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Disston Sugar Mill | Photo © 2021 Bullet, www.abandonedfl.com

Disston Sugar Mill

Location Class:
Built: 1886 | Abandoned: 1909
Status: Abandoned
Photojournalist: David Bulit
Hamilton Disston
Hamilton Disston, c.1870

Hamilton Disston was an industrialist and lesser-known figure in Florida’s history who purchased four million acres of Florida land in 1881. His land purchase and investments were responsible for the creation of Kissimmee, St. Cloud, Tarpon Springs, and Gulfport, and the growth of St. Petersburg. Although there is not much left other than brick ruins, this former sugar plantation was the birthplace of St. Cloud. His business ventures in Florida would ultimately fail, but his land purchase stimulated Florida’s economy and allowed railroad magnates Henry Flagler and Henry Plant to build rail lines up and down the coasts of Florida.

Born on August 23, 1844, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Hamilton Disston was the eldest son of nine children born to Mary Steelman and Henry Disston. His father was an industrialist who founded the Keystone Saw Works which would become the largest sawmaker in the world. At fifteen years old, Hamilton worked at the saw factory as an apprentice as well as a volunteer at the fire department, the Northern Liberties Volunteer Fire Company. He later became the city’s first Fire Commissioner as well as the city’s Parks Commissioner. Although his father forbade him, Hamilton joined the Union Army twice during the Civil War only to have his father purchase his release on both occasions. With the imminent invasion of Pennsylvania by the Confederate Army, known as the Emergency of 1863 in some circles, Hamilton and twenty-five workers of the saw factory organized Company K of the 20th Regiment, Pennsylvania Infantry Militia. His father supported the “Disston Volunteers” financially.

After the war, the Disston saw company was renamed Henry Disston & Son when Hamilton returned to work at his father’s factory as an executive. Henry Disston and his sons set the standards for American sawmakers, both in terms of producing high-quality saws and developing innovative manufacturing techniques. In 1878, following the death of Henry Disston, Hamilton and his brothers Horace, William, and Jacob inherited the company and would be renamed Henry Disston and Sons, Inc. Being the controlling member of the 2,000-employee company, Hamilton expanded production to 1.4 million hacksaws and three million files per year. Just a month after his father’s death, Hamilton gave President Rutherford B. Hayes a tour of the factory where he demonstrated the manufacturing process of a hand saw and presented the saw to Hayes at the end of the tour etched with his name. With the increasing success of the saw manufacturing business, Disston branched out into other business ventures until he found himself down in the marshlands of Florida.

Keystone Saw Works
Drawing of the Keystone Saw Works, 1884. ExplorePAHistory.com

In 1850, Congress passed a law primarily aimed at the development of the Florida Everglades which gave federally-owned swampland to states that agreed to drain the land and turn it to productive, agricultural use. The state of Florida was granted 15 million acres of swampland and quickly formed a committee to consolidate grants to pay for land reclamation efforts. Consolidated grants for the purpose of building rail infrastructure and reclaiming wetlands were placed in a trust called the Internal Improvement Fund of the State of Florida (IFF). The fund pledged land to railroad companies and guaranteed bonds issued by the railroad companies on the land. As railroad companies defaulted on their bonds due to the high costs of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the fund became liable and quickly sank into debt and eventually into Federal Court receivership. By the time Governor Geroge Franklin Drew took office in 1877, the fund was nearly $1 million in debt. The state constitution refused to issue bonds to pay for it and investors were not interested in putting money into a cash-starved state with no rail lines.

An avid sport fisherman, Hamilton Disston was invited by Henry Shelton Sanford, founder of the city of Sanford, on a fishing trip through Florida in 1877. It was on this trip that Disston recognized the business potential of reclaiming huge tracts of land for agricultural use. In January 1881, Disston and five associates entered into an agreement with the Internal Improvement Fund. The agreement stipulated that Disston and his associates would be deeded half of whatever land his Atlantic and Gulf Coast Canal and Okeechobee Land Company reclaimed around Lake Okeechobee, the Kissimmee, Caloosahatchee, and Miami Rivers. The project was at risk of failing before it even started. The agreement had no effect on the massive debt the IFF had incurred and foreclosure was imminent. Governor William D. Bloxham visited Disston in Philadelphia to persuade him to relieve the debt by outright buying millions of acres of land. Disston agreed and bought four million acres of land, the largest land purchase ever made by a single person, for just 25 cents per acre.

