Saturday, July 26, 2008

Article: The Federal Road through Jackson County

This article appeared in the July 24th issue of the Jackson County Times. If you haven't subscribed to the paper yet, you can do so by clicking here.
Remembering the “Federal Road”

Florida’s First American-Built Road Passed Through Jackson County

By Dale Cox

Compass Lake – When the United States acquired Florida from Spain in 1821, few people had any idea of the dramatic size of the territory. More than 400 miles of wilderness separated Pensacola and St. Augustine, the only two cities in Florida and little more than a rugged footpath that took six weeks to travel connected the two places.

As settlers flooded into the new American territory, the complete lack of a transportation network proved astounding. A call went up to the U.S. Congress for help and on February 28, 1824, an act was passed approving the construction of a “Federal Road” linking Pensacola and St. Augustine.
The task for building this road fell on the shoulders of Captain Daniel Burch, an army officer that had participated in Andrew Jackson’s 1818 campaign. Anticipating the project, he started working in 1823 to consider possible routes and develop cost estimates.
Burch quickly found that the available maps of Florida were extremely inaccurate. In one report, for example, he noted that he had added the course of the “Choppoola” or Chipola River to his charts because the mapmaker had simply not known of its existence.
The more he explored, the more he also came to realize that the plan of Congress to build a 25-foot road all the way from Pensacola to St. Augustine was simply impossible with the means at hand. In fact, he soon became convinced that even removing tree stumps from the path would be unnecessary and impossible. “In opening a road of this kind,” he wrote, “it is altogether unnecessary to dig or cut off the stumps level with the ground, unless occasionally when one happens to stand directly in the route, nor is it necessary to cut it through the open woods wider than for one wagon to pass with ease.”
The actual survey of a proposed route for the road began in late October of 1824, when Burch and a detachment of 22 men from the 4th United States Infantry set out from Pensacola to mark the construction lines of the project. It took them 34 days to reach St. Augustine, but they settled on a route for the highway.
Captain Burch intentionally platted his road to lead through some of the least desirable lands in Florida because the open scrub woods would be easy to clear and speed the construction process. From Deer Point on Pensacola Bay at present-day Gulf Breeze, the proposed route led west to Choctawhatchee Bay then turned to the northeast and crossed the Choctawhatchee River at the “Cow Ford.” So named because it was a place where cows could be driven across the river, the ford was near present-day Ebro in Washington County. From here the route led on to the natural bridge of Econfina Creek and then angled northeast again to a point near the southern shore of Compass Lake. Turning east and southeast, it led through southern Jackson County until it intersected with today’s State Highway 73 about 1.5 miles north of the Calhoun County line. Crossing the Chipola River into Calhoun County at this point, the road led on to Ocheesee Bluff on the Apalachicola River.
Construction on the road began near Pensacola on October 5, 1824 and the section through Jackson and Calhoun Counties was completed in June of 1825.
Although Burch believed his road would become the “great leading road of the country,” he soon learned otherwise. Because his route led primarily through scrub lands, the road proved of little benefit to the actual settlers of Northwest Florida. By 1830, residents in Jackson County had already built a new road linking Marianna and Webbville with Chattahoochee to the east and Holmes Valley to the west. The Federal Road was bypassed and fell into disuse. For Jackson County, at least, it became little more than a wasted government appropriation.
A few miles of the original route can still be traced along dirt roads in the southern edge of Jackson County, but little else remains to remind residents that the Federal Road ever existed. It has been common over the years to mistake today’s “Old U.S. Road” with this original path, but the two were separate. The “Old U.S. Road” was built in 1836-1838 by the U.S. Army to connect Alabama with Apalachicola Bay by way of Marianna. It ran from north to south, while the original Federal Road ran from west to east.

Friday, July 18, 2008

An 1827 Account of Jackson County

The following is from this week's issue of the Jackson County Times. If you haven't subscribed to the newspaper yet, you can do so by clicking here.
A Description of Jackson County from 1827

By Dale Cox

Marianna – One of the most interesting accounts ever written about Jackson County is found in the journal of an early Catholic Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Michael Portier. He entered the county in June of 1827 by way of Orange Hill in what is now Washington County and left the only known description of the site of Marianna before the founding of the city.

Biship Portier crossed over the site where Marianna would be founded just a few months later while make his way on horseback from Pensacola to St. Augustine.
In his journal he wrote:
“On every side you could hear the rippling of the brooks which here and there blended their waters and developed into streams of deep and regular formation. Rocks were to be met as high as the trees themselves, and bordered around with wild flowers, while sweet-scented shrubbery decked the sides and summits of these pygmy mountains. Natural wells, underground caves, oak trees blasted by lightning or cast by the tempest across our narrow pathway like an artificial bridge – everything was present to enhance the spectacle.”
Less than six months after the bishop passed across the beautiful site, Robert Beveridge and his workers began carving the modern city of Marianna from the wilderness. Portier’s description provides a good idea of why the site was considered as an excellent location for a settlement.

