The History

Polk County was created on February 8, 1861 –
one month after the start of the Civil War.

The County, was land locked, and transportation consisted of the horse or wagons drawn by oxen or mules. The only means of communicating with the outside world was by mail, which arrived by boat at Tampa and was picked up by horseback rider twice a week. Tampa was the nearest trading post as well as the nearest post office. It took three days to make the Lakeland area to Tampa. Thus, the County offered few incentives for settlers to homestead in the area, but still a few hardy pioneers did. Between 1860 and 1880, Polk County’s entire population increased by 12 persons – from 3,169 to 3,181.

The year 1881 was a momentous one for Polk County and for the future town of Lakeland. Phosphate – the State’s most important mineral – was discovered in the Peace River Valley. On the east coast, a Chinese immigrant named Lue Gim Gong developed a frost-proof orange that began to flourish in groves along the Indian River, laying the basis for Polk County’s citrus industry.

Also, in 1881, a wealthy Louisville manufacturer named Abraham Godwin Munn purchased several thousand acres of land from the International Improvement Fund of Florida, including an 80-acre tract in Polk County.

Meanwhile Henry B. Plant, an entrepreneur and developer from Connecticut, made a deal that was to insure Lakeland’s future. He negotiated with the Jacksonville, Tampa and Key West Railway Company to buy a six-month franchise for a railroad extending from Kissimmee to Tampa. Plant decided to start building the line from each end, laying track toward a middle point. Crews began the arduous task of laying the track through formidable Florida wilderness, described in an 1887 publication by the South Florida Railroad Company: “They fought through raw woods – through pine and oak scrub, green tongues of cypress swamp protruding into them. A seemingly impenetrable wall of cypress, bay, cedar, magnolia, live oak, water oak and more, rose scrambling and choking from the brown pools. That black venomous mass was fought hand to hand with ax, pick and spike.”

A railroad construction camp was located on the shores of Lake Wire in late 1883. Herbert J. Drane, then only 20 years old and the first white man to live in the original 80 acres that comprised Lakeland, was a superintendent of construction. In December if 1883 with the railroad almost to their doorsteps, the townspeople met to select a name for the new settlement – the site of today’s Munn Park Historic District. Lakeland was enthusiastically chosen. On January 23, 1884, just days away from the expiration of Plants franchise, trains from Kissimmee and Tampa “kissed” cowcatchers six miles east of Lakeland.
Another line, the Florida Southern Railroad, had rails laid southward from Leesburg to Pemberton’s Ferry, with a spur line reaching Brooksville ten miles west. The South Florida Railroad hooked up where the Florida Southern had terminated at Pemberton’s Ferry, laying its rails southward until they intersected its own east-west line at Lakeland and then continuing south, reaching Bartow on September 3, 1885.

The Florida Southern resumed, laying rails southward from Bartow to Charlotte Harbor. The road bed was finished on July 24, 1886. Both the South Florida and the Florida Southern railroads became part of Henry Plant’s system.

Horse Drawn Carriage

...Henry B. Plant, an entrepreneur and developer from Connecticut, made a deal that was to insure Lakeland’s future.

Orange Grove

Agricultural development, industry, tourism, and settlement followed the rails. Phosphate soon became a giant business. Railroads operating out of Lakeland moved the valuable rock, and by 1893 as many as 20 trains a day passed through the town. Railroad yards were constructed, and Lakeland became a division point for several connecting lines that extended to phosphate mines. Citrus and strawberries became big money crops, and fresh oranges, grapefruit, and strawberries began to be shipped to many places “up North” where they were considered a rare delicacy in the dead of winter.

In 1887 “The Magic City of South Florida,” as Lakeland was soon dubbed, had a population of nearly 1,000. The South Florida Railroad published a booklet that year, describing Lakeland as having “the natural advantages and opportunities of the junction of the main line and the Pemberton branch. The town is city-like, with a main plaza forming a square of 10 acres. The avenues extending out beyond are occupied with the residences and groves. The place has such an air of established dignity, it is hard to believe that four years ago there were more wild cats and panthers than men and women. It represents a number of intelligent capitalists and businessmen, and has become the market town and shipping point of Polk County.”

