I recently heard about a railroad called the Orange Belt that ran through some of central Florida in the late 19th century. Who owned it? Where did it run? Are there places where the old roadbed, bridges, or rails might still be found? Were any of its stations preserved or restored? I live in central Florida and would love to search for remaining signs of this interesting railroad that once traversed Florida.— Ronald Thuemler, Tampa, Fla.
Peter Demens, an immigrant from Russia, finished building the barely started three-foot gauge Orange Belt Railway in 1888. The railroad connected the St. Johns River at Sanford, Fla., to Tampa Bay at St. Petersburg. (St. Petersburg was named in honor of Demens’ home in Russia.) Demens lost control of his railroad to the famous railroad financier Edward Stotesbury who had great plans. He reorganized it as the Sanford & St. Petersburg Railroad in 1893. After the Great Freeze of 1894-95, though, he sold the road to Henry Plant and it became a part of the Plant System of railroads. The Plant System standard gauged the Trilby to St. Petersburg half, but the other half to Sanford remained narrow gauge until 1908. The Plant System became a part of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in 1902 and the Orange Belt survived intact until the Seaboard Coast Line merger of 1967. Line reductions began after the merger and, while some parts of the line were still operating under early CSX, I do not believe there are any surviving parts today. Grades through rural Orange, Lake, and Pasco counties should be easy to find today using USGS topographical maps. The only surviving structure that I know of would be the 1888-built Dunedin, Fla., depot, which is now the Dunedin Historical Museum. Additional information can be found at my website
and I plan to publish a booklet in the near future. I am currently building a model railroad based on the Orange Belt, and am always ready to answer any inquires.— Don Hensley, Florida railroad historian