The Marvelous Wooden Railroad

John C. Burleigh needed a steam engine for his sprawling sawmill in Avon Park, Florida and nothing was going to stop him!

Jason Byrne
Mar 25, 2016 · 6 min read
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Drawing by G.W. Breck, published in Harper’s Weekly — June 15, 1895

Imagine you find yourself living in frontier Central Florida in the year 1895. Without roads or mechanical equipment, you need to move a 12-ton locomotive across 23 miles of untamed flat woods. How do you do it?

That is the very problem that John C. Burleigh needed to solve.

The Connecticut native moved to Florida in 1886, joining his sister Gertrude Burleigh Simmons as one of the founders of Midland—now a ghost town half way between Fort Meade and Frostproof. Burleigh served as Midland’s first postmaster, ran the general store, and owned the sawmill.

But around 1890 the 25-year-old decided that Martin Oliver Crosby was on to something in his new town of Avon Park. So Burleigh sold his holdings at Midland to his brother-in-law and set up shop in Crosby’s upstart village of about 200 people. His new steam-powered sawmill sat along shores of Lake Brentwood, supplying the entire township and beyond.

And business was good! So good in fact that it created a big problem for the entrepreneur. The company logged all of the timber within a mile radius of the mill, making it no longer feasible to transport it by mule-power from the distant forest to the factory.

So Burleigh had a decision to make: build a new facility further out into the pine woods (and further from town) or find a new way to transport the hardwood.

He discovered many logging operations in the north were using light-weight Shay locomotives. Reportedly this technique was cutting the cost of stump-to-mill transport by as much as 65%, from $3.50 per thousand to just $1.25.

Burleigh ordered a used 12-ton truck made by Lima Locomotive Works in Ohio. A short time later he received word that his shipment had arrived from Tennessee and awaited him at the Bowling Green train depot. Now the fun would begin!

Today it takes 30 minutes to travel from Avon Park to Bowling Green by car. But in 1895 the 23-mile journey took about six hours on horseback. Leaving the ridge highlands (130–150 feet above sea level) and heading into the Peace River Valley, one descended into numerous areas of marsh — especially before the canals drained much of it for pasture and phosphate. The Peace River, Charlie Creek, Bee Branch, and other small waterways had to be forded along the way.

Now imagine the reverse of that journey: crossing the creeks, going up the ridge, and hauling a 12-ton steamer!

On December 13, 1894 Burleigh arrived in Bowling Green to receive his package. With him were 12 men, a cook, camping equipment, and a supply of 4x6 and 2x6 wood planks. They found the locomotive sitting on the bed of a box car, so their first task was to unload the train from the train.

They build a pattern of interweaved wooden thestle with the planks to support the great weight with a flat inclined plane, leading to the ground. Once they got the beast in motion, Newton’s law of gravity surely did its part and they made sure there was enough runway for the locomotive to come to a halt at the edge of the forest.

The team then constructed rails from the 4x6 foot planks and eased the great engine’s wheels on to these makeshift tracks. Its 8-inch treads gripped the boards securely, as they laid several feet more out in front of the truck.

“Give her some steam!” Burleigh must have called out to the engineer in the cab. The truck lurched forward slowly until it had abandoned the track behind it. The team then pulled up those boards from the back and hustled them to the front of the line.

In this manner they continued. For nine days! The laborers inched along covering less than three miles per day. They throttled her gently over the creeks. Carefully they led her through the marshes, swamps, and wetlands. More quickly she was pushed through the flat forests and scrub.

On December 22, 1894 John Burleigh’s twelve-man team arrived back in Avon Park to much pomp and circumstance. A large congregation of townspeople from Avon Park, nearby and area other settlements turned out to see the completion of this great feat of human will. It was truly a civic mark of pride for the region. Local dignitaries spoke, the band played, bells rang, and the train itself whistled triumphantly.

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The local band celebrated the victorious arrival of Burleigh’s team and the first steam engine to see Avon Park.

The permanent wooden track at the mill was constructed completely from pine lumber milled at Burleigh’s facility. The rails were fastened with hardwood strips and held together with wooden pins. No nails or metal of any kind were used. It was laid along the ground and stabilized with ordinary sand as its ballast. The weight of 12-ton train quickly embedded the track firmly into the ground.

The experiment was an unmitigated success. After several months of operation there had been no accidents or repairs to track or train. Burleigh’s heavy logging locomotive was regularly running twenty trips per day over the tracks.

So impressed were the folks in town that the Avon Park Transportation Company, which had long been unsuccessfully lobbying investors to extend traditional rail lines to Avon Park, decided to shift their attention toward constructing a wooden railway under Burleigh’s design.

Seeking to raise capital investment of $25,000 to fund the project, the group proposed to build 40 miles of wood tramway to either Haines City or Bartow. Burleigh was named superintendent of construction.

It was an ambitious project to be sure, but it would be significantly cheaper than a steel road. Northern railroaders marveled that the cost for the 40-mile proposed wooden tramway would barely be enough to build a single mile of traditional railroad. Not only could this venture open up a new portion of the state of Florida, but many experts thought it could potentially revolutionize the railroad industry as a whole.

After the two devastating freezes that winter (December 1894 and February 1895), investment dollars were hard to come by. Focus began to turn to Bartow — rather than Haines City — as the line’s terminus, given the warmer reception from well-to-do business owners in that city.

Despite only having fraction the funding they needed, construction began in June. On September 7, 1895 the first segment of the railway opened for business, reaching the Pabor Lake settlement four miles north of Main Street in Avon Park. The sister towns threw a grand celebration as the maiden voyage took 150 people northward that morning.

The exuberance and optimism was at an all-time high. All felt sure the line would soon touch the communities of Frostproof, Midland, and Buffalo Ford on its way to Bartow or Haines City. The Avon Park Transportation Company were sure any doubters would be satisfied once they rode the glorious if short wooden railroad.

The funding did not come, however, and the line never made it past its first stop. Not until sixteen years later, in 1911, did the mainline railroad finally reach Avon Park. Regardless, the determination and ingenuity of Burleigh and his compatriots was admired by many prestigious publications of the era (such as Harper’s Weekly) and should still be appreciated today!

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The settlement was founded in 1892, four miles north of Avon Park, Florida. Today there is no sign the once promising town ever existed.

About the Author

is a lifelong Floridian, originally from Sebring and now living in Winter Springs. He graduated of Florida Southern College in 2002 with a major in journalism and minor in history.

Florida History

Tales about Florida’s past and how it relates to our…

Jason Byrne

Written by

Entrepreneur, developer, historian, journalist, Christian, family man, and track & field fan. VP, Engineering @ FloSports. Founder of MileSplit.

Florida History

Tales about Florida’s past and how it relates to our present.

Jason Byrne

Written by

Entrepreneur, developer, historian, journalist, Christian, family man, and track & field fan. VP, Engineering @ FloSports. Founder of MileSplit.

Florida History

Tales about Florida’s past and how it relates to our present.

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