01 Jan On the right track: Better transportation was crucial to development and delivery of goods | Centennial
When Bertha Honorè Palmer visited Sarasota in 1910 and purchased some 90,000 acres of what is now much of south Sarasota County, she realized the area could not be developed without proper transportation.
At that time, traveling around the Suncoast was either by mule team or sailboat since roads were little more than sandy paths through the palmetto scrub.
Palmer pressured the Seaboard Air Line Railway to extend its line from Fruitville to Venice.
SAL was the first rail line to expand its reach into Manasota County (Sarasota County was part of Manasota until it was formally created in 1921).
Track was extended from Braidentown (Bradenton today) to Sarasota in 1903, and on to Fruitville two years later. At that time, only about 25 families were living in the Venice area. For the railroad to lay track for an additional 16 miles to an area that would not reap financial benefit for many years represented a significant investment.
Venice’s first train depot was located at the intersection of Tampa and Nokomis Avenues and was nothing more than a wooden shed, about 40 square feet, that allowed for passengers to wait in segregated areas.
Large tracts of timber existed south of Sarasota, and in 1915, the Gulf Coast Railway Company was established to connect with the Venice Depot to transport lumber on to Tampa where it was transferred to ships.
At the invitation of friends, noted surgeon, Dr. Fred Albee, and his wife, Louella, purchased two regular fare, round-trip tickets for $25 and boarded a train on Feb. 20, 1917, in New York destined for Sarasota.
After their eight-day visit, Albee pitchased much land from the Palmer business, the Sarasota-Venice Land Company, and set about developing Nokomis. In August 1925, He also purchased for $185,000 the 1,428 acres of land that would eventually serve as the site for Venice.
Before Albee could develop the property, however, he sold it to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE) that intended to build an ideal city as an investment opportunity. The BLE union retained noted urban planner John Nolen to design Venice.
Nolen’s plan called for a commercial area to be east of downtown Venice. To accommodate the plan, SAL’s tracks were relocated east a short distance where the BLE set about building a spacious and opulent new train depot.
The New York City architectural firm of Walker & Gillette designed the building in the Italian Renaissance Revival style. Measuring 400 by 50 feet, the building was constructed facing downtown Venice.
Much of the train depot’s construction materials were created locally. The depot, which took two years to build and opened for service on March 27, 1927.
Local historian George Miller, who is knowledgeable about railroading on the Suncoast, said the depot that exists today was originally planned to serve as a freight depot, while an even more elaborate passenger depot was to be constructed just to the west of the tracks.
The BLE abandoned plans before that depot could be built. That abandonment of the Venice project, coupled with the Great Depression in 1929, sounded a death knell for the burgeoning City by the Gulf. Venice’s population dropped from roughly 3,000 in 1928 to about 300 in 1930. Street lights were turned off to save electricity. The railroad’s business also suffered.
The City of Venice experienced a windfall in 1932. The Kentucky Military Institute, located in suburban Louisville, Kentucky, was looking for a winter campus and two empty buildings in downtown Venice, the Hotel Venice and the San Marco Hotel, proved to be an ideal campus.
When the BLE abandoned the Venice project, many of the buildings and grounds were received by Albee. In 1933, he elected to transform the former Park View Hotel, located on the present site of the Venice Post Office, into his Florida Medical Center where his patients could rehabilitate in the sunshine.
Albee convinced the SAL to extend to Venice its “Orange Blossom Special” express train that ran overnight from New York City to Tampa.
During the mid-1930s, the Manhattan Produce Exchange purchased some 500 acres of farmland east of the city for growing vegetables. They also purchased the former freight building adjacent to the depot for collecting, sorting and loading produce onto the boxcars for shipment to northern markets.
One of the greatest uses of the railroad and depot occurred during World War II. The Venice Army Air Base, which existed from 1942 to 1945, could accommodate up to 6,000 people at one time. The depot served as a prime entry point for materials and personnel.
From 1960 until 1992, Venice served as winter headquarters for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. From January until March, the circus was busy at their facility near the airport, preparing for their upcoming season.
And because the circus literally traveled by train, the city’s depot and railroad got a lot of use. The circus left Venice in 1992 when the tracks became too unstable to handle the weight of the circus trains.
The Tampa Southern Railway of the Atlantic Coast Line merged with SAL in 1967, forming the Seaboard Coast Line. Four years later, Amtrak took over rail service nationwide and passenger service to Venice was discontinued on April 30, 1971. Freight service to the area ended in 1997.
Sarasota County purchased and restored the train depot in 1999 for use as a regional transportation hub for Sarasota County Area Transit.
It also serves as the trail hub for The Legacy Trail that repurposed the old railroad tracks into Venice. Volunteers of the Venice Area Historical Society conduct tours of the depot throughout the year.