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Florida History
By Trail, Rail, Highway
And Greenway

By Clay Henderson
Florida Monthly, December 2007

The first overland routes into and through the Florida peninsula were trails blazed by people with names like Apalachee, Timucua and Calusa. For a dozen millennia, prior to the arrival of Europeans, truly native Floridians lived in close touch with nature. These were the first native Americans encountered by Europeans, who the newcomers called los Indios. When the Spanish arrived, 350,000 people were living on the Florida peninsula.

Archaeological evidence suggests trade connections existed with other tribes to the north, with trails following the high ground and crossing rivers at narrow points. When the Spanish arrived, they followed overland trade routes established by the los Indios. In 1539, Hernando de Soto set out for Tampa Bay with 600 soldiers, priests, slaves, captured Indians and horses. The entourage moved north through Timucuan country and then west to Apalachee lands, encountering hostile Indians along the way. De Soto’s expedition explored parts of what are now nine states before he died on the banks of the Mississippi River in 1542. De Soto’s path through Florida has appeared on maps since 1540. Today, interpretive kiosks mark the passage on highways such as U.S. routes 41, 301 and 27.

As we all know, the first continuous settlement in what is now the United States was San Augustin, established in 1565. As defenses began to build, new settlement roads extended across old Indian trails to Picolata on the St. Johns River and to the lower reaches of the river to the north. Early maps show that northern road as El Camino Real, which follows much of present-day U.S. Route 1. Some call this the oldest road in North America.

The Spaniards invested much interest in three ”G”s: God, Glory and Gold. Unable to find gold in Florida, they set out to convert locals to God. Beginning in 1573, Franciscan friars founded a string of 31 missions between St. Augustine and the Apalachicola River, eventually converting some 25,000 Indians to Christianity. In doing so, the Spanish opened up an overland pathway called the Old Spanish Trail that would eventually connect Pensacola to St. Augustine. Much of present-day U.S. Route 90 follows this historic passage.

Spain controlled Florida for nearly three centuries—more than 100 years longer than the Stars and Stripes have flown over our state. Another fact many have missed along the way is there were 13 colonies that declared their independence from Britain in 1776, but Florida, a British colony at the time, did not join the revolution. For 20 years, between 1763 and 1783, Florida was a British colony, and its Tories fought the patriots to the north. Those 20 years had a profound effect on the future of the peninsula.

The British sought to connect all colonies with a series of roads along the East Coast known as the Kings Highway. To their credit, remnants of that road are paved to this day along main streets, highways and superhighways from Florida to Maine and into Canada, with names like King Street, King’s Road and Kings Highway. Once Florida was established as a colony, it needed to be linked to colonies in the North. In 1765, Governor James Grant authorized the King’s Road to link Colerain, Georgia, on the St. Mary’s River to New Smyrna, the southernmost settlement on the peninsula. The road passed through St. Augustine and crossed the St. Johns River at its narrowest point, near modern-day Jacksonville Landing. The road was laid out by surveyors and constructed by British engineers; it followed high ground and was constructed of crushed coquina and shell. In the lower portions, corduroy roads of palm logs were used to make causeways through the wetlands and crossings at places like Spruce Creek, Tomoka River and Peffider Creek. It now has status as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark as America’s first highway. As completion of the road neared, Lt. Governor John Moulttie reported in 1771:

“The road is done in such a manner that it will not require any additional repairs for many years. The Bridges are firm and substantial; the causeways well made, and the road well opened. A Cart of Waggon, or any number of them may pass with ease…“

Noted engineer and cartographer William Gerald de Brahm was named by the crown as surveyor-general and laid out the path of Old Kings Highway. Today, one of his assistants, William Bartram, is better known. In 1766, Bartram shipwrecked at Ponce de Leon Inlet and found work as a surveyor, but his interest diverted to the natural world. He returned to Florida in 1773 to journey up the St. Johns River and catalogue the peninsula’s unique flora and fauna. His book, Travels, remains in print to this day He is considered America’s first naturalist.

