Trilby – Railroad boom town



The Railroad Boom Town of Trilby


This article is condensed from the Presentation to the 2005 Annual Meeting of the Florida Historical Society. It is copied with permission from the EPHS web site.

This is the story of my hometown of Trilby, a community that, with the advent of the railroad, quickly grew from a pioneer settlement to a boom town and then suffered catastrophic and economic setbacks and rather rapidly began the slide back into relative obscurity.

When the inter-related McLeod and Croft families first migrated to the area around the Withlacoochee River in the late 1870’s from Lowndes County, Georgia, by way of New River County, Florida, it was still part of Hernando County. The area was first known as McLeod for this pioneer family. It later became know as Macon about the time that the McRae and Ravesies families arrived in the McLeod settlement from a small Alabama community known as Macon Station.

In 1884, the town of Macon was surveyed and mapped by Col. J.A. Hendley, who would later be a partner in the town’s first drugstore and would be a member of one of the state constitutional conventions the next year. When Pasco County was formed in 1887, part of the northeast border of the county was pushed northward to the river to include Macon. The boundaries conveniently set by lobbyists for the new county connected to the community.

In 1887, construction of the Orange Belt Railway, a narrow gauge railroad being developed by Russian immigrant, Peter Demens reached Macon. The rail construction came from the east, having begun at Lake Monroe near Sanford, before arriving in Macon and turning southwest, where construction ended the next year at St. Petersburg.

When Henry B. Plant acquired the east-west Orange Belt Railway from Demens’ successors in 1895 and changed it to standard gauge, he was already well underway connecting his various rail routes and making them more direct. The intersection of several of these routes all came together at Macon, making the community a major railroad crossroads.

The Plant System design included a new town and named it Trilby. Through the years, interesting stores have been told as to the origin of the name including one linking it to the worldwide craze that occurred with the 1894 publication of George DeMaurier’s “Trilby,” a tale of hypnotism and Bohemian life in Paris. Due to its provocative nature, the novel was the topic of much discussing during that time.

If there was ever any romance associated with this gritty railroad town, it was in being bestowed the Trilby name. Just as the heroine Trilby became an overnight singing sensation, so did the community of Trilby quickly become an economic force when it became a rail center. The name became official in January of 1902 when the U. S. Post Office Department dropped the name Macon and sanctioned the Trilby moniker.

With the depots, a large rail yard was developed that ultimately vied for third largest in the state. There were water towers, a coal chute, an icing plant (for preservation of shipped fruits and vegetables) a scale house, yard offices, section foreman houses, and camp cars, among other things. Hotels and rooming houses were constructed nearby to serve other rail passengers and railroad employees and many residences were built.

Trilby’s commercial district quickly surrounded the depot on each side of the railroad tracks. On the west side of the tracks was a long row of wood frame store buildings, all side by side. On the east side of the rails were the Trilby Sate Bank, a drug store, doctors’ offices, the Masonic lodge, a Chero Cola bottling plant, movie theatre, and a newspaper office. Elsewhere in town there was a Maxwell automobile agency, a sawmill, and a grist mill.

After Henry B Plant’s death in 1899 his Plant System was sold to the Atlantic Cost Line Railroad in 1902. Its strategic location, however, assured Trilby of its continued prominence as a rail center.

Located in the middle of the downtown business district, the passenger depot with its 24-hour restaurant became the nerve center of the town. Trains dubbed “The Sunny Jim” and “The Pinellas Special” provided regular service through the Trilby Depot and connected Trilby and its residents to the larger worlds of St. Petersburg, Lakeland and Jacksonville.

When Trilby finally became a municipality, after several acts passed and then repealed by the legislature, Trilby’s columnist for the Dade City Banner mentioned several council meetings during the mid-1910’s and noted vacancies had been filled on the Town Council. During this time a two-story municipal building was constructed. The first floor to be used as a jail, while the second floor would be the Town Council’s meeting room. That building burned just weeks after construction.

For a while in the late 1910’s, people from all over the country were coming to Trilby for treatment at the Florida Tuberculosis Sanatorium, operated by Drs. W. G. Devane and Harvey Byrd. The partnership of these to physicians ended after only a few years and the architecturally appealing building burned shortly thereafter.

During the early 1920’s the nearby community of Lacoochee, a couple of miles east of Trilby, began to experience a boom of its own with the construction of a large sawmill complex by the Cummer Cypress Company of Jacksonville. Trilby and Lacoochee were both overwhelmed by the large numbers of people that moved to the area to work in the mill and also to harvest cypress. Although the overall local economy received a boost from the Cummer operations, Trilby began to be outpaced by its neighbor to the east.

The Trilby State Bank went into receivership in mid 1924, undoubtedly bruising the ego of the town citizenry. About the same time the Trilby Civic Improvement Club went into action, highway signs welcoming traveling motorists were erected and two tourist camps were opened. Musical concerts were held, electric street lights were installed and real estate was aggressively marketed for development.

On the afternoon of May 29, 1925, a fire began upstairs in one of the downtown store buildings on the west side of the railroad tracks and quickly spread through the mostly connected line of frame buildings. The only means of fire suppression in the town was a bucket brigade. The fire department in Dade City rushed to the scene, only to discover that the fire hose had unreeled from the truck and been lost enroute to Trilby.

By evening, all 15 buildings on the west side of the central business district had been lost in the catastrophe. The passenger depot suffered only minor damage, mostly in the shed/platform area, and it was easily repaired.

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