Steamboats & Railways

Transportation in the early days of Jupiter began long before Flagler built his Florida East Coast Railroad through to West Palm Beach in 1894. Because of the reefs, shoals, and rough seas outside the barrier islands, the Indian River afforded safer passage from Ponce Inlet to the Jupiter River. The depth of the water was particularly ideal for steamboats of shallow draft, with some vessels drawing just 12 inches of water and rumored to “float on dew.”

Early Transportation

Northern newspapers advertised hunting and fishing trips into tropical Southeast Florida. Paddlewheel steamboats left Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Titusville carrying passengers, supplies, food and livestock. Once reaching Jupiter, travelers had to wait for transportation south on the Celestial Railroad to Lake Worth.

JT&KW Railroad in Florida

In 1886, a new railroad line, the Jacksonville, Tampa, and Key West Railroad (JT&KW), was built, and the line promptly hired Steamboat owner, Captain Richard P. Paddison. His steamer paddled down the Indian River carrying passengers and freight from the new railroad junction to ports as far south as Jupiter. Paddison amply outfitted the single stack side-wheeler General Worth and renamed her Rockledge. At 260 tons, she was the largest steamer on the Indian River at that time.

Steamboats on the Jupiter River

Captain Paddison ran steamboats on the Indian River for more than a decade before Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railroad put them into decline and eventually out of business entirely. The Rockledge was sold sometime before 1895 to Edward E. Vaill, a former hotel proprietor on Broadway in New York City. Vaill had difficulty maintaining the Rockledge and moored her at Jupiter near the Celestial Railroad dock as a floating hotel. Learn more about the evolution of floating hotels in our blog post Jupiter’s Floating Hotels

Regular visitors to the Jupiter River were the steamers St. Augustine, St. Sebastian, Progress, White, Santa Lucia, and St. Lucie. Many of these were built by the Indian River Steamboat Company.

The President Honeymoons at Jupiter Inlet

President and Mrs. Grover Cleveland traveled down the Indian River in 1888 on their honeymoon and were guests on one of the steamers at the Jupiter Inlet in sight of the lighthouse. The elegantly appointed dining room and salon had been decorated with bunting, flowers and moss for their arrival. It was during this vacation that Bessie DuBois records, “The former first lady, to her great joy, landed a huge and gleaming tarpon.”

The problem with arriving in Jupiter by steamboat was that it was a small “end of the line” settlement with few accommodations for tourists. At the same time, traveling on to Lake Worth, seven miles southward, meant bouncing in a hot, bumpy stagecoach. In 1889 Jupiter got a narrow-gauge railroad link that backed right up to the steamboat wharf.

History of the “Celestial Railway”

The Jupiter & Lake Worth Railway operated from July 4, 1889 to April 1895. It was a narrow gauge (three-foot) steam railroad, linking the south shore of the Jupiter Inlet to the head of Lake Worth at Juno (approximately at present-day Oakbrook Square and PGA Boulevard; the town of Juno Beach is a mid-20th century development and centered several miles north of the original Juno). From here passengers boarded boats for the rest of their journey south.

The stops, north to south, were: Jupiter, Venus (3 miles, 15 minutes from Jupiter), Mars (5 miles, 22 minutes), and Juno (7½ miles, 30 minutes). The names refer to Roman deities, but three of them are also the names of planets and one an asteroid. This latter fact may explain why a British journalist in an article published in March 1893 in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine was inspired to call it the “Celestial Railway” and the name quickly caught on.

By 1894 the Celestial Railway was impoverished and its directors asked too high a price for it when Henry Flagler offered to purchase its right of way. Flagler chose to bypass the settlement on Jupiter Inlet and instead to route his Florida East Coast Railway through the undeveloped western edge of Jupiter. When the FEC began its run between Jupiter and points south in 1894, it acquired the lucrative government contract to carry the mail. Passengers preferred the comfort of the new and larger FEC equipment and deserted the Celestial Railway, bankrupting the tiny rail.

The arrival of the FEC brought a growth spurt to the Sawfish Bay area, originally called West Jupiter or Neptune. The FEC depot building that can be seen today in Sawfish Bay Park dates from 1915 and is operated by the Town of Jupiter.