The Florida Legislature chartered the Pensacola and Atlantic Railroad in March of 1881 to connect Chattahoochee to Pensacola with 170 miles of railway. Colonel W. D. Chipley, general manager of the Pensacola Railroad, led the surveying expedition with Colonel T. T. Wright and Major W. J. VanKirk to plot the easiest course for the new rail line. It is said that, after much travel through densely forested trees and wilds of undeveloped lands of Northwest Florida, the group came upon a beautiful near perfectly round lake and made camp. When they woke the next morning, Colonel Chipley “The Railroad must come by this beautiful lake and we must make this a splendid winter resort.” The colonel’s original thought was of a great hunting and gaming lodge nestled between the north shore of the lake and the railway.
Construction of the rail line was completed in 1883, with passenger and freight stations built in Pensacola to the west, River Junction to the east and the Lake DeFuniak outpost in the center. Like many of the early railroad construction endeavors, the P&L was a land grant company. This meant the government would deed land to companies as incentives to develop unused land in relatively unpopulated areas of country. The hope was that by selling tracts of land to the public, the railroads would recoup the cost of construction and at the same time bring settlers to the railroad’s territory, increasing both the population of the state as well as the freight and passenger business of the railroads.
Accounts from Mr. John Love McKinnon reveal that four men and their progressive thoughts helped spur the fledgling town to life. McKinnon wrote in The History of Walton County that “Chipley, Wright, VanKirk and Bonfill put their heads and shoulders together and made a strong quartette to start off with, for town building.” “Their work came long before the thought of Chautauqua on these grounds and in the fullness of time came in their richest expectations.”
By the 1890’s, the railroad was the life-giving artery of DeFuniak Springs. Almost every visitor commercial trade made its way to the town by train. Traffic was increasing so exponentially that in 1889 the original depot was replaced with a much larger similar to construction we have today. Photos of the railyard show three distinct building. On the southern side of the line, a small Railway Express building handled small cargo and passenger luggage while a much larger passenger depot played host to the thousands of visitors to the town during the Florida Chautauqua Annual Assembly. On the northern side of the tracks, a large commercial freight depot handled large shipments to the growing commercial district along Nelson Avenue. Everything from livestock and dry goods to resin and turpentine was loaded and unloaded on the docking floor.
Without the fateful expedition of Colonel Chipley and his vision of a settlement around Lake DeFuniak, this community may never have formed. Every good and important event having roots in the community of DeFuniak Springs can find its start with the founding of the Pensacola and Atlantic Railroad. The land grants made home and business sites available, the rail line gave easy access to the entire country, and the ability to move passengers and freight at relatively low cost gave rural America a new-found connection to the world.
Even though the passenger rail line no longer runs through the panhandle of Florida, and even though the current CSX freight line does not stop in DeFuniak Springs, every person that steps inside our Museum Depot can see how the railroad built this town. And every day, as the freightliner barrels down the line and sounds its loud horn pronouncing its arrival in town, we are reminded of our rail roots and we take pause.