Lakeland was then the most important railroad center in south Florida, but it might not have been so if it were not for Abraham Munn. The landowner from Louisville finally visited Lakeland in early January of 1884 to look over his investment, just before the South Florida Railroad joined up east of Lakeland. Munn had many exciting plans, but the South Florida Railroad company had other ideas―it refused to stop its trains at the newly-named town unless concessions were granted. To ensure his vision for Lakeland, Munn very generously provided the right-of-way and several acres for terminals and tracks. He even built a large, attractive station at his own expense. The two-story wooden structure was located between Kentucky and Tennessee Avenues, south of the railroad tracks.

Around 1902, Munn’s impressive depot burned down, and it was replaced by a simple white frame structure consisting of a waiting room and a baggage room. When this station was destroyed in a fire in 1910, it was replaced by a substantial one-story brick building. Yet another fire occurred in 1918, burning down most of the structure, but the brick shell was saved. When the depot reopened in 1919, a second story, a restaurant, and restrooms for both colored and white passengers had been added.

Lakeland’s freight depot was located across the tracks between Tennessee and North Florida Avenues. The freight depot was the lifeline of the Lakeland economy. Lakeland’s growing freight business was strengthened by the nation’s demand for Florida’s tropical delicacies as well as the development of heavier locomotives. The increased traffic started to overwhelm the depot, which was enlarged between 1908 and 1913. A second freight depot was constructed to the north, facing Pine Street. By early 1917 the early depot was gone, and the new one had two additional open sheds serving seven spurs.

Livestock cars were loaded at the stock-yards south of Lake Wire, while express freight and packages were delivered by switch engine from the downtown freight depot. Citrus packing houses loaded their own cars and delivered them to the rail yard by switch engine.

At the Lakeland Rail Yard, located on 100 acres east of Lake Bonnet, hundreds of cars were sorted, coupled, and dispatched daily. The rail yard had a roundhouse and turntable, a repair shop, a coal chute, a water tank, offices, and smaller structures serving specific purposes. Twenty to 25 tracks comprised the switching yard, and individual tracks were assigned to specific destinations, such as Fort Myers, Tampa, High Springs, Ocala, Orlando, Winter Haven, and Bartow.

Locomotives were refueled at the coal chute south of the roundhouse. The chute was loaded from coal stockpiled at the south end of the yard by a chain-and-bucket conveyor assembly. A train’s water supply was replenished at the elevated water tank on the west side of the yard by water pumped though a line from Lake Bonnet.

The Locomotive Shop, where engines were repaired, was housed under a roofed-over portion of the roundhouse. Until 1928, this was the only Atlantic Coast Line shop in Florida, the nearest being in Waycross, Georgia. Four tracks fed into the roundhouse, and more than 30 spokes accommodated engines. The rotating turntable in the center was turned manually by railroad workers until the early 1920’s, when an electric motor was installed.

Before the Depression, the rail yard was Lakeland’s largest employer. A crew of  500 to 600 men worked around the clock, assembling trains from the hundreds of cars that entered the yard every day and repairing broken cars and engines. In 1928, the Atlantic Coast Line wanted to expand and build a new railroad closer to Lake Wire. However, Lakeland’s city fathers did not want the dirty operation brought any closer, and so they turned down the request. A new shop was built in Uceda, east of Tampa, and 75 percent of the Lakeland Rail Yard workers were laid off. A skeleton crew of only 50 remained. It was a cruel blow to the Lakeland economy, and by the time the real estate boom had begun to falter and the Depression had hit Lakeland in 1929, the bubble had burst in the Rail Yard.

As the Lakeland Rail Yard struggled back to its feet after the Depression, diesel switch-engines had replaced coal-burners. The old roundhouse and shop had decayed over the years, and a new diesel shed was built on the east side of the yard. The old locomotive shop was finally torn down in 1951. The Lakeland Rail yard never regained its former position in Lakeland’s economy. The U.S. highway system now connected the nation’s cities, as the railroad had once done for decades, and the freight business was slowly lost to the trucking industry.

The railroad has fallen upon hard times over the years as passengers have been lured away by faster forms of transportation. Although the memory of the great rail age grows dimmer each year, it was the railroad that breathed life into the City of Lakeland just a little over 100 years ago.

