Two weeks ago, two visitors from New York visited my local genealogical society museum and asked me questions I couldn’t provide answers with certainty. I checked with the Coordinator and she said no one knows. I set out to solve the mysteries.
First question was how much was the train fare from New York to Florida? There was a “fast” train that left New York City’s Grand Central and arrived in Tarpon Springs, Florida in 36 hours with only one transfer. Sounds like it should be a simple look up but apparently, no information about ticket prices remains. When I couldn’t find it online I reached out to a Florida state archivist for help. He directed me to a blog by the New York Public Library. I took their advice and began searching old newspapers. I used the Library of Congress Chronicling America, Ancestry’s connection to Newspapers.com, MyHeritage.com and GenealogyBank.com.
I found “special” prices, such as a half price for a round trip from Tampa to Jacksonville during winter holidays. Other reduced fares were given for various organizations, such as Boy Scouts going to camp and church groups going to conventions. There was also marketing gimmicks; the Tampa Merchants Association in November 1913 refunded tickets for a minimum of $1.00 per mile up to 20 miles for out of town shoppers from Plant City, Lakeland and Ft. Myers who had spent at least $20.00 shopping in Tampa. The day to day prices were no where to be found, however.
Train schedules for North America are posted in paperss but with the announcement at the bottom to contact the local ticket agent for prices. Schedules are also found in online books for several years in the late 1800’s through Hathi Trust. Nowhere are the prices listed.
I then turned my search around to read newspaper articles about transportation. I discovered in 1902 that the east coast of Florida rate for travel on the [Henry] Plant Lines was 3 cents per mile while the west coast, on the Atlantic Coast Lines, was 4 cents. The editorial department hoped that a reduced fare for the west coast would occur soon. Freight, as in your baggage or as produce being sent north, rose from 30 cents a box in 1889 to 40 cents a box in 1890. The price never dropped but rose consistently over the years. More editorials bemoaned the high prices farmers had to pay and railed (pun intented) against the 33 1/3% cost increase in one season.
The cost of fare was so near and dear to the west coast community that in 1907, the St. Petersburg Times newspaper refused to endorse R. Hudson Burr, the Florida Railroad Commissioner for Governor, as he had promised six years earlier to reduce fare prices. That hadn’t happened and Burr never won.
Back in my youth, Florida had a high and low season for tourists. That meant prices rose during the high season (fall and winter) and dropped in the low season (spring and summer). Think about it, no one in their right mind would visit the high humidity bug infested state during hurricane season. With air conditioning and insect repellent, people now come all year round. I thought maybe the train fares fluctuated with the season. There did seem to be more “excursions” in the summer months, like the $3.50 from Tampa to Jacksonville in June 1903. It’s about 199 miles and at 4 cents a mile, that would cost $7.96. But Tampa is on the west coast and Jacksonville on the east. The Plant line did go to Tampa and ended at his famous Plant Hotel, now the University of Tampa. If his fare rate was used the cost would have been $5.97 for the trip.
That got me thinking that I needed to check other state fares. The Allentown, Pennsylvania Leader announced the governor had signed a bill for fares of 2 cents per mile in Pennsylvania in April 1907. Fare rates noted in the Buffalo, New York Evening News in 1906 mentioned a bill that reduced rates to 2 cents a mile in the state. I don’t know if the fare rates ended at the state border and then the next state’s rates applied. This was much more complicated than I had initially thought it would be.
It appears that originally the railroad companies set the prices which is logical, as they were trying to recoup their initial investment. It would have taken a lot more work to install lines through swampy Florida than in upstate New York. New York also had alternatives to trains. Their roads were in far better condition than the trails through the west coast of Florida that only could be manuevered by ox cart and when it hadn’t rained, which wasn’t often. Going upriver from New York City to Albany was also not a long and dangerous trip. The other alternative in Florida was taking a ship from a large port, like Tampa, Key West or New Orleans and trying to reach your destination either by foot or steamboat from there. Eventually, though, the state legislatures set prices.
Interestingly, I discovered several newspaper accounts beginning in 1900 that mentioned the special fare offers were “Open to Blacks and Whites.” This led to the next question that the visitors from New York asked – Did people of color ride in the back of the train car (ala Rosa Parks) or did they have a separate car (as in Plessy vs. Ferguson). This answer was quickly available thanks to the laws of the state. Chapter 3743 [No. 63] Sections 1-5 of Florida State Statutes 1887 made it clear “That all railroad companies doing business in this State shall sell to all respectable persons of color first-class tickets, on application, at the same rates that white persons are charged; and shall furnish and set apart for the use of persons of color who purchased such first-class tickets a car or cars in each passenger train as may be necessary to convey passengers equally as good, and provided with the same facilities for comfort, as shall or may be provided for white persons using and traveling as passengers on first-class tickets.” The law goes on to state the conductor or other train staff make sure to enforce the law and could be liable for a fine of between $25-500.00 for failing to abide by it. The staff was also to prevent whites from insulting or annoying people of color. The only exception was female “colored” nurses being able to sit in the white car if they were caring for a sick person or children.
Separate but equal, not! The train station in my town, built in 1907, had a wall that separated whites from everyone else. The white area was larger, had two restrooms, one for each gender, and a larger ticket window. The black section had less space, a smaller ticket window and only one bathroom to be shared. That certainly in not equal, however, the law didn’t state the stations had to be equal, just the train car. I was unable to find a picture of a passenger car for Blacks in Florida but a visitor this week said he had seen an actual car in Savannah, Georgia, and the car was not equal. There was little leg room and he equated it to the difference between flying first class vs. economy. I haven’t reached out yet to the Georgia State Railroad Museum but plan to.
The third question the New York visitors asked was when did the train segregation end? Although the law changed, the practices of seperate but equal did not end immediately. Although my personal experience does not relate to trains, in my youth in the mid-1970’s, the St. Petersburg city hall had two separate water fountains labeled Blacks and Whites. You could use either, however, I noticed that older Blacks continued to use the one they always had. Into the mid-1960’s there was also a very racist mural on the wall of the building that pictured minstrels. The story of how it was removed is interesting and the whereabouts of the painting remain a mystery. You can read about it here.
Analyzing the information discovered does shed light on why fares weren’t recorded. Those wealthy enough to afford to travel didn’t need to worry about the cost. Those without disposable income had to wait for a bargain or find an alternative way. I can’t prove the railroad’s lack of price transparency hurt anyone who was not wealthy but who knows for sure that all ticket agents were ethical. I suspect the fares changed if an agent did not deem someone “respectable” as per the law. Check out eBay – tickets from most lines DID NOT have a price. Dear Readers, if you have an old train receipt with a fare listed I’d appreciate you providing me a photo. Send to firstname.lastname@example.org. Much Appreciated!