Every day, Historic City News readers drive past St Augustine’s version of “skyscrapers” in a 450-year-old community where 30′ is the accepted limit for building height – the former executive offices of the Florida East Coast Railway. Although the three familiar Malaga Street buildings still show the railroad’s name, they are owned and utilized by Flagler College.
More than 100 years ago, Henry Morrison Flagler made a lasting mark on our state by building and expanding the railway connecting Jacksonville to Key West along the east coast of Florida; and St Augustine, where Flagler built his landmark Hotel Ponce de Leon, was headquarters for the company for decades.
Flagler was dependent on the railroad to bring affluent northern visitors to vacation here in the 1800′s, and, until the 1960′s, Florida East Coast Railway historian, Seth H. Bramson, recalls that it was passenger service, operated along the FEC Railway, that was largely responsible for the industrialist’s success in the state.
Passenger train service along the east coast of Florida first began in 1881 when the “Jacksonville, St Augustine and Halifax River Railway” opened its line between its namesake cities.
“Flagler purchased the company in December of 1885,” Bramson told Historic City News editor, Michael Gold. “On September 7, 1895, the name was changed to Florida East Coast Railway. The last regularly scheduled passenger train made its way between the Jacksonville Union Terminal and the railroad’s North Miami station on August 31, 1968.”
Today, the company is owned by a private equity firm that is re-developing passenger rail service along the existing Florida East Coast railroad lines; originating from Miami. But, in an unhappy decision for tourism industry stakeholders in St Augustine, the company has chosen to come inland where the service reaches the Space Coast.
They are building new tracks, westward into Central Florida at the point, to service the future Intermodal Station at the Orlando International Airport — which will connect America’s most visited city with South Florida’s business and vacation destinations.
According to the company’s website, the reintroduction of passenger service has been discussed and studied for decades. The new passenger rail service will provide premium amenities, including Wi-Fi internet service, gourmet meals, reserved seating, and will be fully equipped with easy-on/easy-off baggage compartments.
There appears little doubt that “All Aboard Florida” will give business and leisure passengers a convenient, environmentally friendly, and affordable way to travel between South Florida and Central Florida — but planners in Daytona Beach, St Augustine, and Jacksonville, are not giving up hope that the restoration of passenger service will, one day, include our area as well.