Florida railroading, away from the glitz

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Atlanta & St. Andrews Bay engines 131 and 154 doublehead a southbound freight at Cottondale, Fla., in 1935. The Bay Line interchanged with L&N and Seaboard at this location 51 miles north of Panama City. M. B. Cooke
When you think of the Sunshine State and railroads, it’s unlikely Panama City comes to mind. Most of the action in Florida is far to the southeast, along the CSX and Florida East Coast main lines that feed Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa, and Miami. And now there’s Brightline, the sleek new privately owned (by FEC) passenger service recently launched between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.

Panama City might be the antithesis of all that Florida glitz. It has more the feel of a quiet old southern town, a world away from the gleaming Gulf beaches and condo towers of Panama City Beach and Destin just down the road to the west.

Yet in slow-paced Panama City, there’s still plenty of railroading to see. As you drive into town from the north along Highway 231, it takes quite a while to pass a long freight yard, stuffed with all manner of covered hoppers, tank cars, and boxcars, patrolled night and day by Geeps in the familiar orange, yellow, and black of the Genesee & Wyoming family.

This is G&W’s Bay Line, unremarked in the world of short lines and regional railroads, but with a pedigree very much a part of the Florida Panhandle’s history.

A visit to Panama City has become an annual late-winter family tradition, and last week I stole enough time for myself to get a closer look at the Bay Line. It’s an interesting operation, from its neat-as-a-pin engine terminal on the northeast side of town to the tangle of tracks that reach into marine terminals and industrial plants closer to the water. What I saw made me want to learn more about how this railroad came to be.

The Bay Line’s history is typical of so many railroads created around the beginning of the 20th century, a tale of vast ambition tempered by reality. In this case, the ambition was that of A. B. Steele, a successful Georgia lumberman who envisioned a railroad running all the way from Atlanta to the Gulf Coast, giving him a chance to make a fortune moving the forest products of Georgia, Alabama, and the Panhandle down to dockside.

Although Steele was not an experienced railroader, his dreams likely were fed via a family connection: in 1878 he’d married Kitty Wadley, niece of W. M. Wadley, scion of a modest Georgia railroad empire.

The reality Steele ultimately faced came in the form of the Central of Georgia, which used its influence to keep the upstart railroad from getting anywhere near Atlanta. So it was that in 1908 the Atlanta & St. Andrews Bay opened between Dothan, Ala., and Harrison, Fla., 81 miles. And that’s as far as it would get, not including a couple of short branches. Harrison later would rename itself Panama City as Panama Canal fever swept the U.S. Gulf Coast. The canal opened in 1914.

F3 1501, A&StAB's lone F unit, heads northbound passenger train No. 1, which was discontinued in 1956. It carried an RPO, combine, coach, diner, and Pullman. Quinton D. Brunner
For most of its first few decades, the Bay Line was modestly successful. But during World War II and in the immediate postwar era, the railroad flourished, thanks to the existence of several military bases along the line. Traffic ballooned to the point where A&StAB briefly won Class I status in 1947.

In the steam era, the Bay Line was a hand-me-down company, with a modest roster of small power, topped off by five 2-8-2s. The railroad dieselized early and at first went big with Alco, fielding 13 RS1s. A variety of EMD power soon arrived, including an F3A used in passenger service.

For many years the railroad operated two passenger trains each way, the length of the entire line. But by the June 1954 Official Guide, only one pair of trains, Nos. 1 and 4, made the daily trip between Panama City and Dothan, with overnight connections via CofG to Atlanta. In addition to coaches, the train included a sleeping car (2 compartment, 1 drawing-room, 10-section) and a dining car with the notation “serving breakfast en route to Atlanta.”

A noteworthy feature of this little train were the steamship connections a passenger could make in Panama City, to a surprising variety of destinations: North Atlantic ports, Europe and Africa, the east coast of South American, and, via the canal, the west coast of the U.S. and South America. Alas, the train was discontinued in July 1956.

By the 1970s, the Bay Line’s strong traffic required a lineup of front-line EMD motive power, eventually including nine GP38s, three GP38-2s, and three GP40-2s. The railroad had a heavyweight feel, and photographers enjoyed shooting the big green-and-gold units with the all-caps THE BAY LINE splashed proudly along their hoods.

For several decades, the railroad was owned by International Paper Corp., which had a huge paper mill on the outskirts of Panama City in Millville; today, the Rock-Tenn Corp. owns the mill. The smell of papermaking still wafts over the city, depending on the winds. The railroad went through a succession of industrial owners until 1994, when Rail Management Corp. stepped up. The Bay Line became a G&W property in 2005 when the latter acquired Rail Management’s assets.

Dark-green and yellow GP39 507 and RS1 912 sun themselves outside the Bay Line's engine house at Panama City in mid-1976. Robert E. Gabbey
Today, G&W’s Bay Line runs approximately 25 trains a week and boasts a healthy mix of traffic, including aggregates, brick, cement, chemicals, coal, forest products, steel, and scrap. The G&W corporate website says the short line generates nearly 30,000 carloads annually.

As I drove around Panama City, it felt good to see a number of G&W jobs around town, working the yard and various waterside bulk terminals. But a glance at the empty lot at W. 6th Street and Beach Drive, site of the old A&StAB depot, was a reminder to dig deeper when I got back to Milwaukee and the Classic Trains archives.

I wasn’t disappointed. It was surprising how much was in the file, given the Bay Line’s obscurity. I was especially taken with M. B. Cooke’s photo of what appears to be double-headed 4-6-2s on a southbound freight, rolling through Cottondale, Fla., in 1935. 

Also notable is Quinton D. Bruner’s portrait of passenger train No. 1 behind the road’s sole F3, apparently photographed somewhere northeast of Panama City along Highway 231. The shiny cab unit is quite a contrast with the train’s standard-era consist.

Jump ahead two decades for Robert E. Gabbey’s view of two generations of Bay Line power — a GP39 and RS1 — at the impressive enginehouse in Panama City in 1976.

That facility looks just as good today under the G&W flag, proof in my mind that old A. B. Steele was really onto something when he thought big back in 1908. Maybe the old Bay Line never made it to Atlanta, but it’s doing just fine down on the non-glitzy side of Florida. 

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