Today a Ghost Town, ORANGE County’s Fort MASON was located two miles southwest of MOSQUITO County’s Fort MASON, although to visit either site now, one would need to take Lake County’s Route 19, following the one-time track alignment of St. JOHNS & LAKE EUSTIS Railroad. Clear as mud, right?
The easternmost corner of Lake County was part of Orange County until May 27, 1887. And prior to 1845, this same area was part of Mosquito County. In 1836, Fort MASON was established by the Army during the Seminole Indian War. The fortress was built alongside a north-south trail, shown a decade later on a survey as located on the west bank of present day Lake BRACY, east of Lake SMITH. Now inaccessible by car, the one-time fortress sat one half-mile east of County Road 19. A city of Fort Mason was later established two miles south, on the north shore of Lake EUSTIS.
Lake County’s Route 19 connects ASTOR, on St. Johns River, with the one-time town of Fort MASON. An 1883 publication described Fort Mason as, “situated on Lake Eustis, andhas been for three years the terminus of the St. Johns & Lake Eustis Railroad.”
Incorporated February, 1879, St. Johns & Lake Eustis Railroad was certified complete from Astor to Fort Mason on the 13 of November, 1880. (South Florida Railroad ran its first train between Sanford and Orlando on the 11 of November, 1880).
A town of FORT MASON dates to September 24, 1872, with John M. Bryan being named first Postmaster on that date. (A year later, SANFORD established a Post Office). A two acre Fort Mason site was sold in 1877 for a store lot, and that land sale was described as located, “on the railroad right-of-way.”
“Capitalists in Florida,” were hard at work planning Central Florida’s earliest inland trains. The New Orleans Morning Star of April 1, 1877 reported, “Mr. Astor of New York and Captain W. Stokes Boyd desire to make extensive investments in Florida.” Town of Astor, on the St. Johns River at Lake George, was to be the nucleus of a planned 80,000 acre “Manhattan Project.’ George C. Brantley and Henry S. Sanford were, at this same time, planning Orange County towns as major ports along the St. Johns River.
“Fort Mason is in what is known as the Lake Region,” said Orange Land of 1883, "lying on Lake Eustis, which is a large and beautiful body of water, connected by steam boats with Lakes Harris, Griffin, Dora, Beauclair and Apopka.”
As the Astor based railroad extended its line further south to EUSTIS, interest in SANS SOUCI Street, paralleling RAILROAD Avenue and IGOU Street at Fort Mason, quickly diminished. ‘Carefree,’ as the French Sans Souci Street suggested to newcomers, could no longer live up to being worry free as Fort Mason progressed to Ghost Town status.
“Two large general stores kept by Chas. T. Smith and S. M. Owens, and a large well-kept hotel,” each described as of 1883, are long gone today, but one can still trace 19 century footprints of Central Florida’s earliest dreamers and schemers.
Drive north from downtown Eustis, veer northwest onto Route 452, and then follow the lakeshore. Turn left on FORT MASON Drive, and this short street will end at State Road 44, where in 1945 Fort Mason met its demise, and where our Rails & Trails drive begins today. Construction of Route 44 paved over portions of the Ghost Town’s earliest streets.
Railroad Avenue once crossed at this intersection of Fort Mason Drive and SR 44. Track continued toward the lake, ending at a pier where passengers transferred to steamers for the next leg of their journey on Lake Eustis. Original street names have since vanished.
Turn right here (east) onto 44, then left at 19A (northbound) and drive north to Route 19. About 2 miles north, at Dona Vista, the road begins to parallel the old St. Johns & Lake Eustis Railway. Off to your right (east) will be Lake Smith, and beyond that lake, the 1836 Fortress Mason. Continuing north, CR 19 passes through towns and villages that were once scheduled stops for the railway: Umatilla; Glendale; Chipcoe; Pittman; Ravenswood; Summit; SellarsLake; Bryanville; before finally arriving at Astor on the St. John River. At Astor, be sure and stop along the river, and imagine newcomers to the region arriving here in the 19th century aboard steamboats.
“It would be well for persons who contemplate settling in Florida to examine in person, or by letter, this particular section of the State.” These words, first circulated in 1883, apply as well today, and to persons already residing in Florida.
Stay tuned, a new RAILS & TRAILS, and another GHOST TOWN or two, picks back up right here – next Wednesday!
Kindle Unlimited members read ‘Ghost Towns & Phantom Trains’ FREE, while all this summer, Central Florida Railroad Museum at Winter Garden, and Bookmark it Orlando have copies available at a special discounted Rails & Trails price of $15.00
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