Orange and Seminole County’s First Railroad

The legacy of that first narrow-gauge railroad from Sanford to Orlando still lives on today through SunRail.

The first railroad in Seminole County was a narrow-gauge line stretching 23 miles between Sanford and Orlando. It was initiated by E. W. Henck, the founder of Longwood, and Dr. C. C. Haskell of Maitland.

The line was constructed in under a year and reached Orlando on October 1, 1880. The next day a large gala was thrown to celebrate the accomplishment. Throngs of people from Sanford piled onto the train cars shipped in by steamship on the St. Johns River.

Hordes of people held on to flatbed train cars, in some cases, to make the trip. Fortunately, no one was dumped off or injured on the journey.

There was so much excitement in the streets of Orlando. Cheers and the smell of barbecue smoking filled the air. The famous mini cannon of Sanford was lugged along on one of the cars, and it was filled with gunpowder and Spanish moss and fired off at regular celebratory intervals.

South Florida Railroad steam engine.

Regular service of the South Florida Railroad between the towns started on November 12, 1880, with scheduled stops at Sanford, Belair, Soldier Creek, Longwood, Snows (Altamonte Springs), Maitland, Osceola (Winter Park), Wilcox, and Orlando.

One train per day made the trip each way, which took one hour and forty minutes. First, it headed northbound to Sanford at 7:00 AM; it departed on the return trip to Orlando at 4:00 PM. By 1882 the railway was extended southward to Kissimmee.

1882 map showing the South Florida Railroad, which had since been extended south to its terminus at Kissimmee. The proposed east-west railroad (shown with red dashes) was never completed.

At the time, the line had no connections to other mainline railroads. So it only facilitated travel within what was then all Orange County. Folks coming to the region from other areas had to cross rugged trails by horse or wagon. Northern visitors could arrive via passenger steamboat down the St. Johns River from Jacksonville.

The legacy of this first railway lives on today. It has continued in service for these almost 140 years. Today’s SunRail still follows this original path.

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