‘Tis the season… when snowbirds fly south to Florida. This is the story of one man, Robert H. Coleman, who made the journey. Here is the first of five parts for you to enjoy this month, courtesy of Cornwall resident Bruce Chadbourne.
The late humorist and author Tim Dorsey in his madcap “Serge Storms” novels found his calling weaving arcane facts of Florida backroads history into tales about a creative drifter and his sidekick, coincidentally named “Coleman” (any connection or parallels to our local hero are not to be found).
Having spent years in the newsroom of a Tampa newspaper, Dorsey observed in one offering titled “Naked Came the Florida Man” how many eye-catching headlines begin “Florida man drives car off bridge while changing into swimsuit” or “Florida man dies in hotdog-eating contest.”
This author once met Tim Dorsey but does not recall him ever writing the history of “Robert H. Coleman, Florida Man” so now presumes to do so, offering this: “Florida Man goes bankrupt on the Jacksonville, Tampa & Key West Railway.” The title may not commend itself to a page-turning best-seller, but we press on…
Robert Habersham Coleman, beloved son of Lebanon and Cornwall, would ignore the advice of trusted advisors and risked all in pursuing his passion for all things railroads and trains.
Despite his foibles, his legacy is a life well lived, in the midst of tragedy, and for that he was and still is admired.
Part 1 – Drawn to Florida
Florida lured many, beginning in the early 1500s when Ponce de Leon visited from Hispaniola. Its comfortable climate begged the attention of those in the 19th century just as it does today.
Robert H. Coleman certainly wasn’t the first; he certainly would not be the most successful.
Florida had attained statehood in 1845 and by 1855 its legislature was granting land rights to railroad and canal companies and slowly attracted interest, distributing 1.7 million acres of land up to 1881. Then in the following year land development exploded, expanding ten-fold to 12.2 million acres. Several prominent figures led the rush.
Henry M. Flagler
It was the early 1880s when, at age 53, Henry M. Flager (1830-1913) visited St. Augustine; his first wife had died and having remarried, he took his new, much-younger bride on a southern trip. A resident of New York City, Flagler had established Standard Oil with John D. Rockefeller in 1870 and enjoyed great prosperity.
Up until this time, Newport, Rhode Island, had been the resort of the rich and famous, as early as 1729. With post-civil war economic developments in the South, Flagler and other entrepreneurs were catching the vision of bringing leisure to Florida. St. Augustine had already been known as a winter resort for the infirm.
In 1878 at the recommendation of his chronically ailing first wife’s physician, he took her to Jacksonville for the winter in hopes of recuperation. She died of her illness and in 1883 Flagler remarried, to a woman almost 20 years younger. As they honeymooned for four winter months in St. Augustine, he saw how the pleasant climate should attract the wealthy but found the old hotels disappointing, having neither luxury nor essential healthy comforts.
Flagler returned with his wife two years later in February 1885, staying in a new St. Augustine hotel, which also failed to achieve his sense of vision. He therefore undertook design and development of his famous and ornate Hotel Ponce de Leon, which finally opened in January 1888. Meanwhile Flagler had acquired several other hotels and built a casino. His passion was hotels, but the condition of existing railroads deterred his vision. Poor transportation and lack of a passenger depot stunted the hoped-for growth of St. Augustine. He first bought the Jacksonville, St. Augustine & Halifax Railroad.
Eventually he would buy up other local railroads, leaving Standard Oil behind and immersing himself fully in developing the east coast of Florida. His railroad reached Palm Beach and Miami by the late 1890’s and in 1905 began extending his Overseas railway to Key West, finishing in 1912, a year before his death.
Henry B. Plant
Henry B. Plant (1819-1899), from New Haven, Connecticut, started his career as a deckhand on steamboats between New Haven and New York City. He became employed with Adams Express Company, a parcel service much like modern day UPS and FedEx (in the 1880’s this same company would service Robert H. Coleman’s Cornwall & Lebanon Railroad – see the LebTown story on the “Cornwall National Guard Riot”).
Plant’s role with Adams Express had expanded from steamboats into railroads, when in 1853 his wife’s poor health required them to move to Jacksonville for several months. Like Flagler, Plant acquired a vision for developing Florida. He returned with his wife a second time to Florida the following year, at which time he succeeded in convincing Adams Express to expand in the south, operating out of Augusta, Georgia. Plant continued to operate the company in the south during the Civil War as the Southern Express Company.
Already familiar with the southern infrastructure (much damaged by the war), Plant purchased the bankrupt Atlantic & Gulf railroad in 1879 and organized a rail to Jacksonville. He soon acquired and developed other small regional rails, forming the Plant Investment Company, with the help of Flagler and other investors, a holding company for managing various hotel properties, steamboats and rail lines, which were known as “The Plant System.” The Plant Investment Company (PICO) was based in Sanford, Florida – a destination known by anyone these days having ridden the “auto train” south from Washington, D. C.
