The baggage master of an 1887 passenger train was surprised to discover a large, hairy hitchhiker.
Engine №6 pulled out of Fernandina station, north of Jacksonville, shortly before noon. At a cruising speed of about 17 miles per hour, it lurched along the 156-mile route southwest toward its terminus at Cedar Key.
The route provided an essential link from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, between two of the state’s largest cities. In 1887, the multiple small islands of Cedar Key had a population of almost 2000 plus a steady stream of eager tourists and industrialists.
The FR&N train lugged two passenger coaches in the back and a combination car just behind the locomotive, which featured express in the front, a postal department in the middle, and baggage in the rear.
The sun began its slow melt into the Gulf of Mexico when Captain Jenks noticed something on the tracks ahead. The engineer yanked on the train’s whistle and engaged the brakes. Reluctantly the locomotive slackened its pace. The joints between cars jostled to a halt; the progress of the iron horse was delayed until a herd of free-range cattle decided to vacate the path.
Baggage master, Chaz Mahoney, was anxious to arrive in Cedar Key. They were just 15 miles from their destination, past Otter Creek and in the vicinity of Gulf Hammock. Annoyed by the impediment, Mahoney decided to investigate the source of the hold-up. Heading forward from his post in the last of the three compartments, he whistled for the captain’s attention.
Passing first through the mobile post office, he swung open the door to the express section of the combo car. Mahoney’s still puckered lips dropped to an agape position and his heart dove into his intestines. Barely a dozen feet in front of him was a massive black bear.
The pitstop wafted an irresistible scent into the oak and pine forest. Taking it as an invitation, the hungry bruin leisurely climbed onto the platform and through an open door of the express car. Proceeding to search the interior, it located (and then downed) three strings of smoked fish.
Once Mahoney’s ventricles returned to their regular station and blood coursed through his veins again, he slammed the door shut. Surging with adrenaline, he found himself almost instantly in the passenger coach.
The baggage master recounted what he had witnessed to the conductor, George Dewson, who was suspicious of the tale. It would not be the first prank Mahoney had pulled, and he was determined not to fall for another ruse.
Dewson decided to call his bluff and bravely marched through the baggage and postal departments. Suddenly feeling cautious, he eked open the express door and peaked one eye through the crack. Without any doubt… Mahoney was not joking around this time!
About that time, the wandering bovines cleared the ballast. Captain Jenks, entirely unaware of the goings on behind his engine, re-engaged the gear. With a shake, the vehicle churned to regain its forward momentum. The cars swayed in response. The open door through which the bear had entered crashed closed, imprisoning the animal inside.
Reluctant to visit the busy port of Cedar Key, the mighty beast scouted for his best exit option. The window seemed to be the most viable solution despite it being girded by three iron bars that were a half-inch in diameter.
Undeterred, the bear ferociously attacked the opening. His claws shredded deep grooves into the surrounding woodwork as the monster gave the irons a mighty hug. The rods decayed into a heap of twisted metal and were hastily deposited onto the car’s floor.
Completely tired of the ride, the black bear flung himself out of the accelerating train and down the embankment. Looking to astonished passengers like a giant rubber ball, the creature turned several summersaults before regaining his footing and bounding back into its woodland home.