Home > Floripedia > Florida: Geographical Characteristics
Site Map

Florida: Geographical Characteristics

Highways and Byways of Florida


Florida is called the Everglade State, and also the Peninsula State. It is the largest commonwealth east of the Mississippi with the exception of Georgia, which exceeds it in size to a very slight degree. Its length from north to south is about four hundred and fifty miles and its northern portion extends nearly four hundred miles east and west. No other state can rival its coast line of 1146 miles. Much the larger part of the coast is washed by the Gulf of Mexico. Except in the beautiful Tallahassee region the land is level or only gently rolling, and the picturesqueness of a hill country is lacking. Louisiana is the only state which has a lower average elevation. The highest point is Mount Pleasant in the extreme northern part near the southwest corner of Georgia. This "mountain" attains an altitude of three hundred and one feet.

"From what I have observed, I should think Florida was nine-tenths water, and the other tenth swamp," one tourist has said. This rather accurately describes some portions of it, and lakes and watercourses abound nearly everywhere. The rivers, creeks, and canals, and the myriad lakes and lagoons are so connected that a canoe or light draft launch can traverse them in any direction throughout the length and breadth of the peninsula. Nor can you follow the waterways far without encountering some kind of wild creature interesting for its own sake, and perhaps legitimate prey for rod or gun.

Accurate knowledge of Florida as a whole has been lacking until comparatively recently. A map of the world published in Italy not long after the time of Columbus shows Florida as a large island in a vast ocean that extended as far as Japan. A French map issued in 1760 represents it dotted with mountain peaks almost to the southern extremity. Its area was formerly much greater than now. The western boundary was the Mississippi River and included the southern half of what are now the states of Alabama and Mississippi. It was divided into East and West Florida with the Appalachicola River for the boundary line between. St. Augustine was the seat of government in the eastern section, and Pensacola in the western.

Spain had possessed Florida for about two centuries when the province was ceded to Great Britain, but it was then almost as much a wilderness as it had been originally. There were only a few thousand inhabitants in the limits of the present state, and nearly all of these were in St. Augustine and Pensacola. A large percentage of them were military and civil government dependants who were content to live safely in the garrisoned ports drawing their salaries for petty official positions. Under English rule, which lasted not quite twenty years, Florida prospered, and settlers increased rapidly. Yet its condition long continued to be that of a frontier region. By far the greater part of its development has taken place since the Civil War. The old towns have grown, a great number of new towns have come into being, and all the time the jungle has receded. But a vast deal of unimproved land still awaits the labor of the pioneer. Only two per cent of the Florida land is cultivated, and the hunting is likely to be good for some time.

One of the most valuable industries of the state is the manufacture of cigars, chiefly at Key West and Tampa. Most of the tobacco used is imported from Cuba. The lumber industry is also very important. There seems to be no end to the oysters, the fish, the sea-birds, and the turtles in the waters along the peninsula shores. Stories are told of such hosts of fish in the olden times that vessels were stopped by them. Fruit is the principal Florida crop. The realization of the peninsula's adaptability to the culture of oranges about 1875 was the beginning of the state's modern agricultural development. But the unusual severity of the winters of 1887, 1894, and 1899 destroyed three-fourths of the orange trees and turned attention to other crops and to stock-raising. Orange culture has recovered much of its ascendency, but is carried on farther south than before. Not all the yearly output of gold in Nevada and Arizona would equal the wealth that goes to Florida for her fruits and vegetables. Enough oranges and grapefruit are produced by her groves each winter to pay back the five million dollars that the United States gave Spain for Florida in 1821.

Florida is the most accessible of our nation's playgrounds to the mass of the people, and fifty thousand persons visit it each year. Here, beyond the reach of snow and ice, they hunt, fish, or loaf, or they speed automobiles over ocean beaches as hard and smooth as a floor. They can play golf and tennis at the fashionable resorts, or embark in canoes to explore the depths of the wilderness, or adventure in a launch among the coral keys. There is plenty of occupation and amusement for all tastes and ages, and for those of slender means as well as for those of wealth.