A massive dredging operation commenced almost immediately after the land purchase with most of the efforts aimed at Lake Okeechobee with Disston’s headquarters located on the shores of Lake Tohopekaliga. The canals were engineered so that Lake Okeechobee flowed into the Caloosahatchee River and then into the Gulf of Mexico. Another canal was to be constructed from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie River and then into the Atlantic, although those never materialized. In June 1883, a report concluded that the Kissimmee valley was indeed drying up as Disston planned, and another report a year later reported further drainage with nearly 3 million acres of reclaimed land credited to Disston.

He needed a small steamboat industry to transport people and goods through this new waterway and constructed another canal from East Lake Tohopekaliga to Lake Tohopekaliga which then cut towards the Kissimmee River. Within thirty days, the lake lowered as much as eight feet turning East Lake Tohopekaliga from a “cypress lake” into a smaller body of water with a white sandy beach. The shipyard in the town of Lake Tohopekaliga was responsible for building the steamboats. At the same time, the South Florida Railroad was growing and extended the end of its line from Sanford down to Lake Tohopekaliga, making the small town into a transportation hub in central Florida. Disston’s head engineer, a steamboat captain from Louisiana by the name of Rufus Edwards Rose, was the one to suggest renaming the burgeoning town to Kissimmee.

Unfortunately, this success was short-lived as a report in 1887 showed disappointing results. Although it credited Disston with draining parts of the upper Kissimmee valley, it credited a drought with drying an area north of Lake Okeechobee. Along with that, the only canal constructed proved inadequate during Florida’s rainy season resulting in the Caloosahatchee River flooding the surrounding area. Despite the lack of success of the canals, the money he paid to the Internal Improvement Fund allowed other industrialists such as Henry B. Plant and Henry Flagler to take an interest in the development of Florida.

Disston Lands
The opening pages to The Disston Lands of Florida, a sales catalog published by the Florida Land & Improvement Company in 1885.

St. Cloud Sugar Plantation

rufus rose
Rufus E. Rose. Find a Grave

Although some in Florida disapproved of selling the land for so cheap, the state saw positive effects very quickly. Promoting himself as owning one-third of the state, Disston opened real estate offices throughout the country as well as in England, Scotland, Germany, Italy, Denmark, and Sweden in order to draw people to Florida. The major cities of Sarasota and Naples were developed on land sold by Disston. Rufus E. Rose decided to make a stake for himself and bought 420 acres on East Lake Tohopekaliga and built a home for his family. Along with Samuel Lincoln Lupfer, he operated a small sugar plantation he named St. Cloud. Although many locals claim the town was named after Saint-Cloud, France, it was actually named after St. Cloud, Minnesota which was well-known at the time as a place of commerce where steamboats regularly docked.

Ditch draining the plantation’s sugar fields began in 1886. That spring, besides rice and corn, twenty acres of sugar was planted. The fields were “unusually productive”, and the sugar cane fields were expanded to ninety acres the next season. By the summer of 1887, a small open kettle was installed. That same year, Disston bought a half interest in the St. Cloud Plantation and provided the capital to increase the sugar field to 1,800 acres along with the construction of a sugar factory. Part of the crop was harvested that winter which yielded 5,000 pounds of granulated sugar per acre. The plantation gained a reputation for growing sugar cane on reclaimed swampland. The St. Cloud brick mill and warehouse were built several yards south of East Lake Tohopekaliga with a capacity of nearly 372 tons of cane a day. Raw sugar and brown sugar were transported via the St. Cloud and Sugar Belt Railroad to Savannah, Georgia for further refining.

In 1890, in an effort to slow sugar imports from Mexico and Cuba, Congress enacted a bounty paying sugar producers two cents per pound. Jumping at the opportunity, Disston drew up plans to expand his sugar operations. Rufus E. Rose though was still part-owner of the plantation and disagreed with Disston’s plans, arguing that the sugar bounty decided to go his separate way, selling his half of the company to Disston and stepping down as superintendent of the plantation. Upon leaving the company, Rose was appointed State Chemist of Florida in 1901 and served in that capacity until his death in 1931. In 1916, he published The Swamp and Overflow Lands of Florida: The Disston Drainage Company and the Disston Purchase. These writings not only give insight into the plantation’s operations but also why the plantation ultimately failed.

Disston employed more associates and reorganized the sugar plantation as the Florida Sugar Manufacturing Company. The company spent $1 million on factories and 36,000 acres were added to the company’s landholdings. Unfortunately, things did not as well as Disston had hoped. Samuel L. Lupfer later wrote that the decision to bring more people into the company was because Disston felt his Florida investments were too much for him to handle alone. It wasn’t long before the sugar operations began to decline. He wrote that “local managers were changed almost every year, the policy of working the crops was dictated from the Philadelphia office, the name of the company to whom the plantation belonged was changed as often as two or three times a year and the sugar plantation was used as a speculator’s investment to catch ‘suckers.’ On top of the mismanagement of the company, cane borers thought to have come from Cuba damaged the crop. There was also insufficient protection against excessive rainfall which caused a large portion of the sugar cane fields to flood. Despite this, the plantation produced 1.2 million pounds of sugar on around 1,000 acres in 1892.

