Rail Depots Vital to County’s History

Completion of the restoration of the Seaboard Air Line Railroad in Gainesville enables public to appreciate the past.

By Chris Eversole

The City of Gainesville and Gainesville Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) have completed a $1.6 million restoration of the 10,200-square-foot Seaboard Air Line Railroad Depot along Depot Avenue, which was built in 1860 and added to in 1910.

The CRA is moving forward on plans to place a restaurant and a cafe in the depot, along with a space featuring historical displays, says Diane Gilreath, project manager for the CRA.

In preparation for the restoration, Key West-based architectural company Bender and Associates worked with historian Jim Miller on a report on the history of the Gainesville depot building and railroads in Alachua County.

According to the report, railroads came late to Florida compared to other eastern states, due to “the state’s difficult landscape, including vast pine forests and extensive swamps.”


The report also includes the following milestones:

●      In 1831, 10 years after Florida became a territory, the legislative council asked army engineers to survey a rail route between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. This attempt, and four similar tries, failed, but “eventually David Levy, Florida’s territorial delegate to Congress, prevailed upon army engineers to survey a route between Fernandina on the Atlantic and Cedar Key.”

●      The Florida Railroad completed construction of its line from Fernandina to Gainesville in 1859. At that time, the town had a courthouse, a schoolhouse, a general store, three hotels and a population of 269.

●      The Civil War Battle of Gainesville occurred on August 17, 1864. Union troops occupied the depot for two hours, but the smaller Confederate forces then took back the building.

●      The 1887 Sanborn Insurance Map of Gainesville shows tracks of the Savannah, Florida & Western Railroad and the Florida Southern Railroad running north-south along West Main Street, and tracks of the Florida Railway and Navigation Co. (originally the Florida Railroad) running east-west on either side of the Gainesville Depot.

●      In 1907, the Railroad Commission denied a petition to require building a “union station” to accommodate trains of the railroads serving Gainesville, which included the Seaboard Air Line Railway, the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad and the Jacksonville & Tampa Railway.

The report notes that reproducing the appearance of the Gainesville depot was difficult because it had deteriorated and because few photos of the building, while it was operating, exist. In planning the restoration of the depot, the architects used pictures from the Hawthorne Depot to provide details for the work.



Eden of the South

A promotional book written in 1883 called Alachua County “The Eden of the South,” with orange groves, vegetable farms, strawberry fields and peach orchards.  Gainesville was one of the largest and most important cities in the state, behind Jacksonville, Pensacola and Key West, the book said.

The city also was the largest cotton shipping station in the state. As rail passengers passed through town, they saw cotton gins and an iron foundry, according to the book.

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