Historical Aerial
Train Tracks
Carrabelle Train

Polk County was created on February 8, 1861 –one month after the start of the Civil War.

The county was landlocked, and transportation consisted of horses or wagons drawn by oxen or mules. The only means of communicating with the outside world was by mail, which arrived by boat at Tampa and was picked up by horseback rider twice a week. Tampa was the nearest trading post as well as the site of the nearest post office. It took three days to travel to the Lakeland area from Tampa. Polk County thus offered few incentives for settlers to homestead in the area, but a few hardy pioneers still did. Between 1860 and 1880, the county’s entire population increased by 12 persons―from 3,169 to 3,181.

The year 1881 was a momentous one for Polk County―and for the future town of Lakeland. Phosphate―Florida’s most important mineral―was discovered in the Peace River Valley. On the east coast, a Chinese immigrant named Lue Gim Gong developed a frost-proof orange that began to flourish in groves along the Indian River, laying the basis for Polk County’s citrus industry. Also that year, a wealthy Louisville manufacturer named Abraham Godwin Munn purchased several thousand acres of land from the International Improvement Fund of Florida, including an 80-acre tract in Polk County.

Meanwhile, Henry B. Plant, an entrepreneur and developer from Connecticut, made a deal that was to ensure Lakeland’s future. He negotiated with the Jacksonville, Tampa, and Key West Railway companies to buy a six-month franchise for a railroad extending from Kissimmee to Tampa. Plant decided to start building the line from each end, laying track that would meet at a middle point. Crews began the arduous task of laying the track through formidable Florida wilderness, as described in an 1887 publication by the South Florida Railroad Company: “They fought through raw woods―through pine and oak scrub, green tongues of cypress swamp protruding into them. A seemingly impenetrable wall of cypress, bay, cedar, magnolia, live oak, water oak, and more, rose scrambling and choking from the brown pools. That black venomous mass was fought hand to hand with ax, pick, and spike.”

A railroad construction camp was located on the shores of Lake Wire in late 1883. Herbert J. Drane, then only 20 years old and the first white man to live in the original 80 acres that comprised Lakeland, was a superintendent of construction. In December of 1883, with the railroad almost to their doorsteps, the townspeople met to select a name for the new settlement, which then comprised what is today’s Munn Park Historic District. Lakeland was enthusiastically chosen. On January 23, 1884, just days away from the expiration of Plant’s franchise, trains from Kissimmee and Tampa “kissed” cowcatchers six miles east of Lakeland.
Another line, the Florida Southern Railroad, had rails laid southward from Leesburg to Pemberton’s Ferry, with a spur line reaching Brooksville ten miles west. The South Florida Railroad hooked up where the Florida Southern had terminated at Pemberton’s Ferry, laying its rails southward until they intersected its own east-west line at Lakeland and then continuing south, reaching Bartow on September 3, 1885.

The Florida Southern resumed, laying rails southward from Bartow to Charlotte Harbor. The road bed was finished on July 24, 1886. Both the South Florida and the Florida Southern railroads became part of Henry Plant’s system.

Agricultural development, industry, tourism, and settlement followed the rails. Phosphate soon became a giant business. Railroads operating out of Lakeland moved the valuable rock, and by 1893 as many as 20 trains a day passed through the town. Railroad yards were constructed, and Lakeland became a division point for several connecting lines that extended to phosphate mines. Citrus and strawberries became big money crops, and fresh oranges, grapefruit, and strawberries began to be shipped to many places “up North” where they were considered a rare delicacy in the dead of winter.

In 1887 “The Magic City of South Florida,” as Lakeland was soon dubbed, had a population of nearly 1,000. The South Florida Railroad published a booklet that year, describing Lakeland as having “the natural advantages and opportunities of the junction of the main line and the Pemberton branch. The town is city-like, with a main plaza forming a square of 10 acres. The avenues extending out beyond are occupied with the residences and groves. The place has such an air of established dignity, it is hard to believe that four years ago there were more wild cats and panthers than men and women. It represents a number of intelligent capitalists and businessmen, and has become the market town and shipping point of Polk County.”

