- By Doug Davis
The Atlanta and St. Andrews Bay Railroad Company was incorporated in 1906. Now known as The Bay Line, the railway was completed in 1908. Dothan, Alabama was the northern terminus of this 82-mile long railroad. The Bay Line played a critical role for all historically significant industries in Bay County such as shipbuilding, fishing, papermaking, tourism, and the military.
During the first half of the 20th century, the destiny of Bay County was irrevocably coupled to the railroad. It cut cost and time for people and products to move from the isolated St. Andrews Bay area to other parts
of the U.S. and the world.
In 1902, Georgia lumberman A. B. Steele decided to move his two sawmills and the Hawkinsville and Florida Southern Logging Railway to South Alabama and Northwest Florida to harvest the vast stands of timber in the virgin forests. He was the driving force behind the Bay Line.
With the coming of the railroad, the sleepy little bay town of Harrison, Florida, changed its name to Panama City in anticipation of the world of opportunities to come. A straight line from the under construction Panama Canal to Chicago crossed our area. Local businessmen envisioned a great port on Saint Andrews Bay with the Bay Line hauling fruit and other freight from South America.
A. B. Steele employed a brilliant civil engineer by the name of B. G. Farmer who surveyed and supervised construction of the Bay Line track and structures. Mr. Farmer noted large areas of wetlands north and south of Cottondale, Florida and a very high ridge north of Panama City during his preliminary survey. He recommended routing the track through Marianna and west of Cottondale to eliminate these problem areas. The City of Marianna would not approve this proposed route. A. B. Steele fell in love with the scenery at Round Lake, Florida, and insisted that the track pass by this beautiful lake so passengers on the trains could see it.
These decisions gave Bay Line the highest rail elevation in the State of Florida and the location was named Ridgetop. A five-mile long grade was required to cross the 316.72 feet elevation above sea level and Steele got his track close to Round Lake. However, the nine wood burning locomotives could pull only 350 tons over this grade. A helper locomotive was permanently stationed at Cottondale but did little to help the situation. In comparison, today’s modern five-engine diesel locomotives can pull 15,000 tons over the same hill.
Lack of revenue was always a big problem for A. B. Steele. In 1913 he borrowed $70,000 from a friend named Asa Candler, the inventor of the bottling process for Coca Cola. Steele could not pay Mr. Candler back, so he was given the Bay Line for the debt. Mr. Candler owned and operated it from 1916 to 1918. Candler sold the railroad back to Steele’s son in 1919. The Bay Line struggled until the 1930s and 40s when World War II broke out and International Paper Company took over the paper mill.
By the mid 1940s the Bay Line had become the most revenue-generating Class One railroad per mile of track in the United States. The track and bridges were rebuilt to the highest standards. Bay Line was the first Class One railroad to change entirely from steam powered to diesel powered locomotives. Bay Line passenger trains frequently reached speeds approaching 90 miles per hour between Fountain and Panama City. Local residents still remember the passenger trains to Dothan, Alabama. The last scheduled passenger train ran on July 16, 1956.
Since the construction of the Atlanta and St. Andrews Bay Railway, there were nine different owners of this railroad. In 1994, the official name was changed to the Bay Line Railroad, LLC, by local businessman and eighth owner Earl Durden. Today, the Bay Line is owned and operated by Genesee & Wyoming, Inc.
About Doug Davis
Doug Davis was a career railroader with 44 years of service before retiring in 2007. He obtained a degree in civil engineering from Mississippi State University. He worked with the Southern Railroad and the St. Louis-San Francisco railway in several states before joining the Bay Line Railway where he worked for 37 years. Doug is a fan of Bay Line and local railroad history. He is an avid board member of the Bay County Historical Society.
Find out more about the Bay Line’s History by visiting the Panama City History Museum, 223 W. 6th Street, Panama City, FL 32401 bayhistorysociety.net/
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