Pushing on across the Chipola River, the bishop spent the night at the home of William Robinson overlooking Blue Spring. Robinson had moved to the area from Georgia a few years earlier and acquired more than 3,100 acres in the area around Blue Spring. A life-long bachelor, he was described as less than an ideal host by Portier.
The bishop was impressed, however, with the spring itself. “This beautiful body of water, of perfect blue color,” he wrote, “imparts the same tint to whatever it reflects, and when the sun is in the zenith the reflected images take on all the colors of the rainbow through the prismatic influence of the waters.”

Portier’s description of Blue Spring provides a fascinating word picture of how it must have appeared before the creek flowing from it was dammed later in the 19th century:
“Like a small flood tired of being hampered and held up in its progress, it pours over with mighty force into a bed cut deep into the rock. This bed or vase is oval in shape and possibly a hundred feet wide at its broadest span. So clear is the water that the smallest objects are distinctly seen in it at a depth of thirty or even thirty-five feet; while all around the magnolia, laurel, cypress, and cedar are found in profusion. The wild grape-vine, after pushing its plaint branches to the very tops of these trees, hangs suspended over the stream in festoons. Fish without number find shelter in this retreat; but at the slightest sound of an inquisitive wayfarer they seek speedy refuge in the deeper places.”
Bishop Portier passed on from Blue Spring after only one night and crossed the Apalachicola River in a small boat the next day. His account lives on, however, as one of the finest descriptions written of early Jackson County.
Bishop Portier’s journal is one of the early accounts of Jackson County in the new book The History of Jackson County, Florida: Volume One.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Article: The Wreck of the Eagle

The Wreck of the Steamboat “Eagle”
A Nineteenth Century Tragedy at Neal’s Landing

By Dale Cox

Neal’s Landing – One of the greatest tragedies in the history of Jackson County took place on January 29, 1854, when the steamboat Eagle caught fire and sank in less than fifteen minutes near Neal’s Landing.
The Eagle was a massive paddlewheel driven vessel that was one of the finest boats in use on the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers in 1854. Less than two years old, she had a gross tonnage of 200 tons and was nearly 150 feet long.
The boat left Columbus, Georgia, on January 28, 1854, en route to Apalachicola. On board was a cargo of 1,303 bales of cotton. Her cabins were filled with passengers, many of them children.
As the Eagle approached Neal’s Landing in the northeast corner of Jackson County, the crew unexpectedly discovered that a fire had broken out on board. The cause was never determined, but the flames were found to be coming from an area behind the engine room of the boat and directly below the “ladies’ cabin.”
Almost before anyone could respond, the vessel was engulfed in flame. The pilot tried to ground the boat but was only partially successful. Despite the fire, the engines of the boat kept running, so she was nosed up to the bank so the crew could rescue the passengers and get them ashore.
According to one eyewitness, “The children and ladies had either to come down with ropes or be let fall from a height of 13 tiers of cotton bales into the arms of those below on the main deck, then jump to the shore.”
A remarkable story of heroism was told during the week after the disaster by the father of one of the boat’s passengers, a 9-year-old girl whose name, unfortunately, has been lost. “All speak in the highest praise of the conduct of my daughter, not 10 years old,” he wrote. “She neither cried nor screamed, but stood upon a pile of cotton, holding one of her little cousins (boys) by each hand, exhorting them not to cry or jump, nor would she leave the burning wreck until she saw them safely landed; she then, in the most self-possessed manner, asked if there was any person that would save her?”
The father went on to describe how a member of the crew, “at the risk of his life,” nobly responded ‘I will.’ Leaping onto the flaming decks, the man “snatched her from the very jaws of death.”
According to eyewitnesses, the Eagle completely disappeared into the waters of the Chattahoochee. Her cargo was a total loss. “In 15 minutes from the first discovery of the fire,” wrote one witness, “nothing was to be seen of the Eagle or cargo but a few blackened particles of cotton. All that was done to save life was done in five minutes.”
The total loss in the destruction of the Eagle was estimated at $100,000, a remarkable sum for the time. A total of four people – three men and one woman - lost their lives. All were members of the crew, but their names have been lost.
The wreck was one of the greatest tragedies in the history of Jackson County, but also gave rise to a story of heroism that lingers down through the anges.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Wreck of the Steamboat Eagle - Neal's Landing, Florida

Coming in this week's issue of the Jackson County Times, I have an article that I think you will find interesting.
It tells the story of the shocking wreck of the great steamboat Eagle near Neal's Landing in the northeast corner of Jackson County.
The Eagle was a 200 ton steamboat that was one of the largest and most elegant paddlewheel boats to navigate the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers during the years before the Civil War.
On January 29, 1854, she caught fire as she was approaching Neal's Landing and completely disappeared in less than 15 minutes. The fatal fire was one of the most shocking tragedies in the early history of Jackson County and also gave rise to a remarkable story of heroism.
Be sure to pick up a copy of this week's paper to read the story. If you haven't subscribed to the Jackson County Times, please consider doing so. They publish more news about the history of Jackson County than any other publication in the area. You can subscribe online by clicking here. Just look for the "Subscribe" button.
I will post the full article later in the week after this week's issue is out.