Henry Plant’s Southern Empire
The impact of the Plant System upon the South was so significant, Plant was honored with Plant System Day at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta in 1895.
"We thank you, sir, for being such a friend to the South. You have spent more money and developed more territory in this section than any other man in the Union."
– W.A. Hemphill, Cotton States and
International Exposition Company
Vice President, 1895
"Few men have done as much as Mr. H. B. Plant to develop the South….Mr. Plant is the head of great corporations which have been of incalculable value to the South."
– Atlanta Journal, 1895
After the Civil War, Henry Plant purchased several small bankrupt railroad companies serving the South and connected them to form the Plant System of railways. Rail lines were unregulated, so companies could use a combination of broad, narrow, and standard gauge rails. As Plant connected his network of rail lines, he undertook the challenge to standardize the track, stations, and equipment of the Plant System. Plant used standard gauge rails, making his line uniform. The need to switch tracks at the end of each line became obsolete. This process made rail travel along the Plant System less cumbersome, more efficient, faster, and more reliable. The Plant System provided service from Charleston, SC, through Georgia, Florida and Alabama. Connections via other rail lines were available to reach New York and destinations in the northeast.
Two major hubs for the Plant System of railways were located in Waycross, Georgia and Sanford, Florida. Both towns benefited from the building of a Plant System Hospital that served Plant’s employees and the community.
Plant recognized that his railroad network would be a greater success if combined with steamship and steamboat service. In 1885, the Plant Steamship Line was organized and sailed from Port Tampa to Havana, Jamaica, Mobile, and British Honduras (today Belize), during the winter. In the summer season, he used the steamships for northern service between Boston, New York, Halifax, and Cape Breton.
The key component of the Plant Steamship Line’s southern service was Port Tampa. When Plant brought the railroad to Tampa in 1884, Port Tampa was a small harbor that accommodated local fishermen and small vessels. With the financial support of the Plant Investment Company (established in 1882), Plant developed Port Tampa as a deepwater terminal. The $3 million development plan included extending rail service nine miles from Tampa to the port, building a wharf, administrative buildings, and dredging the channel to accommodate large steamships. These developments secured Port Tampa’s position as a major international shipping hub for the next century.
Plant’s vision for Florida’s development wasn’t limited to infrastructure and transportation. He believed that tourists wanting to view the exotic flora and fauna of Florida and escape the chilly winters of the north would flock to Florida if they had a luxurious place to stay. He began to build and acquire hotels at strategic locations along his rail lines and steamship ports. In all, the Plant System included eight hotels throughout central and western Florida. The Tampa Bay Hotel was the grandest and most opulent of all eight hotels (view the complete list below).
The Plant System name was well-known throughout the South, synonymous with efficient transportation, luxury, and quality. In 1895, company records showed the Plant System employed 12,639 people, and owned 13 railway lines serving several thousand miles, nine steamship and steamboat lines operating from Cape Breton, Canada to Jamaica, and six hotels. Plant’s empire was far from complete. He would add two more magnificent hotels.
The impact of the Plant System upon the South was so significant, Plant was honored with Plant System Day at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta in 1895. In 1898, Success magazine bestowed Plant with the title “King of Florida” because he had done more for Florida’s development than any other person at that time.
Plant System Hotels
The Seminole Hotel, 1891 - Winter Park
Hotel Punta Gorda, 1894 - Punta Gorda
Ocala House, 1895 - Ocala
Hotel Belleview, 1897 - Belleair*
Fort Myers Hotel, 1898 - Fort Myers
* The Hotel Belleview and the Tampa Bay Hotel are the only two hotels that still stand today.