Statistics are said to prove that Florida cruising is safer than staying at home. Taking cold seems to be impossible, although the voyagers do not hesitate to go overboard without the least hesitation to push the boat off a bar, help fish with nets, or dive for clams. The story is told of a young woman member of a cruising party, who was remonstrated with for her over indulgence in bathing. This was one evening as she was enjoying the surf after having been in the water continuously since the midday meal. She responded, "My doctor told me it would not harm me to bathe four hours after eating, and I'm doing it."

Automobiles from all the states in the Union frequent Florida in the cooler months. The highways have been greatly improved in recent years, and in many sections the motoring conditions are ideal. There is a good road all the way from Jacksonville to Pensacola, and from the former place to Tampa. and the entire distance down the east coast to beyond Miami.

The country roads are usually sandy. A woman who had been a long-time resident of the state once made a comment which may be helpfully suggestive to pedestrians. "I found it pretty hard walking in the sand at first", she said, "but I learned after a while that the best way is to set the heel down as hard as you can. Then the sand doesn't give under your sandles and you get along more comfortably."

An old Florida hotel-keeper, originally from rural New England, is credited with this burst of confidence: "Yes, we've got a climate here, and that's about all we have got-climate and sand." Most people would not entirely agree with him, though there is no doubting the sand.

Railway travel is unavoidably dusty in fair weather, and the dust has a penetrating quality which renders its perfect exclusion from the cars impossible. The effect on some tourists is to make them very pessimistic about everything. To quote one such person: "The ride through Florida is tedious. The miles of palmetto with leaves glittering like racks of bared cutlasses in the sunshine, the miles of dark swamp, the miles of live oaks strung with their sad tattered curtains of Spanish moss, the miles of sandy waste, orange groves, of pines with feathery tops, the sifting of fine dust, which covers everything inside the car as with a coat of flour—these make you wish that you were North again."

Jacksonville is only thirty hours from New York by fast trains, or three days by steamers. Twelve hours more by rail takes one to the southern tip of the state. Thus, within two days' time, one may change his winter environment from arctic to tropic; from a zero mercury to one sixty or eighty degrees above; from ice and snow to gentle skies, unchilled waters, everblooming flowers, and singing birds-and all this without leaving the mainland of the United States.

As soon as the weather begins to be wintry and disagreeable in the North it begins to be a happy medium in Florida, neither too cool nor too warm. The leading hotels generally open early in January and close four months later. This is the period when traveling facilities are at their best.

The Florida climate is remarkably equable. You do not freeze to death in winter, nor are your energies sapped by a sizzling sun in summer. It is true that the summer days are often hot, but invariably at sundown there is a breeze which makes sleeping a comfort. The equalizing force which makes both the summer heat and the winter cold less violent is furnished by the Gulf Stream which flows out into the Atlantic between Cuba and Florida. The Gulf Stream is more rapid than the Mississippi or the Amazon, and its volume is fully a thousand times as great. The water is bluer than that of the surrounding sea, and the line of demarkation in its earlier course is very distinct. On either side and under its warm current is the cold water of the rest of the sea.

The rainy season is in summer. It does not consist of a steady downpour, but of afternoon thunder showers which come up in the heat of the day. The normal rainy season lasts about four months, but may continue much longer. In winter clear days are the rule, but the weather is variable, and sometimes there are rainy winters and comparatively dry summers.

There are those who claim that the Florida summer is more genial than that torrid season at the North, that the winds are spiced with the resin of the woods, and that it is characterized by a shining equableness and a general blueness and balminess. Really it is often blisteringly and blazingly hot, and smites the toiler with irresistible languor. You seem about to ignite, and only by means of copious drafts of water and abundant perspiration is the conflagration prevented. However, a person gets somewhat acclimated in time, and learns to accept the heat with a degree of equanimity so that it no longer seems an achievement simply to exist.

