Peter Demens: Building Railroads is Hard, Part I

Peter Demens is often referred to as one of the founding fathers of St. Pete. It is hard to disagree that a river of commerce flowing to the 300 person hamlet ushered in a wave of growth and prosperity that allowed St. Pete to become a major city in Florida. To see how much the train influenced growth, take a look at Gulfport — where the train was originally set to terminate. It is still a small and quaint hamlet that missed out (due to an epic miscalculation by another famous Florida land baron) on much of the benefit of the economic impact and growth brought by the railroad. But Peter Demens had problems, and lots of them in what must have been three or four of the hardest years of his life. Rather than walk down the well-trodden path, let’s explore with a dose of reality and what really happened. It may surprise you.

Who was Demens?

Peter Demens emigrated from Russia to the US in 1881 at the age of 31. He may or may not have been a political exile (more later), but he was definitely here to make a fortune. He had some distant relatives in Jacksonville, and he made his way to the city. Demens was from a wealthy family in Russia that had significant land holdings, and he was experienced in the agriculture and lumber industry. But it should be noted that Demens was educated and studied management; his true talent was in organizing people and resources for business. He also served as a captain in the Imperial Russian Guard shortly before the Russian Revolution.

Young Peter Demens and wife

How to Acquire a Railroad with No Money Down

From Jacksonville Demens made his way to Longwood, which is just north of present day Orlando. It was back country at the time, and Demens went to work for a sawmill in the rough little town. He was promoted to manager a year later, and having learned the business, he then used his cash reserves to shrewdly buy out the owners. Demens then expanded the mill’s contracts and began supplying lumber that went into Florida’s expansion — timber for stations, houses, and anything else that required lumber. He also vertically integrated, doing much of the construction as well. In fact, for a time Demens was considered the largest building contractor in Florida.

Demen’s lumber mill in Longwood.

In the course of business, Demens made a deal to supply railroad ties to a dinky little narrow-gauge logging operation that used mule-drawn trains to transport it’s lumber (it was not uncommon for trains in the early days to be drawn by mules). The little lumber company became unable to pay for the ties it had purchased and was indebted to Demens to the tune of roughly $9,400. Demens took over the railroad in compensation and voila… He was now in the railroad business with the newly acquired Orange Belt. Doing what entrepreneurs do, he formed an operating company, found a couple partners, and started seeking financing.

Getting Started, and an Early Run at a Familiar Town Name

Demens and his partners acquired an old narrow-guage locomotive from an Alabama company that was converting to standard gauge, and started eying expansion into agricultural lands to the southwest and toward the Gulf. The first stretch of track was 35 miles, terminating in Oakland near Lake Apopka in 1886. Demens and his partners received land holdings and cash from the sale.

1895 & perhaps the first Orange Belt engine.

Demens was elected first mayor of the town (because, why not). As mayor, he agreed to move the headquarters of the Orange Belt there. Super duper interesting fact — He wanted Oakland renamed to — wait for it — St. Petersburg! However, the town council said nyet to the request, because they wanted the name of the town to continue to reflect the beautiful oak canopies around the village. But this goes to show that Demens wanted to name a town, pretty much any town, after his hometown in Russia years before his arrival on the Pinellas Peninsula. Or did he? His name was Peter. He thought quite highly of himself. Just some food for thought.

The Dollars Hit the Tracks

Now that Demens had made a limited success in bringing the train to St. Pet – er – Oakland, he began eyeing the rich lands to the west and toward the Gulf. He met with Florida land baron Hamilton Disston, who we won’t explore here, but let’s just say he owned most of the Pinellas Peninsula. He agreed to give Demens significant land and compensation to bring the railroad to “Disston City” which is now the little hamlet of Gulfport. With the carrot dangled sufficiently, all that was needed by Demens was the cash to continue building the rails. A lot of cash. And this is where things start to get dicey.

Stay Tuned

This spicy story has an interesting ending. Keep an eye out for part 2, coming soon.

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