Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Part 2: The man behind the railroad
In the 1850’s, a man named David Levy Yulee combined his political wiles, railroad connections and salesmanship skills to convince the residents of the town of Fernandina to move their city from what we know today as Old Town to its current location, then known as New Fernandina. Yulee was a man of great vision and significant talents. Born David Levy into a family of Sephardic Jews on St. Thomas, V.I. in 1810, his fortunes became linked to Florida Territory. He studied law in St. Augustine and served as a Territorial delegate. He was an early advocate for Florida statehood. After the Florida Territorial Legislature voted for statehood in 1845, they elected Yulee to serve as one of the first two Florida senators. He served in the Territorial legislature as David Levy, but changed his name to David Levy Yulee following his election to the United States Senate.
Yulee chartered the Florida Railroad in 1853 as part of his vision for a great rail-sea empire. He planned to connect the naturally deep-water ports of Fernandina and Cedar Key by rail, thereby greatly shortening the time needed to transport goods and raw materials between the Atlantic Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. The railroad eliminated the hazards that commercial shippers encountered in navigating around the Florida Keys.
Yulee convinced the people of Fernandina that the local topography made constructing the railroad out to the town’s north end location impossible. However, if they would be willing to move two miles or so south, to land that he had purchased from a Spanish family, they would all prosper from both the move and the new railroad. Yulee had the Florida Railroad Company plat the new city in a grid system, modeling it on New York City. Indeed Yulee even provided for a Central Park in the new Fernandina, which he hoped would become “the Manhattan of the South.”
Although the people of Fernandina signed on to his plan and railroad construction began in 1853, Yulee’s luck seemed to run out shortly after the first train from Fernandina arrived in Cedar Key on March 1, 1861. The Civil War erupted a few weeks later and changed his fortune and that of the railroad. Yulee joined the exodus from the island as Union troops advanced into Florida. His house was taken over for use as the provost headquarters during the occupation. Parts of his railroad were scavenged to replace railheads further north. Yulee himself was accused of treason and imprisoned when his brother-in-law released letters that revealed that Yulee had advocated for Florida’s secession while he was serving as a U.S. Senator.
Thanks to the good offices of Ulysses S. Grant, Yulee’s imprisonment in Fort Pulaski lasted for only 9 months of 1865. He returned to his duties as president of the Florida Railroad Company and saw the railroad rebuilt. But at the same time, he continued with his plans to make Fernandina the Manhattan of the South. He was responsible for the earliest efforts to make Fernandina a tourist destination. The Florida Railroad built the Florida House and the now demolished Egmont Hotel, along with a beach hotel and casino. Yulee convinced George Fairbanks, the founder of the Florida Historical Society, a pioneer in the citrus industry, and one of the founders of the University of the South to move to Fernandina, where Fairbanks founded the first Florida newspaper, The Florida Mirror. He and Fairbanks also convinced architect Robert Sands Schuyler to move to Fernandina to help in designing grand buildings for the new city. Schuyler was the architect behind St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Public School No. 1, the Fairbanks House, the Tabby House and other important private homes. While Yulee set many of these plans in motion, he left Florida with his family before many of them were completed. He sold his railroad in 1880 and retired to Washington, D.C., where his wife had family. He died six years later.
Yulee was very much a man of his time and his place. He has been called the “Father of Florida Railroads” because of his development of the Florida Railroad Company and several other railroads as well. Ambitious and visionary in the mold of the railroad barons who transformed America, he was also the owner of a sugar plantation and a slaveholder. He was the first Jew elected to the United States Senate. He married a devout Presbyterian and saw his children raised in his wife’s faith. An early and strong advocate for Florida statehood, he stood by his state when it seceded from the Union in 1865 and suffered the consequences.
In 2000, the Florida Department of State honored Yulee in the Great Floridians Program. A plaque recognizing this honor was placed on the historic train depot at the foot of Centre Street in Fernandina Beach. Yet despite Yulee’s significant contributions as a Florida Territorial delegate, a United States Senator, the Father of Florida Railroads, and the modern founder of the city of Fernandina Beach, the only local monument to him is a small bronze plaque on a stone marker in city right–of- way at the corner of N. 3rd and Alachua Streets, indicating where his house once stood.
But all that is about to change. Watch for the next installment of “The Historic Fernandina Beach Train Depot: Then, Now and the Future.”
Author’s Note: To learn more about David Levy Yulee, his life and times, visit the Amelia Island Museum of History at 233 S. Third Street, Fernandina Beach. There you may also purchase a copy of the late local historian Celeste Kavanaugh’s biography of him entitled David Levy Yulee, a Man and his Vision.
March 27, 2013 10:00 a.m.