A Trip Down the St. Marks Is a Lesson in Local History
Paddling Through the Past
It was shortly after daybreak when we launched our kayaks from the weathered, wooden dock that extrudes from the floodplain woodlands along the middle reaches of the St. Marks River. The late-winter air was cool and damp, and I could feel the chill of the aluminum paddle shaft through my gloves. My companion for the day was Al Thompson, a riverside resident who has made the St. Marks home for nearly a decade.
Aerial view of the confluence of Wakulla and Saint Marks Rivers, ca. 1947.
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
Our plan was to make a leisurely, day-long paddle from Thompson’s rustic boardwalk to the San Marcos de Apalachee Museum just outside the city of St. Marks. I looked forward to a recreational outing, intent only on immersing myself in the beauty and charm of a Florida outdoor experience. What I got, instead, was an important lesson in Florida history and a deeper appreciation of this tiny river and of its importance in defining the events that have shaped our regional heritage.
“This is going to be like a paddle through the past,” Thompson declared as we caught the gurgling currents and headed downstream. “More has happened along this little river than seems imaginable for such a small waterway.”
To be sure, the St. Marks River is much more than just a canoeing route or fishing stream. It is a river steeped in local legends, tales and events. For observant paddlers intent on broadening their appreciation of our state’s inland waterways, it can be a living textbook, a veritable depository of stories to be learned about Florida’s more primitive days.
Thompson’s enthusiasm for St. Marks history is not difficult to understand. His residence lies just south of the Natural Bridge State Historic Site, one of the river’s best-known and most historically significant features. The bridge itself is the result of a complex collection of geologic processes that have left a thick deposit of limestone at what appears to be the river’s termination point. In reality, the waters of the upper river only temporarily disappear into a swallow hole before resurfacing again as a full-fledged stream a few meters farther south. This natural passageway has served throughout the centuries as an important crossing for an assortment of Florida travelers, from the earliest of the state’s aboriginal Indians and Spanish explorers to modern-day motorists out solely for an afternoon drive in the cracker backcountry.
“The Battle of Natural Bridge is probably the most widely known of St. Marks River history,” Thompson explained, referring to the 1865 skirmishes in which a small contingent of Confederate soldiers, volunteers and cadets repelled an invading force of Union troops, leaving Tallahassee as the only Southern capital east of the Mississippi not captured in the Civil War. “But those battles constitute only a fraction of the St. Marks legacy.” His point became increasingly clear as we made our way downstream.
Our first stop came only a few miles below our put-in point, where the current of a small but lively tributary flows into the river from the west. The crystal-clear waters trickled from the spring-fed creek, and the unmistakable aroma of sulphur filled the air.
“The old town of Magnolia was located somewhere in this vicinity,” Thompson pointed out as we paddled a little way up the tiny creek. “The odor you smell comes from the sulphur spring that forms the headwaters of this little rivulet. Today it’s just a local swimming hole off Old Plank Road, but it once attracted a variety of visitors who came here for the water’s supposed medicinal value. There is a collection of antique photos on display at the Oaks Restaurant in Panacea that clearly shows the bustling activity during the spring’s heyday.”
The city of Magnolia is one of three now-defunct towns that once competed for commerce along the St. Marks. All were founded in the early to mid-1800s and were established primarily as shipping towns. Magnolia and Rock Haven were the earlier of the three. Both were located upriver of what is now the small village of Newport; Port Leon came on the scene somewhat later and was located on the eastern side of the river below the town of St. Marks.
Little is known about Rock Haven, other than its general location. It was the northernmost of the three towns and may have even been located fairly close to Natural Bridge. Its founders probably established the city with the hope that the U.S. government would cut a canal through the limerock that still blocks the river’s channel. Such an undertaking would have opened the river to increased traffic and placed the little city in a strategic location for servicing the transportation needs of the cotton industry. The fact that this never happened purportedly led to the settlement’s rapid demise.
Magnolia and Port Leon, on the other hand, had more colorful histories, and their stories are much better known. The former was founded in 1827 by four brothers from Augusta, Maine. The location must have been good one, at least initially, for the small settlement grew rapidly in both popularity and commerce. By 1832 it had even earned a prosperous post office, as well as legislative approval to charter the Merchants and Planters Bank of Magnolia. By 1837, however, only 10 years after its flamboyant beginnings, and partly because the new Tallahassee-to-St. Marks railroad had passed it by, the residents of Magnolia had determined that their city was no longer a viable dwelling place. As a result, nearly all of the remaining inhabitants packed up and moved their settlement southward to a point along the river’s eastern bank.
One story has it that this new city became Port Leon, a settlement whose fate was to be no better than that of its precursor. Only five years after its founding, the Hurricane of 1843 wiped out the entire town, except for part of one warehouse, and forced its residents to move again, this time back upriver to what is today the village of Newport.
As we paddled under the concrete and steel bridge that now spans the river at the Magnolians’ last and most successful settlement, I reflected on the persistence, determination and fierce independence that must have fueled the personalities of these early forerunners of the Big Bend coast.
Just beyond the U.S. Highway 98 crossing, we rounded a long, gradual bend that ended with the eerie sight of a dilapidated boatyard looming in the distance. The remains of what were once the pilings of an extensive wharf trailed away from a crumbling boat launch, and the molded skeleton of an old hull lay bottom-up on the weedy ground. My thoughts were transported from reflections of 19th-century settlers to contemplation of one of the 20th century’s greatest wars.
“This is all that is left of a World War II boatbuilding operation,” Thompson volunteered. “As I understand it, the yard was established to build landing craft that were used during the war effort. After the fighting ended, the area reverted to private hands for a while before failing into disrepair. It seems almost out of character given the era of most of the river’s other historic events. There is a particularly dramatic difference between the age of the events that happened here and those that happened farther downriver.”
Indeed, the list of names associated with the lower river includes two of early America’s most important adventurers. Panfilo de Narvaez visited the area in 1528 and Hernando de Soto in 1539, both lured by fanciful tales of the gold and riches that lay in the bountiful province called Apalachee. However, neither found the treasures they sought, and Narvaez even lost his life at sea in a desperate and ill-fated attempt to lead his colony away from La Florida and across the Gulf in search of the Mexican peninsula.
As we approached our final stop, I envisioned how the river must have appeared during those early years. I scanned the little point of land that juts into the confluence of these two important streams and visualized the area without the concrete landing and picnic tables, without the modern buildings, and without the asphalt road that winds its way through the surrounding marshes. I thought about the history associated with this one little point of land; how it was first claimed by the Spanish who built Fort San Marcos de Apalachee in 1680, then by the British who assumed command of its crumbling remains in 1763, then again by the Spanish in 1787, and finally by Andrew Jackson in 1818, who erroneously boasted he captured Florida for the United States.
We paddled past the confluence, out into the river’s ever-widening channel, and surveyed the expansive marshlands and rolling waters of the lower river. It was a sight no doubt similar to that which had greeted the region’s earliest inhabitants. Sitting in the shadow of the San Marcos museum, past and present seemed to blend into one, and we sensed our continuing connection with the important events of the Big Bend’s earliest days. It was as if being a Floridian had taken on a deeper and more fundamental meaning.