Cruisin’ Down Florida’s Grand Highway (St. Johns, Part 2)

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Courtesy of Matheson History Museum

In the late 1800s, Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) followed a seasonal migration pattern now familiar to all Floridians—snowbirds landing in Florida to bask in our balmy winters. Today people cruise down I-95 and I-75 in RVs. In Stowe’s time, they cruised down the St. Johns in steamships.

Stowe wintered in Mandarin, Florida in a house overlooking the St. Johns River, a river she came to love. Her book Palmetto Leaves describes her life and community in Florida and offers advice for other northerners heading south. In particular, she reminisces about sailing and boating on the St. Johns River. In the St. Johns lower basin, near Mandarin, the river is slow and wide, almost a mile wide at some points. Preparing for a day of boating, she describes her view as

…five good miles of molten silver in the shape of the St. Johns River, outspread this morning in all its quivering sheen, glancing, dimpling and sparkling, dotted with sailboats, and occasionally ploughed by steamboats gliding like white swans back and forth across the distance.

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View from Black Knight Boat ramp

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The St. Johns River was Florida’s “grand river highway,” and travel by steamship was more comfortable and safer than travel overland. Florida’s dense scrub landscape made land-based travel extremely difficult, so boats and rivers were a lifeline to Florida settlers, traders, and tourists.

Steamships helped open the market for Florida tourism. In Palmetto Leaves, Stowe wrote that the

St. John’s is the grand water-highway through some of the most beautiful portions of Florida; and tourists, safely seated at ease on the decks of steamers, can penetrate into the mysteries and wonders of unbroken tropical forests.

Passengers from the north could enjoy Florida’s warm winters and reach locations such as Sanford, Silver Springs, and Palatka by ship.

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1873 Steamer Routes (Florida Memory)
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Palatka News timetables (Chronicling America)

By the mid-1800s, steamships plied the route between Jacksonville and Sanford, carrying goods, people, and agricultural products.  Boats that took passengers on the Ocklawaha and the Silver River required the smaller, more maneuverable sternwheeler, as in the Okahumkee below. Passengers heading northward transferred to larger ocean-going side-wheel paddleboats in Jacksonville.

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City of Jacksonville Sidewheeler (Photo credit: St. Johns River Ship Co.)

Stowe describes her overnight cruise upriver—south—to Enterprise. This grand round, or tour, up the St. Johns River to Enterprise, across to St. Augustine, and back, she wrote, marks the “accomplished Floridian sight-seer.

Turning our boat homeward, we sailed in clear morning light back through the charming scenery which we had slept through the night before. It is the most wild, dream-like, enchanting sail conceivable. The river sometimes narrows so that the boat brushes under overhanging branches, and then widens into beautiful lakes dotted with wooded islands. [Palmetto Leaves]

Only the “constant and pertinacious firing kept up by that class of men who think that the chief end of man is to shoot something” detracted from her trip.

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Log of the Okahumkee

The city of Enterprise on Lake Monroe was the southern terminus of the navigable section of the St. Johns River. Even today, most navigational charts stop at Sanford. In Stowe’s day, visitors to Sanford could stay in the elegant Hotel Sanford, built in 1886.

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Hotel Sanford (Florida Memory)

Henry Shelton Sanford (1823-1891) established the city of Sanford in the 1870s. He imported thousands of citrus trees to develop the citrus industry and established Sanford as a commercial and tourism hub of central Florida.

Today, most visitors arrive in Florida by car, plane, and occasionally, train, and the big rat dominates the tourism scene. Beecher’s slow trip up and down the St. Johns might not offer the excitement of Disney’s Splash Mountain, but traveling Florida’s waterways gives us a glimpse into the past, when rivers were our highways. Today, the Barbara-Lee, a stern wheel paddleboat, takes visitors for a slow cruise along the river, revealing birds and other wildlife. Others enjoy the St. Johns on pontoon boats, kayaks, and sailboats, seeing aspects of Florida only visible from water. These trips remind us that we have—and still do—rely on our rivers for commerce, transportation, and recreation. The St. Johns River is still the River of Life.

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Visit the River of Dreams at the Matheson History Museum, 513 E University Avenue, Gainesville, FL 32601   Phone: (352) 378-2280

Hours:  11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m., Tuesday – Saturday

The Matheson will offer related programming from now through June, ranging from talks at the museum to paddling tours guided by Lars Anderson at Adventure Outpost. Visit the Matheson’s events page for details.

This exhibition emerged from the research of Dr. Whitney Sanford, Florence Turcotte, and students in the UF Religion Department, and was made possible by the generous support of Visit Gainesville; the State of Florida, Division of Cultural Affairs; and the Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere at the University of Florida.

Thank you to our partners the Special & Area Studies Collections of the George A. Smathers Libraries at UF, UF Religion Department, and the UF Museum Studies Program, as well as the UF Florida Puerto Rico Digital Newspaper Project, the Laboratory of Southeastern Archeology, Department of Anthropology at UF and the National Park Service, Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve.

Curator: Briley Rasmussen

Associate Curators: Alexis Schuman and Lauren O’Neill

Guest curators: A. Whitney Sanford, Florence Turcotte

Assisted by:  Peggy Macdonald, Sarah ‘Moxy’ Mocyzgemba, Amanda M. Nichols, Brian K. Szymborski 

Exhibition Photographer: Anne Ledbetter

Mural Artists: Gillian Fazio and Laura North

Graphic Designer: Brianna Ostrowski

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Author: Whitney Sanford

Writer, research, teacher and outdoor enthusiast.

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