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florida railway bridge in live oak florida

Live Oak

Florida Railway Bridge

A prominent family in the development of Suwannee County railroads was the Drew family.

George Franklin Drew was born in Alton, New Hampshire in 1827. He moved to Georgia and opened a machine shop in Columbus in 1847. Although his wife was from the South, and his business was there, Drew was against Secession. After the war, he looked at moving to Brazil but stopped once he arrived at the Suwannee River. Determining that there was money to be made in the area, Drew built what at the time was the largest sawmill in Florida and established the community of Ellaville on the Madison County side of the river. Drew was elected governor of Florida in 1876 as Reconstruction ended.

The Suwannee & San Pedro Railroad was incorporated in 1899 by H W. Sweet of Baltimore, Maryland, and R. Bowen Daniel, Augustus V. S. Smith, and E. C. Bixler, all of Jacksonville. The railroad would build across the Suwannee River from the Live Oak and Gulf Railway, whose current terminal was near Luraville. The Drew family, needing railroads for their multiple sawmills in the Suwannee Valley area and beyond (other than the small logging spurs that they already had in abundance), purchased the Suwannee & San Pedro Railroad charter a little over three months later for about $2,500. The Drews realized that the Live Oak & Gulf Railway wished to span the Suwannee River into Lafayette County, and purchasing the S&SP was a way for the Drew family to stop the competition. Shortly before the death of Governor Drew, the charter was amended to extend the route from Live Oak to Mayo, Perry, and Deadman’s Bay. After Governor Drew’s death in 1900, his sons Frank and George pushed headlong into work on the railroad, purchasing up thousands of acres in Taylor and Lafayette Counties for logging after another railroad defaulted on its work. The railroad used a 3-foot narrow-gauge rail instead of the more usual 5-foot. It merged with the Live Oak & Gulf Railway and the Alton Branch Railway (named after George F. Drew’s birthplace of Alton, New Hampshire) to form the Florida Railway in 1905.

The Florida Railway came about as a merger between the Suwannee & San Pedro Railroad, the Live Oak & Gulf, and the Alton Branch Railway in 1905, and was yet another railroad venture by the Drew family.

The railway struggled with its competitors (especially the Live Oak, Perry & Gulf Railroad) and Frank Drew’s stubbornness which caused issues with both the Atlantic Coast Line and the Seaboard Air Line. Drew’s attempts to expand the railway to places such as Jacksonville failed, as the investment companies who had the money for the railway were unwilling to loan the money to Drew because it would compete with their other railroads such as the SAL. It did not help Drew’s fortunes when his local rival, Thomas Dowling, purchased many of the sawmills from which the Florida Railway had been receiving money.

The Florida Railway finally ceased operations in 1916, well behind on payments. Even unpaid employees were sabotaging the railroad tracks at this point! The SAL could have bought the railroad at this time and linked it up with one of their other railroads to make a large sum of money, but their hatred of Frank Drew was so great that they did nothing but sit back and watch the Drew empire crumble. It takes great resentment for a for-profit company to see an easy opportunity to increase their revenues but decide to do nothing just to see a man’s wealth disappear.

Eric Musgrove, Author

About the Author

Eric Musgrove is a seventh-generation native of Suwannee County, Florida. Growing up on the family’s country homestead, he quickly developed a love for history that has remained strong throughout his life.

The 1996 salutatorian of Suwannee High School, Eric was also a December 1997 valedictorian of Montgomery, Alabama’s Faulkner University, where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in history at the age of nineteen. Returning home to Suwannee County in 1998, Eric began working for the Suwannee County Clerk of the Court. He remains there today as historian and records manager, among many other duties.

Eric has been the youngest member of the Suwannee County Historical Commission since he was appointed to it in 2003. He was treasurer from 2008 to 2014 and since October 2014 has served as its chairman. Eric is a frequent presenter of local history and has been mentioned in the New York Times, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune, among hundreds of other prominent national and international newspapers. In early 2012, Eric was awarded the 2011 Trailblazer Award by the Suwannee County Chamber of Commerce in recognition of his work in preserving and presenting local history. Since 2013, he has also published a weekly historical column for one of Suwannee County’s local newspapers, the Suwannee Democrat.

Eric married his college sweetheart, Sarah, in 1998, and they live near Live Oak on part of the old family homestead with their two children, Alex and Abby. Eric has authored five published books: Reflections of Suwannee County, Suwannee Memories, There Let Me Live and Die, Images of America: Suwannee County, and Lost Suwannee County.

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