Following the American Revolution, Florida returned to Spanish control but the Seminoles and Creeks displaced in Georgia and Alabama did more to populate the state. In 1819, General Andrew Jackson followed Indians into Florida and took possession of the peninsula for the United States. In 1821, the Florida Territory was defined and the Legislative Council was formed. The first Legislative Council met in Pensacola, but it took 59 days for the delegates from St. Augustine to arrive by boat. The following year, the Legislative Council was to meet in St. Augustine, but the delegates from Pensacola shipwrecked in the Keys. In 1824, in the spirit of compromise, a new state capital was established at a hilly spot located midway along the Old St. Augustine-Pensacola Road, called Tallahassee.

Florida’s territorial period saw expansion of federally supported post roads to insure the delivery of mail. The Old Kings Road was officially declared a post road and was continually improved and utilized. The first new federal road is known today as Bellamy Road. In 1824, Congress authorized $20,000 to construct a road from Picolata on the St. Johns River to Ochlockonee in the Panhandle, authorizing John Bellamy, a Monticello plantation owner, to oversee the project. Bellamy used his own slaves and equipment to complete the road, which mostly follows the Old Spanish Trail. This road, first appearing on Florida maps in 1836, opened most of north Florida to plantation development.

In the years before the Civil War, railroads changed the face of transportation across the United States. The first Florida railroad opened in 1835 to the bustling port city of St. Josephs, which hosted the first Constitutional Convention in 1838. This first major railroad was backed by David Levy Yulee, who linked Fernandina and Cedar Key by rail line just before the outbreak of the Civil War. Yulee served in the Legislative Council, U.S. Senate and Confederate Congress, the first Jewish man to serve in the U.S. Senate. He is known as the “Father of Florida’s Railroads.” Both Levy County and the city of Yulee are named for him. This railroad opened Florida’s interior to timber production and naval stores.

paniards invested much interest

Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, Florida was still a backwoods state. A succession of powerful governors made huge deals with northern financiers to pay off debt; large grants of land were provided to those who would open the area for railroads.

The most dubious was a grant of four million acres to Hamilton Disston for a mere 25 cents an acre. In 1882, Henry Plant was granted extensive lands to open up Central Florida by connecting Jacksonville to Tampa. This cleared the interior for citrus production and madeTampa a tourist destination and port.

The most celebrated railroad man was Henry Flagler, whose affiliation with the Rockefellers and Standard Oil made him one of the richest people in the world. By 1888, he extended his Florida East Coast Railroad to his new Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine, making it a winter destination for the super-rich of the time. By 1894, Flagler extended the rail lines to his new city of Palm Beach and his new hotels, the Breakers and Royal Poinciana. The winter of 1894 brought harsh times, but Julia Tuttle and William Brickell, who owned lands beside the Miami River, sent Flagler a fresh orange blossom as an invitation to come farther south. He did and instilled a spark into the small fishing village of Miami. Lastly, Flagler decided to extend his railroad 128 miles south to Key West. By the time of its completion in 1912, the Florida East Coast Railroad extended 512 miles from Jacksonville to Key West. Flagler’s railroad cost $20 million and connected the Florida frontier to the rest of the Atlantic Coast.

As Flagler was completing his railroad, another technological change was coming to America. The invention of the automobile and its mass production provided an opportunity for the less wealthy to move about the country. Roads built for horses and stagecoaches made way for Tin Lizzies and the ModelT.

In 1913, Congress authorized the Lincoln Highway connecting New York and San Francisco. Miami entrepreneur Carl Fisher suggested another route—to be called the Dixie Highway—connecting his new developments in Miami up the Atlantic coast to Montreal. The road was constructed between 1915 and 1927. Through most of Florida, the Old Dixie Highway was an eight-foot-wide brick road crossing streams and rivers on rickety wooden bridges. In North Florida, the route roughly followed the Old Kings Road to New Smyrna and then paralleled the FEC railroad to the south. It inaugurated a new wave of”tin can tourists” who came to Florida by car, camping out on bits of paradise along the way Many were lured into new developments and never left, ushering in the great land boom of the 1920s.

