Friday, August 28, 2020

Destinations From Long Ago

 My earliest memories involve the water; a swimming hole with its own spring flowing into a river. 

Image courtesy John C. Karjanis

When I was two years old, my father died and my mother moved our family to Florida. By a lucky chance, she picked a place for us to live that offered cheap fun in close proximity; a place that fit the bill for recreation, employment, and generally kept her kids out of her hair. 

It was DeLeon Springs, near Daytona Beach. Today it is a State Park, but between 1953 and 1982, it was a privately-owned "roadside attraction."

Rusty Fleetwood mentions this spring by name in his book "Tidecraft," as it was here where the two oldest examples of dugout canoes in the western hemisphere were discovered! They are dated at 5000 and 6000 years old. This is the first topic in Tidecraft; page 1, paragraph 1. And I grew up there! Coincidence or what?

As a boy, I stood on the walkway at the spring and gazed down the run. Burt's Park stood on the left bank where the river turned left and ran out of sight, and like explorers since time out of mind, I wondered what lay around that corner. 

Adventure? Excitement? Danger? All the things to stir a young person's heart were waiting 'round the bend--if only I could get there. When I got a small plastic boat as a gift in those early years, I did paddle my way down and around that corner. 

My first command

When I went missing the lifeguard (who ended up marrying a sister) came and found me and asked if I needed help. 

"Nope, I'm going somewhere!" 

The headwaters of Spring Garden Run, Deleon Springs Florida

It is entirely possible and even probable that a steamboat departed Savannah in the 1800s, and by way of the inland passage (today's ICW) and the Saint John's river, reached the tributary that leads to this spring. They could have pulled up to a wharf and loaded cargo and passengers. 

From the web, 

"The first water-powered sugar mill in Florida was built here in 1832. (Some of the brickwork and machinery is preserved behind the on-site restaurant.) In 1835, Seminoles attacked the plantation, destroying the mill and stealing slaves and cattle. Troops under the command of General Zachary Taylor finally drove the Seminoles out two years later. The mill was rebuilt in 1849 and continued to produce cotton and sugar, with up to 100 slaves performing the work. During the Civil War, in April 1864, Union troops, upon hearing the owner was providing supplies to the Confederate Army, destroyed the plantation. This was known as Birney's Raid. By the late 1800s, Spring Garden became a tourist destination with a steamboat and the railroad providing transportation to the area.

The mill was in operation when I was young, grinding wheat into flour
for bread and...pancakes! They are served there to this day at 
The Old Spanish Sugar Mill. 

Click here for more about this area, originally known as Spring Garden and later as De Leon Springs. 

So, with a mill producing cotton and sugar in the 1800s, it stands to reason that these products would need to get to Savannah for export via ocean-going ship. And the steamboats working the river also worked the inland passage between Charleston, Savannah, and the St. John's River. Perhaps smaller locally-operated steamboats took the cargoes to Jacksonville, where they could be trans-loaded onto larger boats for Savannah.  

Sidebar: I would have loved to have made that journey by steamer. I have made several houseboat cruises on the St. Johns, even taking friends from Savannah and showing them new places, like Silver Glen Spring on Lake George. Jeanne and I took our Sea Ray from Savannah almost to Palatka before mechanical problems landed us back in Jacksonville. Even cut short, our journey was great fun. On separate trips with Shriner buddies, I've been as far south on the ICW as St. Augustine and as far north as Charleston. Traveling by water is tremendously fun.

Maybe, before I'm done, I'll be able to do the entire trip from Savannah to Deleon Springs. I think it would be a great adventure. There are lots of great spots to stop and get refreshed and rested along the way!

Mike Neal, owner of Bull River Cruises, has taken the Island Explorer (the 45' excursion vessel I crew and captain) to Jacksonville; he got a gig ferrying thousands of people across the river for a Super Bowl. He and the boat were over halfway...

Rivers And Rails?

Imagine a trip down and back, with two groups of passengers, each riding the boat one way and the train the other. The historic Deland Train Station is just a few miles from the park and the train passes right by the gate. It would let people experience two modes of travel that have largely gone by the boards. Overnight stops at Fernandina, Jacksonville, and Palatka, and an all-hands dinner and celebration at the state park would let both groups mingle and tell stories. And the first thing the next morning we'd be off on the return journey. What a cruise that would be!

Ah, idle speculation; but what the hell--it never hurts to dream right? Most great adventures start with a dream.

Now, where were we?

As I look for more information about steamboats traveling from Savannah to the St. John's River, I open JSTOR and sign in. (JSTOR.ORG). I am directed to "East Coast Florida Steamboating" 1831-1861 by Edward A. Mueller, published in the Florida Historical Quarterly in 1962. If you are familiar with Ruby Rahn's excellent history of steam on the Savannah, Mr. Mueller's name will come to mind. She credits him for his research and information in the opening of her book. 

Here's a link... to Mr. Mueller's article in the Florida Historical Quarterly. It's an entertaining piece of writing! 

By the second paragraph, Mr. Mueller is writing about Savannah and steamboats in Florida! We're onto something! 

Mueller next writes that the first steamboat to travel to Jacksonville from Savannah was "apparently" the George Washington, arriving on May 18th or 19th 1831, after a trip lasting 34 hours. Not bad time all things considered. By August of 1835, weekly service was available between Savannah and Picolata Florida (a small outpost on the river below Jacksonville, with overland carriage service to St. Augustine). This route included stops at Darien, St. Mary's, and Jacksonville. As I continue reading I realize that Mr. Mueller was having fun as he wrote this article circa 1962, and that he inevitably did some smiling and shaking of the head as he banged away on his typewriter. The true story of the rise of steamboating between Savannah and the St. Johns is stranger than fiction! 

One of the repeatedly mentioned and sought-after types of travelers for Florida was the "invalid." Northern winters gave people respiratory illnesses, and the Florida climate was thought to be the answer. That trend later led Henry Flagler to bring his invalid wife to Jacksonville. This would set in motion a chain of events that would change everything about Florida!

In 1843, the steamboat St. Matthews extended the service up the river (but down the peninsula) as far as Palatka. (Getting closer to the springs!)

A U.S. Mail contract led to twice-weekly service from Savannah to Jacksonville and then up the St. Johns in 1847. The farthest up the river commercial traffic went was Enterprise, on Lake Monroe. Enterprise is a sleepy little village today, but when the river was the highway for goods and people, Enterprise was happening. (If you somehow find yourself in Enterprise, don't miss Cassadega, the spiritualist center of the south.)

When the river was a matter of life and death instead of simply a playground as it is today, riverfront spots were part and parcel of life. For my money, they still are...


Any trip on the St. John's River requires a stop at Silver Glen Spring

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