I have mentioned the thunderstorms as a feature of the summer. After a sweltering windless morning, clouds appear in the blue, lifting higher and higher their beetling forms like vast snow-clad mountains tops. It is a stirring sight—the splendid energies of the air, the sweeping of the shadows, and the dramatic bursts of lightning. The ground trembles with the thunder and soon the world is blotted out by the driving rain. When the storm passes on, the tree-toads awake and begin to rasp in every tree, and the frogs in every pool. As the summer progresses the rains increase in frequency. The weather falls into a lamentable aqueous intemperance, the air becomes a habitat of vapors. There are looming clouds with sluggish raindrift beneath much of the time. The soil gradually fills and exudes water like a soaked sponge, every hollow is transformed into a pool or a lake. Wherever you go you must wade. When the sun comes out it blazes on a waste of wetness, and fills the air with steam. The stranger feels much inclined to abandon the country for a while to the elements and the frogs.

Florida weather has its flaws. Nevertheless, one can live out of doors during almost every day in the year. The cool breezes from the Atlantic or the Gulf are a feature in summer, and sunny inviting days predominate in winter. But persons who come to Florida with the expectation of spending their midwinter in white linen lying on beds of roses under blossoming trees and palms, should change this delusion for the far finer and truer notion of a temperature just cool enough to save a man from degenerating into a luxurious vegetable of laziness, and just warm enough to be nerve-quieting and tranquilizing. Even if it chances that you have to endure a three days' chilly drizzling rainstorm, you can take comfort in thinking that the North is having a driving snowstorm. When Florida has a brisk cold spell the North has a bitter freeze.

Florida has the lowest annual death rate of any state in the Union. Many persons are benfited by spending the winter there, and would be still more benefited if they made it their permanent abode. Such are those who suffer constitutionally from cold, who are bright and well only in hot weather, whom the Northern winter chills and benumbs, till, in the spring they are in the condition of a frost-bitten hot-house plant. On the contrary, persons who are debilitated and wretched during hot weather, and whom cool weather braces and gives vigor have no call to Florida.

Improvement in health depends on taking advantage of what Florida has to offer, which is life in the open air with unlimited opportunities for activity. To keep indoors taking no regular exercise, and with the mind and body unemployed offers little chance to gain.

The climate cannot be too highly praised for children. The winter is one long out-door play-spell for them, and in general they are wholly free from coughs, colds, and other ailments. They can run about, row in boats, go fishing, and seek flowers in the woods with the greatest possible pleasure and the least possible discomfort.

When you are planning a visit to the peninsula, remember that Florida women buy furs for the winter and wear them too. It is not a land of perpetual warmth. All the northern half of the state is more or less subject to frosty nights, cold winds, and chilling rains from the middle of December to the middle of February. The likelihood of frost decreases as you go south, but every part of the mainland gets an occasional touch. Not until you are well down toward Key West do you reach the frost's limits.

The author of a book of travel published in 1839 was detained for ten winter days at St. Augustine because the packet schooner which ran regularly to Charleston could not get out of the harbor on account of northeast winds. He says: "Nothing can be worse than to find oneself imprisoned in this little village with a cold piercing wind drifting the sand along the streets and into his eyes, with sometimes a chance at a fire morning and evening, and sometimes a chance to wrap up in a cloak and shiver without any, and many times too cold to keep warm by walking in the sunshine. No getting away. Blow, blow, blow! Northeast winds are sovereigns here, keeping everything at a standstill except the tavern-bill, which runs against all winds and weather. Here are forty passengers detained by the persevering obstinacy of the tyrant wind, while its music roars along the shore to regale us by night as well as by day, and keep us in constant recollection of the cause of detention.

"Oh for a steamboat! That happiest invention of man, that goes in spite of wind and tide. Talk of danger! Why, rather than be detained in this manner, I would take passage on board a balloon or a thunder-cloud. Anything to get along."

A recent visitor says of the northeast wind, "This is the wind that sets everybody to swearing at his coffee of a morning, to calling for his hotel bill, and to howling at humanity in general." But he adds that generally the temperature is charming and that the prevailing winds are so "sweet and saintly" that they are more soothing than a calm.

Another St. Augustine weather story is of a Missouri man. As he sat wrapped to the eyes in a big overcoat on a bench facing the morning sun, when the thermometer had dropped several degrees below the freezing point, he uttered this plaint: "My folks told me to leave my overcoat at home, but I wouldn't do it. There's no heat in the house where I'm boarding. So I had to come out here and sit in the sunshine; and durn me if I'm warm now! Next time I take an excursion in winter I'll go north. I know a stove up in Chicago that I'll bet is red hot this minute, and I wish I was sitting side of it."