As demands increased, Congress responded in 1926 to expand the road. The road, which would later be known as U.S. Route 1, would ultimately connect Key West with Ft. Kent, Maine. The final 128 miles is generally known as the Overseas Highway After Flagler’s death and the decline of the FEC Railroad, there were calls to convert the railroad into a road. Thus, the Overseas Highway became a Depression Era project. One of the projects of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration was employment of World War I veterans to construct the road.

On Labor Day 1935, a massive hurricane bore down on the Keys, and a train was sent to evacuate the workers. It arrived, but could not escape the 17-foot storm surge that destroyed most of the rail bed and killed 421 of the workers, mostly WWI veterans. In the years following World War II, the Overseas Highway was completed and included the Seven Mile Bridge, linking Marathon with the Lower Keys.

The opening of Florida’s West Coast was equally an engineering feat. Boosters promoted linking Tampa and Miami. The resulting conjunction was the Tamiami Trail, coined by the Miami Herald in 1915. By 1921, the road extended south to Ft. Myers, but money ran out, and crossing the Everglades appeared impossible. Barron Collier, a wealthy advertising entrepreneur, purchased millions of acres of mosquito-infested wetlands and pinelands in Southwest Florida. He agreed to fund construction of the road to Miami. In return, a new Southwest Florida county would bear his name. In 1923, construction began to cross the Everglades. A large E-W canal was dug with massive mobile dredgers and explosives; the final section was complete in April 1928.

The Tamiami Trail took 13 years, cost $8 million and used 2.6 million sticks of dynamite in its construction. But the trail placed incalculable damage on the greater Everglades ecosystem that Congress has now appropriated billions to restore.

There are road names in America that represent more than a lane of asphalt. In Florida, AlA is as much a destination as it is a route. Formed in 1945 along the barrier islands of Florida’s East Coast, it was named S.R. 1 as the easternmost road in the state. At the same time, U.S. Route 1 was being constructed on the mainland as the principal north-south road for the East Coast. To avoid confusion, the road was renamed Atlantic Alternate 1 or AlA. Maybe not as famous as Route 66, it was stifi enshrined in movies and song. including Jimmy Buffett’s AlA album. Until construction of the Daytona International Speedway, a portion of the Daytona 500 ran alongside AlA. No other road quite conjures up the Florida experience as AlA.

In the years following World War II, Florida’s population skyrocketed and road construction became synonymous with growth and growth management. According to the Florida Department of Transportation, the state’s transportation network includes 41,000 lane miles, 6,381 bridges and 2,707 miles of railroad. Our road system contributes to our growth and contributes to Florida being the country’s major tourist destination.

Over the last quarter-century, Floridians have grown more concerned about environmental protection. Construction of the Cross Florida Barge Canal, attempted construction of a jetport in the Everglades and the completion of Alligator Alley resulted in the birth and growth of the environmental movement in our state. One of the by-products of this movement is the planning and construction of greenways and trails for recreational use and environmental protection. In the last decade, millions of dollars have been spent purchasing old road rights of way, abandoned rails lines and environmentally sensitive lands to connect important environmental features. Today, more than 500 miles of abandoned railroad lines have been converted to trails used by hikers and bicyclists. Even the Cross Florida Barge Canal lands were transformed into the Marjorie Harris Can Cross Florida Greenway, in honor of the environmental activist who led the fight to kill the canal. A bridge for hikers and wildlife to safely cross 1-75 is covered with native vegetation and named in her honor.

Across Florida, local groups work to convert old roads to trails, protect canopy roads and establish scenic highways. Parts of the Bellamy Road are protected canopy roads, remnants of the Old Kings Road are now historic trails and some of Florida’s first rail lines are now multi-use trails. Among our National Scenic Byways are segments of AlA and the Tarniami Trail. Florida’s Scenic Highways include passages traversed by DeSoto and Bartram. Preservation of these routes maintains a legacy for future generations to learn and appreciate Florida’s rich history, as well as provide an essential element to our quality of life.

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