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Chunky Pond, Levyville, Bronson–no matter what it was called, it was always the center-piece of Levy County. That was but one of the hundreds of historical snippets shared Saturday as Levy County celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Atlantic to the Gulf Railroad that connected Fernadina Beach to Cedar Key.
The brainchild of David Levy Yulee, Florida senator and the first Jewish member of Congress, the railroad began in 1856 and after several starts-stops, at last reached Cedar Key in 1861.
To commemorate the event that saw Levy County boom-if but for a while. Saturday’s celebration, orchestrated by the Levy County Historical Society paid tribute to the times–and the people who made history.
Three separate venues were set up, marking spots along the rail. At one time as many as 11 different towns dotted the route from Bronson to Cedar Key.
Over time, most disappeared as the need for the railroad waned and became either small communities, or ghost towns.
Today only three of those 11 locations remain viable chartered towns: Bronson, Otter Creek and Cedar Key.
At Bronson, once called Chunky Pond, centenarian Dogan Cobb remembered growing up and working around the county seat and shared the town’s evolution with listeners. Ladies in period costume were on hand to answer questions and sell memorabilia, while gentlemen dressed as train conductors and stationmasters kept programs running on time and saw visitors on to their next stops.
The 100-year-old Cobb said Levyville had been the county seat but with the addition of the railroad, and the building of roads, most commerce moved to what is now Bronson to be close to transportation.
“This street,” Cobb said pointing to Main Street, “was once bustling. There were four or five grocery stores here, but when 27 was built, most everything moved to be near the highway.”
At Otter Creek Everett Birchard explained the turpentine industry to visitors and detailed the impact it had on the area and its people–including everyday products that contain pine derivatives.
Visitors could take one or two bus tours. The north route, led by Fred Moody, detailed the trek to Bronson, while the south route, narrated by George Sresovich, outlined the way to Cedar Key.
Both docents shared similar stories of the railroad’s inception and difficulties. Long a supporter for statehood for the Florida Territory, Yulee knew that 500,000 acres would be available for public usage–including canals, roads and railways. After statehood in 1845, he hoped for federal funding for his dream, but finding none, he decided to build it himself by using land grants and selling stock.
By building a railroad, goods could come into the Atlantic port at Fernadina, Yulee advocated, then be shipped by rail and then loaded again onto boats that would travel to New Orleans and the Mississippi Valley.
Not only was it a time saver, it was a practical approach, Yulee reasoned. The new route across Florida would avoid the Florida straits and reefs, which were haz- ardous to boats, especially during the wet seasons.
Quite the entrepreneur, Yulee had the foresight to buy thousands of acres of property in Fernadina and Cedar Key and had each laid out in cities.
Once the railroad was complete, he would be the biggest landowner and could lease or sell property to both individuals and the railroad–his railroad.
Along the way, construction on the railroad would stop and start, many times due to lack of funding and a reces- sion that swept the country in 1857.
Yulee was undaunted and forged ahead. But events were unfolding all around that would forever change Yulee’s dream.
On Jan. 10, 1861, Florida seceded from the Union, joining South Carolina and five other states. March 16, 1861 Yulee’s dream was realized as the train at last arrived in Cedar Key. A month later, on April 12, shots were fired on Fort Sumter and the Civil Way began in earnest.
Now, instead of being a way for commerce, the railroad became a pawn in who would control it–the Union or the Confederacy. The North wanted to seize it since it had become a way for blockade runners to get arms from Europe to the South’s soldiers.
Cedar Key was under martial law as Federal troops seized the island in January 1862. The railroad virtually closed down through the duration of the war.
After the war, the railroad again opened, this time serving as a conduit for cotton, palm fiber and timber from harvest to market. Palm fiber was in huge demand to make brushes, Sresovich added, and was shipped worldwide.
“You didn’t have cleaners. You didn’t have Woolite,” he said, adding since most suits were wool you couldn’t wash them so you either aired them out or brushed off the trail dust.
The railroad ended on what is today Cedar Key’s Dock Street. Where restaurants and gift shops now stand, warehouses of cotton and other goods dotted the landscape.
As the timber industry declined, a lot in part to the lack of reforestation, the Dock Street warehouses became fish and turtle houses, Sresovich said.
Work was hard, he said, and most socializing took part in juke joints along the rail, “They were bars with dancing–like a civic center.”
The last train departed from Cedar Key July 7, 1932, leaving in its wake a critical part of Florida history, but also causing the disappearance of rich, vibrant communities like Sumner, Ellzey and Lukens that made it successful.
Models of trains, some encompassing 50-foot lengths were on display at the Cedar Key Community Center, and presented by the Ocala Model Railroaders Historic Preservation Society.
Multiple trains ran simultaneously while a telegraph agent waited for incoming messages or showed visitors how to send their own.
At the City Park, Steamboat Capt. James Tucker, portrayed by Capt. Al Dinsmore, spoke about life on the Suwannee,
David Levy Yulee, portrayed by Pat O’ Neal, detailed his personal history that included prejudice he sustained because he was Jewish, the strained relationship he had with his father once he added “Yulee” to his name, the love of his life, Nannie C. Wickliffe and the vision he had that later gave way to his nickname “Father of the Florida Railroad.”