Lakeland was then the most important railroad center in south Florida, but it might not have been so if it were not for Abraham Munn. The landowner from Louisville finally visited Lakeland in early January of 1884 to look over his investment, just before the South Florida Railroad joined up east of Lakeland. Munn had many exciting plans, but the South Florida Railroad company had other ideas―it refused to stop its trains at the newly-named town unless concessions were granted. To ensure his vision for Lakeland, Munn very generously provided the right-of-way and several acres for terminals and tracks. He even built a large, attractive station at his own expense. The two-story wooden structure was located between Kentucky and Tennessee Avenues, south of the railroad tracks.

Around 1902, Munn’s impressive depot burned down, and it was replaced by a simple white frame structure consisting of a waiting room and a baggage room. When this station was destroyed in a fire in 1910, it was replaced by a substantial one-story brick building. Yet another fire occurred in 1918, burning down most of the structure, but the brick shell was saved. When the depot reopened in 1919, a second story, a restaurant, and restrooms for both colored and white passengers had been added.

Lakeland’s freight depot was located across the tracks between Tennessee and North Florida Avenues. The freight depot was the lifeline of the Lakeland economy. Lakeland’s growing freight business was strengthened by the nation’s demand for Florida’s tropical delicacies as well as the development of heavier locomotives. The increased traffic started to overwhelm the depot, which was enlarged between 1908 and 1913. A second freight depot was constructed to the north, facing Pine Street. By early 1917 the early depot was gone, and the new one had two additional open sheds serving seven spurs.

Livestock cars were loaded at the stock-yards south of Lake Wire, while express freight and packages were delivered by switch engine from the downtown freight depot. Citrus packing houses loaded their own cars and delivered them to the rail yard by switch engine.

At the Lakeland Rail Yard, located on 100 acres east of Lake Bonnet, hundreds of cars were sorted, coupled, and dispatched daily. The rail yard had a roundhouse and turntable, a repair shop, a coal chute, a water tank, offices, and smaller structures serving specific purposes. Twenty to 25 tracks comprised the switching yard, and individual tracks were assigned to specific destinations, such as Fort Myers, Tampa, High Springs, Ocala, Orlando, Winter Haven, and Bartow.

Locomotives were refueled at the coal chute south of the roundhouse. The chute was loaded from coal stockpiled at the south end of the yard by a chain-and-bucket conveyor assembly. A train’s water supply was replenished at the elevated water tank on the west side of the yard by water pumped though a line from Lake Bonnet.

The Locomotive Shop, where engines were repaired, was housed under a roofed-over portion of the roundhouse. Until 1928, this was the only Atlantic Coast Line shop in Florida, the nearest being in Waycross, Georgia. Four tracks fed into the roundhouse, and more than 30 spokes accommodated engines. The rotating turntable in the center was turned manually by railroad workers until the early 1920’s, when an electric motor was installed.

Before the Depression, the rail yard was Lakeland’s largest employer. A crew of  500 to 600 men worked around the clock, assembling trains from the hundreds of cars that entered the yard every day and repairing broken cars and engines. In 1928, the Atlantic Coast Line wanted to expand and build a new railroad closer to Lake Wire. However, Lakeland’s city fathers did not want the dirty operation brought any closer, and so they turned down the request. A new shop was built in Uceda, east of Tampa, and 75 percent of the Lakeland Rail Yard workers were laid off. A skeleton crew of only 50 remained. It was a cruel blow to the Lakeland economy, and by the time the real estate boom had begun to falter and the Depression had hit Lakeland in 1929, the bubble had burst in the Rail Yard.

As the Lakeland Rail Yard struggled back to its feet after the Depression, diesel switch-engines had replaced coal-burners. The old roundhouse and shop had decayed over the years, and a new diesel shed was built on the east side of the yard. The old locomotive shop was finally torn down in 1951. The Lakeland Rail yard never regained its former position in Lakeland’s economy. The U.S. highway system now connected the nation’s cities, as the railroad had once done for decades, and the freight business was slowly lost to the trucking industry.

The railroad has fallen upon hard times over the years as passengers have been lured away by faster forms of transportation. Although the memory of the great rail age grows dimmer each year, it was the railroad that breathed life into the City of Lakeland just a little over 100 years ago.