Disston tried diversifying the plantation’s crop with an experimental crop of rice being planted that same year. The rice crops were unsuccessful as many of the stalks failed to produce any rice and the ones that did were destroyed by birds. Dr. Harvey W. Wiley, head of the United States Department of Agriculture’s chemistry division, recommended that cane be grown further south around Lake Okeechobee. Disston ordered his drainage company to begin digging a canal on Lake Okeechobee’s south shore and made plans to establish a sugar plantation there. Those plans were abandoned after diggings were made south through the Everglades for twelve miles as the rock proved denser than what his engineers had expected.

The collapse of two of the country’s largest employers, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the National Cordage Company, marked the beginning of what would be known as the Panic of 1893. At the time, hundreds of businesses such as these overextended themselves, borrowing money to expand their operations. When the financial crisis struck, the stock prices plummeted. Five hundred banks closed, 15,000 businesses failed, and numerous farms ceased operation. Congress lifted the sugar bounty in the fall of 1894. This action was followed by two disastrous freezes in December 1894 and February 1895 that devastated Florida’s agriculture and real estate values. Due to mounting financial difficulties, Disston mortgaged his Florida assets for $2 million. On April 30, 1896, Hamilton Disston had dinner with the mayor of Philadelphia and attended a theatre production with his wife in Philadelphia. The following morning, he was found dead. Almost every obituary, as well as the official coroner’s report, stated he died of a heart attack. Despite that, people in recent years claim he died in the bathtub by a self-inflicted gunshot wound, which was not the case.

Accompanying note: “Opened for business Sept. 17, 1909, and burned Dec. 22, 1909. The new ‘fireproof’ hotel opened Sept. 16, 1910.”

Following his death, the Disston Land Company stopped making payments on the $2 million mortgage. Disston’s family was never enthusiastic about his business ventures down in Florida so his holdings there were more or less abandoned. In February 1897, a local Kissimmee newspaper reported that Rufus E. Rose reassociated himself with the plantation and was negotiating a sale of the mill and around 2,250 acres to three Cubans who planned on bringing the plantation back to full working order. Despite what was reported, an English organization was holding an option on the property which was valid until April 1897. By the time April came, the English had failed to purchase the property and the Cubans had lost interest in the Disston plantation having invested their money elsewhere. By 1900, the mill’s machinery was sold to Sabal Bros. of Jacksonville who in turn resold them for $75,000 to be shipped off to Mexico. In 1909, the St. Cloud plantation was acquired by the Seminole Land & Investment Company as the site for a Grand Army of the Republic veterans’ colony. The old sugar mill was in ruins by that point, but some materials were salvaged to be utilized in the construction of the St. Cloud Hotel.

Following the demise of Disston’s sugar plantation, sugar production declined in Osceola County. Despite all the time, money, and effort, the mark Disston left in the state is faint with others having to pick up where he failed. Years later in 1921, an Englishman by the name of Frederick Edward Bryant along with his associate G.T. Anderson would build the first sugar mill in the Everglades, south of Lake Okeechobee where Disston had once planned to relocate to. Bryant’s sugar company became a predecessor of the United States Sugar Corporation, one of the largest job providers in the Glades region of Florida, employing more than 2,500. It’s estimated that 50 percent of the sugar produced in the U.S. comes from Florida, most of which comes from here near the southern tip of Lake Okeechobee. Except for a few canals and the ruins of the Disston sugar mill, there are little physical remnants left from Disston’s time here in Florida.

Disston Sugar Mill | Photo © 2021 Bullet, www.abandonedfl.com
Disston Sugar Mill | Photo © 2021 Bullet, www.abandonedfl.com
Disston Sugar Mill | Photo © 2021 Bullet, www.abandonedfl.com
Disston Sugar Mill | Photo © 2021 Bullet, www.abandonedfl.com

David Bulit is a photographer, author, and historian from Miami, Florida. He has published a number of books on abandoned and forgotten locales throughout the United States and continues to advocate for preserving these historic landmarks. His work has been featured throughout the world in news outlets such as the Miami New Times, the Florida Times-Union, the Orlando Sentinel, NPR, Yahoo News, MSN, the Daily Mail, UK Sun, and many others. You can find more of his work at davidbulit.com as well as amazon.com/author/davidbulit.

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