But here on the once-remote Gulf Coast of Florida, it was the steam locomotive that helped turn sleepy little villages into bustling hubs of commerce.
Fishing has always been fruitful on the Gulf Coast. The Calusa, a tribe present at the time of European contact, built an empire based around the abundant fisheries of Florida’s Gulf Coast. They caught enough fish not only to feed their people but to trade with other tribes as well.
In the early 1800s, Cuban fishermen traveled a few hundred miles each way to set up Ranchos, or seasonal fishing camps. They would spend the season catching and salting fish to bring back to Cuba for sale. As far back as we can tell, there have been folks feeding their families and earning a living from the local waters.
Despite this long and interesting history involving fishing for food and commerce,
it was the locomotive and its network of rail lines that helped make Florida seafood a thriving industry. After all, it doesn’t matter how productive a fishery is if there is no market. The expansion of rail lines opened the market; it put places like Savannah, Atlanta, and even New York within range of transporting fresh seafood. Almost overnight profits increased with the new demand for fresh Florida seafood.
Before the Civil War, the longest single length of railroad in Florida was built, in part, for transporting seafood and lumber. It connected the Gulf Coast fishing port of Cedar Key with the Atlantic Coast shipping port of Fernandina Beach north of Jacksonville.
The rail line that connected Tampa Bay to this vast network in the late 1800s had a significant impact on the local fishermen here in Manatee County. Previously the closest rail line was a lengthy sail away from Cortez at Cedar Key; the new South Florida Railroad connected the port of Tampa to Orlando and other points along the East Coast.
The rail lines not only carried seafood but also brought in finished goods. During the last decade of the 1800s the impact of the rail lines made a significant change in the local waterfronts. Special express trains (some containing nothing but ice and seafood) travelled north as fast as they could go to bring fresh fish, oysters and other seafood to those distant markets, often bringing back the ice needed to carry the next load of fresh seafood north. The other rail lines not only carried seafood but also brought in home goods and supplies.
Rails have been replaced
Today the rail line has been replaced by trucks and airplanes. Some local seafood is exported around the world as quick as a jet will carry it. These expansive trade networks are what get it to market, but it’s important to also remember that it’s our local fisheries and fishermen providing the fresh Florida seafood we love.
To find out more about how the rail lines helped create Florida’s seafood industry, visit the Florida Maritime Museum. At the museum, a large map shows how Florida’s fishing villages relied on these rail lines as they grew to carry their goods to distant markets. The Florida Maritime Museum is at 4415 119th St. W in Cortez. The museum is open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday with free admission. It can be reached at 941-708-6120.
John Beale, education and volunteer coordinator for the Florida Maritime Museum, lectures at the museum and around the county on topics related to Florida’s maritime history. He also teaches traditional skills at the Florida Maritime Museum.