Belt interchanged with two standard gauge lines, the JT&KW at Monroe and the FC&P at Lachoochee. Both junctions used the Ramsey Transfer in which standard gauge cars are lifted and re-gauged with narrow gauge trucks. They also interchanged with the standard gauge South Florida RR at Sanford, where freight was manually reloaded onto narrow gauge cars. Narrow gauge interchange, until 1893, was handled at Macon (later Trilby) with the South Florida Railroad's narrow gauged Pemberton's Ferry Branch. It was here that cars of the South Florida RR and the Florida Southern RR were interchanged until 1892 when the branch was converted.

A typical mixed train of the Orange Belt, this narrow gauge engine later served on Atlantic Coast Line's operation of this line. This Brooks 14x18 was their largest engine and was the favorite of the crews, and was used mostly as the mixed engine.

Typical outbound traffic in an 1890 report shows fruits and vegetables leading the pack with 3,981 tons carried with lumber close at 3,188 tons. Inbound leader was fertilizer with 1,819 tons. A grand total of 9,507 tons was originated while 6,482 tons were received. This was carried in 20-25 ton capacity cars, quite a bit of traffic. Unfortunately they built just south of the Dunnellon Phosphate Mining District that could have provided traffic to the port.

Passenger operations consisted of four trains, two southbound and two north. The northbound No. 66 left the Wharf at 5:55 am, arriving at Sanford at 1:45 pm. The train was turned and became southbound No. 71 leaving Sanford at 2:45 p.m. arriving at St. Petersburg's Wharf at 10:35 pm. The other two trains were the railroads crack express trains. The southbound No. 3 left Lachoochee at 6:00 am, arriving at the Wharf at 10:05 am. The train was turned and became No. 4, leaving northbound at 6:10 pm and arriving at Lachoochee at 10:15 pm. This train had to be on time as it met with the Florida Central & Peninsular mail and express trains from Jacksonville.

Click for Official Guide Timetable and Map from 1893

Freight operations consisted of two mixed trains, southbound No. 9 leaving Sanford at 4:30 am and arriving at the Wharf at 6:15 pm. Its counterpart, No. 10 left the Wharf at 5:15 am, and arrived at Sanford at 8:00 pm. An 1891 report stated that they carried an average of 7 cars per freight train, 4 loads and 3 empties, for a total of 22 tons, an average of 5-2/5 tons a car.

Excursions were popular during the tourist season, from January to Easter. A Tarpon Springs Special was usually run from St. Petersburg to Tarpons Springs and back. There was also seasonal fruit and vegetable traffic from December to June. This consisted of Tangerines in December, Oranges from January to March and early vegetables from March to May. A watermelon rush would occur in June. Oakland was the headquarters of the company, and their shops, roundhouse and offices were located here. Locomotive fuel was pine wood, and wood racks were located at every station along the line. Turntables were located at St. Petersburg, Lachoochee, Oakland, and Monroe. Trains were backed into Sanford, from Monroe, 2 miles away.

Locomotives consisted of second hand engines from many converted narrow gauge lines. Eleven of the Twelve engines were 4-4-0s, with one 2-6-0. Many different builders are represented, Baldwin, National and Pittsburgh. Rolling stock consisted mostly of used cars from the South Florida RR that had just converted their mainline in 1886. However the shops at Oakland built many of their own boxcars and some of their baggage cars.

This road was built through rolling hills, around lakes and through swamps, crossing only one river, the Withlachoochee at Lachoochee. This railroad was almost a roller coaster, as it was built with the lay of the ground. However the average grade did not exceed one percent, except for a short stretch of two and a half percentage near San Antonio, where the coastal plain meets the sand hills. The road also had many curves, avoiding the many lakes and swamps on the route.

St. Petersburg, Florida station.


I would pick the St. Petersburg terminal as the best starting point. I have found several maps and many photos of the town and it's wharf. The beautiful Victorian station would be a challenge to any modeler while the small yard would keep one busy switching the six trains a day (plus extras and excursions). By just cutting the actual trackage by half we can duplicate this yard to an eight foot shelf. This would allow enough car space to make up and send trains out as well as receiving and breaking trains down. The Wharf should take up an additional four feet to get the right effect.

Click for Orange Belt Trackage in St. Petersburg, Fl
Click for Wharf Trackage at St. Petersburg, Fl

The length of the mainline is of course dependent on the amount of space available, but for best effect I would model Clearwater, Tarpon Springs and the big hill at San Antonio with a return loop with sidings at the end. This would simulate the best part of the road, traffic wise. And it's not bad scenery either. From St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs, there will be many large Pine Trees and old Oaks with moss hanging low. In the swamps between Tarpon Springs and the sand hills there are large ancient cypress trees, many over a thousand years old. And on the sand hill near San Antonio will be Scrub Oaks and Pines.

Finding or building the narrow gauge 4-4-0s and the small rolling stock will be a challenge for many, and don't forget to have small standard gauge cars with narrow gauge trucks in each consist. These will mostly be cars from the Florida Central & Peninsular (later to the Seaboard Air Line) and the Jacksonville Tampa and Key West (Atlantic Coast Line), though you wont find many of the former south of Lachoochee.