Alex Browning's Memories of the Pioneer Railroad and Its Conductor

There are many stories told and written, called Railway Stories; of adventure, romance, and heroism. But the true story of a railroad, a short line running between Bradentown and Sarsota, Florida in the year 1893 is out of the ordinary; especially as we see railroads of today guided by timetables; right up to the odd minute.

The schedule of this; the first railway in Manatee County, Florida was timed by the arrival of the steamer "Margaret" of the Plant Steamship Line, from Port Tampa, and the steamer "Manatee", of the Independent Line, from Tampa. One of them had the mail contract, filling-in the gap between Tampa railroad terminal and Bradentown, in Manatee County.

If the steamers were early or late, the train left Bradentown for Sarasota on the Gulf of Mexico, it being started on one of these flexible time tables regulated by the judgment of the conductor in charge. I believe Walker was his name; at any rate he ran the train to suit himself; usually starting when the mail bags were sorted at the Post Office, and delivered to him. He carefully looking down the road to see if there was anyone else willing to take the risk of a trip with him to Sarasota, or anywhere between.

The engine was a wood burning affair, with a regular spark arresting smoke stack, and large wooden cow catcher projection in front.

The black smoke from the fat pine fuel made it hard to tell that the engineer was a white man. The Negro fireman was so black, the smut kind of left a white mark on him. The conductor acted as mail man, taking care of the two bags thrown in the baggage car. These made up the crew of the train.

One trip, made, along with my wife, my sister, and her husband, is a fair example of this innovation into the mail service, carried, before this time by buggy or on horseback.

The steamer leaves Tampa at seven in the morning, with Capt. Fogerty in charge, and Engineer Davis, wiping his hands with clean waste, after regulating the long stroke of the beam engine; setting the dial at Full speed ahead... Guided down the narrow Hillsboro River to Tampa Bay by the quartermaster in the pilot house... Sailing then by eight to Gadsden Point, and then by compass till the beacons and buoys are reached at the mouth of the Manatee River. Our course then being changed to the east following the stakes on the edge of the channel, past Palmasola and Fogertyville. When Palmetto is reached... The wharf agent catching the throw line, Attached to the breast line, making fast over the end of the piling, then checking off the freight and mail as it is unloaded.

Bradentown. across the river, is reached within a few minutes, after leaving Palmetto;, the steamer made fast, and the gang plank thrown on the dock, the mate gallantly guiding the ladies by the hand, with an amused wink to the Captain, leaning over the rail on the upper deck.

This trip is made in about four and a half hours.

The local lumber dealer, a Scotchman, shouts "Hello Sandy," and some other friends greet us on arrival to the "Friendly City" ... Our valises being light, were easily carried, as we walked along the dock, saying "Hello" to other friends. The County Tax Assessor was there, fishing with his long bamboo pole; a string of little shiners and grunts, hanging on the rail by a string... He explained, that he was only catching a few for the cat; he could get bigger fish if he wanted them, but he had all he wanted now. "That's just what I have sir," a true picture of contentment. Another old crony, fishing nearby, was watching the cork float, while sleepily leaning on the rail, waving his hand as we passed by. Further along we met "Sinbad the sailor" coming up from his shanty by the spring on the embankment, a rare and rugged old English sailor, who had traveled over every sea, and then some. At this time he sailed the "Wild Goose," a sloop used as a ferry across to Palmetto, a white flag, being raised, whenever he was wanted.

The Duckwall House, facing the River had dinner time regulated to meet the steamer too; in fact the coming of the steamer seemed to regulate the whole town.

After dinner, the walk from the Duckwall House to the Railway terminal through the soft sand, was anything but pleasant, as I remember it to (be) the same place as the present depot now stands. Where a stubby train, consisting of a diminutive old locomotive, and two undersized flat cars were waiting. There was no station, one had to climb a step ladder like stair to get to the platform, and an entrance into the white folks passenger car. The other car was used for colored people, mail, and freight.

As I said before, both cars were just ordinary flat cars, with stakes fitted in the iron sockets around the sides, with pine slats nailed on to them, the roof covered the same way, leaving about six inches space between. On to this was nailed a light canvas covering the door, a space between two stakes with two slats dropped into cleats nailed to them, to keep one from falling off. The benches made of pine boards, fitted around the sides of the car, were the only seats, the only passengers ourselves.

Whenever the conductor was ready, and steam was up to the desired pressure, indicated mostly by the leaky cylinder glands, he a signaled the engineer to start going, a sign for a prolonged blowing of the whistle, and ringing of the bell. Thus notifying the public they were off, once more.

The conductor brought his dinner pail aboard, and left it on the floor, under the bench seat, near the door opening. Pretty soon the train was weaving. through the woods, rattling and squeaking its winding way, between ditches, excavated to raise the narrow gauge track above the ordinary level of the woods. This had settled in many places, making it rough riding;, so much so, that the conductors lard can dinner pail worked its way back on the floor, and fell out. He just noticed it and made a grab, but missed it, leaned out making frantic efforts to call the engineer's attention, and stop the train. Being informed, he reversed and backed slowly, all hands and passengers watching to find the lost pail. After going back for about a mile, someone shouted "There it is " pointing in the dry ditch. Our conductor hopped out and secured it, the contents still in, apparently all right. He climbed up the iron steps, working himself back into the car, laughingly placed the wayward pail in a more secure place, not much worried over this event, time seemingly was no object. It appeared funny enough to us, and we all had a good laugh over the incident.

While the train was puffing and snorting along, the engineer tooting the whistle at every cow or cow's husband he passed in the woods, the steam vapor sifting its way through the canvas, making our ride still more un-comfortable.

Along about Oneco we stopped to take on wood, where it was stacked in cords on a platform, all hands helping to put it aboard the tender, bantering in the meantime with an old Cracker friend, who had the job to keep the engine in fuel, he was unloading his rickety wagon pulled by a cow and bull, hitched to it. It was said; one time he got lit up on moonshine, and to get even with the bull, piled up most of the cordwood on his side of the wagon.

Once more we started off, shouting "So long" to Simmy, through the piney woods, getting all shaken up on the primitive road when the smell of something burning arrested our attention. Everybody looked around to see if their clothes were afire, when the discovery was made, that a spark had filtered through a hole in the canvas, and got into my sister's parasol soon the breeze fanned it to a blaze, as it was thrown out the car, a complete loss.

The fare for this eventful trip was two dollars each, which eventually brought us to Sarasota, where we lighted on a platform, situated where the Sarasota Ice Plant now stands.

We were met by the hotel manager, and his colored helper, having written we were coming, he had the boy to carry our valises to the hotel.

The walk there through the heavy white sand, with no sidewalks, had us all puffing and blowing before we got there, making the rockers on the hotel veranda doubly welcome. His wife welcomed us and showed us to our rooms, listening to the latest news from our family, and telling us about our old friends and neighbours, who were still living there. The town had not changed much in some time, the same stores and houses on the Main Street since 1887, only a little more a dilapidated, a new church had been built on the corner, but the sidewalks to the store was dangerous to walk on, the boards tipping up, as if to trip us, made one watch their steps. We stayed here a far days, fishing and hunting, and meeting the people left in the town as well as our friends from the country. Feeding mostly on fish and game, the bay and the woods being good providers, with plenty of sweet potatoes and syrup, one could make out as long as their credit was good at the store; anyway, the hotel boss could get up a pretty good meal, and kept fat himself, a good ad. for the hotel.

We enjoyed our short vacation there, and was sorry the morning came.