Saturday, August 21, 2021

1880s Late - The Orange Belt Railway

Petrovitch Demenscheff

   In 1850, Petrovitch Demenscheff, was born in Russia, to Russian nobility.

   Being an outspoken anti-Marxist, he was exiled and immigrated to America in either 1880 or 1881. He sailed to New York with $3,000 and an English language textbook.
   Upon landing in New York, he anglicized his name to Peter Demens and left straight for his cousin's orange grove in Jacksonville, Florida. With the land there being too expensive, he traveled further along to Longwood.

1885-1887 - Peter Demens Takes Over the Orange Belt Railway

   In 1885, having received training, in Russia, as a forester managing his large family estates, Demens began a business supplying railroad ties to the construction of the Orange Belt Railway.
   The Orange Belt Railway was being built to connect the citrus groves in Sanford to the ports near what would become St. Petersburg. This was during the era when Florida's frontier was beginning to see the arrival of the three-foot narrow gauge railroads.

1886 - Rail Lines in Sumter (Lake) County prior to the Orange Belt Railway. Notice the closest place names to the Groveland area were Millford (later Villa City) and Empire.

   Demens became owner of the Orange Belt Railway System when the previous owners fell into dept and could not pay him the money they owed him. Under Peter's ownership, the rail lines were extended to connect Jacksonville and Kissimmee to Tampa.
   The Orange Belt Railway began in Sanford and, by 1887, came through the area that would become Taylorville.
   The railway continued on its journey, heading West through Mascotte and Slone Ridge, parallel to today's HWY 50, with its construction ending up in what would become St. Petersburg.
   On June 8, 1888 the first train pulled into the terminus (the end of the line) in southern Pinellas County with one passenger. The area of this train station had no official name and no real streets or sidewalks. Demens drew straws with John Constantine Williams Sr. for naming rights. Demens won and named the location St. Petersburg, Florida, after St. Petersburg, Russia, where he had spent half his youth. Williams had wanted to name it Detroit, which was given to the first hotel in the city.

1888 - The Orange Belt in South Lake

   With its wood burning engine, the trains ran on narrow gauge tracks.
   Small towns began to appear along the railroad, including Taylorville.
   The first train depot in Taylorville was located between today's Billy's Meat Market and the city's Festival Park.
   The arrival of the Sanford & St. Petersburg line of the Orange Belt Railroad brought many more settlers to the Groveland area.

   In 1889, the railway now having put Demens into debt, like the previous owners, he sold the railroad to Henry B. Plant. Plant was also the owner of the city of Mascotte's namesake, the SS Mascotte.

   Over time, the rail system, which eventually converted to standard gauge, helped change Groveland into a thriving town.
   The railroad transported lumber, citrus, watermelons, and farm produce. Lumber and pine tree gum used to make turpentine for ship building, along with agriculture industries contribute to Groveland's growth.
   The second depot in Groveland, which remains today by the northwest corner of HWY 50 and HWY 19, was built in 1925.

   Around 1930, Mascotte constructed a pass over the railroad, on C.R. North 33.
   Local resident Daisy (Hart) Brown recalled, as a young girl, watching from the schoolyard as the small trucks would have to make a running start, in reverse, just to get to the top of the steep overpass, in order to unload the dirt. The overpass was later leveled.
   By 1984, what remained of the train tracks through Groveland and Mascotte had all been removed. However, signs of these tracks can still be seen in some areas today.
   The path of the train tracks that ran under the C. R. North 33 overpass became today's Underpass Road. Before recent development in 2021, you could still see remnents of the pit from where they quarried the sand for the overpass.

[Contributors: Daisy Mae Hart, Simon T. Brown Jr., Mary Helen Myers, Jason Brown]

Next Article: 1890 - The Taylor Brothers and Taylorville