Russian politics played a role in San Antonio train depot

The history of a train depot building in San Antonio is rooted in political uncertainty in Russia roughly 135 years ago.

On Feb. 17, 1880, a second assassination attempt on Emperor Alexander II occurred in the imperial dining room of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Terrorists blew up the dining room, killing or maiming 67 people – but the emperor wasn’t present during the attempt on his life.

The Orange Belt No. 203 was the primary locomotive that was used for the tourist line between San Antonio and Blanton in 1976. It was built in 1925 for the Washington & Lincolnton railroad that ran out of Lincolnton, Georgia. When it had mechanical problems, the railroad was able to lease Orange Belt No. 11. (Courtesy Jack Bejna/railroadpictures.net)

The Orange Belt No. 203 was the primary locomotive that was used for the tourist line between San Antonio and Blanton in 1976. It was built in 1925 for the Washington & Lincolnton railroad that ran out of Lincolnton, Georgia. When it had mechanical problems, the railroad was able to lease Orange Belt No. 11.
(Courtesy Jack Bejna/railroadpictures.net)

The previous year, nitroglycerine was used in a failed effort to destroy Alexander II’s train. And, there was the unsuccessful mission to blow up the Kamenny Bridge in St. Petersburg as the tsar was passing over it.

These events, and the political uncertainty that followed them, prompted Piotr Alexandrovitch Dementieff, a Russian nobleman, to flee to Florida as a Russian exile.

Dementieff, who later shortened his name to Peter A. Demens, would go on to become a co-founder of St. Petersburg, Florida.

And, the city would become home to the southern terminus for one of the longest narrow gauge railroads in the United States at the time of its completion in 1888.

The decision to locate a railway line in St. Petersburg was made during the same time that Henry B. Plant was opening up a rail line near Port Tampa, which had a depth of 5 feet.

St. Petersburg, by comparison, had a harbor with a depth of 18 feet, enabling it to import and export more cargo.

With dozens of railroads competing in Florida, Demens saw an advantage in running a railroad north from St. Petersburg to transport the area’s abundant long-leaf yellow pine and its citrus.

Known as the Orange Belt Railway, the mainline was 152 miles long.

It was the first to cross central Pasco County diagonally — through Trilby, San Antonio, Ehren, Drexel and Odessa.

The Orange Belt Railway also played a role in the development of other towns along its route including Tarpon Springs, Dunedin, Clearwater and Largo.

San Antonio’s historic depot is the last one remaining on the Orange Belt Railway. The railway crossed Pasco County for 80 years, connecting northern markets in the St. Johns River area with St. Petersburg. The depot was completely restored in 1996 with a $15,600 preservation grant from the state, plus a $25,000 contribution from Pasco County and countless hours of volunteer help. The depot currently serves as railroad museum, a community building and a voting precinct location. (Doug Sanders/Photo)

San Antonio’s historic depot is the last one remaining on the Orange Belt Railway. The railway crossed Pasco County for 80 years, connecting northern markets in the St. Johns River area with St. Petersburg. The depot was completely restored in 1996 with a $15,600 preservation grant from the state, plus a $25,000 contribution from Pasco County and countless hours of volunteer help. The depot currently serves as railroad museum, a community building and a voting precinct location.
(Doug Sanders/Photo)

As a narrow gauge (3 feet) railway company, Demens had arranged for some incredible financing — which left him in debt with angry capitalists in Philadelphia.

“At one time, his creditors chained his locomotives to the tracks,” writes Glen Dill for The Suncoast News in August 1988. “At another time, his unpaid track-laying crew stormed after him on a hand car, planning to lynch him.”

The Orange Belt faced many hardships in its early years due to debt run up during various phases of construction.

Frigid temperatures during the Great Freeze of 1894-1895 killed many citrus groves in Florida.

The freeze also ended Demens’ ownership of the Orange Belt.

Within weeks, he sold the Orange Belt Railway to railroad tycoon Henry B. Plant.

Plant converted most of the railway to standard gauge (4 feet 8 12 inches), which made it more profitable.

In 1902, the Plant system became part of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. Passengers would later ride on that railroad in luxury Pullman railcars with sleeper berths during Florida’s land boom in the 1920s.

As cars, buses and planes took more passengers, the Atlantic Coast Line discontinued its train service in 1970.

The depot in San Antonio was left abandoned and forgotten until 1976, when a group of Tampa residents organized under the name of Robert Most and Associates. They took passengers on a round-trip railroad excursion, typically a 90-minute trip, from San Antonio to Blanton on weekends and holidays.

The last ride took place on Feb. 21, 1978.

Sections of the Orange Belt rail line are now part of the Pinellas Trail in Pinellas County, the South Lake Minneola Scenic Trail in Lake County and the West Orange Trail in Orange County.

The depot in San Antonio is a reminder of the vibrant role that railroads played during the early days of Florida’s development.

The historic depot is the last one remaining on the Orange Belt Railway, which crossed Pasco County for 80 years, connecting northern markets in the St. Johns River area with St. Petersburg.

The depot was completely restored in 1996 with a $15,600 preservation grant from the state, plus a $25,000 contribution from Pasco County and countless hours of volunteer help.

With a history that had its roots in politics, the San Antonio depot also has a connection to political life today.

Besides serving as a railroad museum and community building, it’s a voting precinct, too.

Peter Demens won a coin toss, according to a local legend, and named St. Petersburg, Florida, after his hometown in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Demens was selected as a Great Floridian in 2000 by the Florida Department of State and the Florida League of Cities.

By Doug Sanders

Doug Sanders has a penchant for unearthing interesting stories about local history. His sleuthing skills have been developed through his experiences in newspaper and government work. If you have an idea for a future history column, contact Doug at moc.o1542143551nuj@11542143551ratsr1542143551etni1542143551.

Published December 9, 2015

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