Unlike Flagler, Plant focused his interests westward and is credited with developing Florida’s west coast. In 1883 he contracted to extend the Jacksonville, Tampa & Key West Railway (JT&KW) to Tampa. The Tampa Bay Hotel was one of his crowning achievements.
The complex details of Florida’s railroad history have been written in numerous places and can be researched by even the casual reader in Wikipedia. It is not the intention, for now, to chronicle Robert H. Coleman’s history with the JT&KW railway other than to mention that after he joined up in 1881, in twelve years of expansion it went bankrupt in 1893 and after six years was finally purchased at a steep discount by Plant’s “System” in 1899.
As hinted by the following 1889 map, the JT&KW had many “moving parts” involving numerous local and regional lines, and companies competing for land grants from the state governments, and wealthy investors who sought profit and control.
Robert H. Coleman
In spite of the yellow fevers and plagues that attended the southern climate, the rigors of northern winters brought its own health challenges to 19th century America. We take much for granted given the advances in healthcare and medicines that are now enjoyed. The wealthy had the advantage not only of travel, but time and freedom to leave northern homes for the milder winters in Florida.
And so an unsurprising pattern emerges: Like Flagler and Plant, Robert H. Coleman had been concerned about the chronic ill-health of his new bride. Much of the first year (1879) of his January 5th marriage to Lillie Clark was spent honeymooning at the Mitchell House in Thomasville, Georgia.
As told in the recent story of his sister Anne Caroline Coleman Rogers, the south, particularly Savannah, was home to the Habersham side of the Coleman family. Robert Habersham Coleman was born in Savannah, March 27, 1856, and would grow up traveling most winters back to Savannah to the estate of his mother’s parents.
Thomasville had acquired a railroad during the Civil War and had a reputation during the late 1800s as the “Winter Resort of the South.” Northerners came for their health, “breathing the pine-scented air as a curative for pulmonary ailments,” as well as providing an active social and outdoor lifestyle. Luxurious hotels beckoned wealthy families, who soon found building “summer cottages” less expensive than renting hotel rooms. A prolonged, comfortable stay for Lillie in the southwestern region of Georgia made perfect sense to the young couple.
Robert was only five when father William Coleman died in 1861. Being raised by mother “Sue Ellen” (Habersham) Coleman, and aunts and uncles of both sides, leaves one to wonder perhaps he spoke with a southern accent, affected or otherwise. Perhaps it was a warm southern charm that made him stand out among his schoolmates, and which matured into a congenial personality that would later distinguish him among Lebanon businessmen.
In his correspondence from Thomasville with his mother and others he mentions excursions into Florida, particularly nearby Tallahassee. Earlier Habersham family trips from Savannah to Jacksonville and the St. Augustine by boat have also been documented.
Though he had returned to Cornwall to take on the responsibilities of his fortune, it did not take long for Robert to also become actively engaged in Florida development. Records show that he had already become affiliated with and was a primary shareholder the Jacksonville, Tampa & Key West (JT&KW) Railway in 1881.
He also invested $365,000 in the Florida Construction Company, which provided rails and other equipment for the JT&KW. In the company minutes of April 19, 1883, Coleman was nominated as a member of the construction company’s Board of Directors. It was not as if he needed to travel to Florida to find his way into such a role; the company’s headquarters was located at 120 Broadway in New York City, a city he visited frequently.
Nevertheless when Robert had become President of the JT&KW he had also taken up a residence in Jacksonville to be present at least some portions of the year.
His residence and title as President of the JT&KW are as listed in the Jacksonville City directories from 1886 to 1892. The same directory in 1893 would show the railway in receivership, Robert having retired to Saranac Lake, New York. Sadly, adding further injury to the bankruptcy, the house was destroyed in the 1901 Jacksonville fire, along with many city records that might have provided further details.
Despite tragedy, Coleman retired at age 37 still a wealthy man and with the admiration of many in Lebanon. A Lebanon Daily News editorial (August 9, 1893) on his bankruptcy lauded him: “It cannot be denied that this trouble came from doing too much for others. … He was interested in the welfare of others to a great degree and became involved, and the hope is therefore expressed everywhere that the financial embarrassment may soon be removed and his affairs satisfactorily adjusted.”
More on these themes in upcoming installments on the story of Robert H. Coleman, Florida Man. Stay tuned!
Editor’s note: Unbeknownst to LebTown, Tim Dorsey passed two days before this article was originally published. It has been updated to reflect his passing.
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