A really hard frost makes black wreckage of all the tender herbage that before flourished in green luxuriance and put forth sweet-scented flowers. The vividcolored foliage plants in the town gardens and climbing vines and many tall picturesque shrubs have no life left above ground. Banana plants also are killed down to the roots, and the fruit ruined. Thriving fields of sugar cane ready for the knife are turned to a straw brown, and the oranges and grapefruit become solid lumps of ice. The first such freeze on record occurred on the night of January 2, 1766, when the mercury registered twenty degrees above zero, and the ground was frozen an inch deep. In 1740 there was a snowstorm at St. Augustine, and again in 1835, but they did no damage.

At the beginning of 1835, orange trees were the glory of the place. It was one immense orange orchard, and the town buildings were embosomed in the rich deep green foliage. When the trees were in full bloom the fragrance so filled the atmosphere as to attract the notice of passers on the sea. The town appeared like a rustic village with its white houses peeping from amid the boughs laden with yellow fruit. In the picking season the harbor was enlivened with a fleet of vessels, buyers from which thronged the streets bargaining for the oranges and arranging to send cargoes of them to the Northern cities. But on a night in February the mercury fell to seven degrees, a point which has never been touched since. The cold destroyed all the orange trees, some of which rivalled in stature the sturdy forest oaks. At one stroke was wiped out the labor of years, and for many families this meant the loss of their entire resources of income. They descended from affluence to poverty and distress.

The "Big Freeze" of 1888 wreaked havoc again, and there have been other destructive frosts since. But after each the tropical trees have been brought into bearing agin, and latterly great quantities of the summer fruits of the temperate zone are being raised so that it is possible to obtain native fruits continuously from one year's end to the other.

A cold spell in Florida is very irritating to the tourists, and a frost, even though the mercury is barely down to the freezing point, is outrageous. "If this is your Florida winter, deliver me!" they exclaim. At that very time, if they choose, they can walk out into the woods and gather quite a nosegay of flowers, and they can eat radishes, lettuce, and peas grown in the open air. However, it must be granted that the term "Sunny South" does not fit very literally in January. Visitors are apt to arrive with their heads full of romantic notions of what they will find. They expect the batiks of the streams to be covered with orange groves which blossom all through the year and are continuously loaded with golden fruit; and they expect pineapples and bananas to grow wild, and the flowers to everywhere brighten the ground and hang in festoons from tree to tree. What the casual observer actually does find, instead of the tropical exuberance at which he thought he would be staring, is a monotonous sandy level with patches of rough coarse grass, and tall scattered pine trees, whose tops are so far in the air that they seem to cast no shade, and a little scrubby underbrush; or, if there are deciduous trees in the woodland, their leafage continues to hang on the twigs in ragged patches until pushed off by the swelling buds of spring, and imparts a peculiar desolate untidness to the woodland. One undoubted drawback is the difficulty of inducing the sandy soil to nourish grass. The ground has a persistent tendency to present the appearance of a place where hens have been scratching. The coarse native grasses that are able to withstand the summer heat do not make a satisfactory turf, and to have a nice lawn is a great undertaking.

The tourists are likely to think that Florida does not fairly merit being called a land of flowers, but they should explore the boggy glades of the woods, which is where the flowers grow. Even in midwinter the woods are a sort of treasure trove. There are palmetto leaves that can be pressed and dried and made into fans, there is the long wire grass which can be fashioned into mats, baskets, and various little fancy articles, and there are the flowers of which a reasonable nosegay can be secured on any day the winter through, and usually there is an abundance of bright delicate ferns untouched by the frosts. One woodland flower that is profusely abundant is the yellow jasmine. It rambles everywhere, full of vigor, wild grace, and violet-scented fragrance. Sometimes its yellow bells twinkle from the prickly foliage of the holly where it has taken full possession, transforming the solemn evergreen into a blossoming garland. Or it may establish itself fully fifty feet up in a water oak where it mingles its long festoons with the swaying streamers of the gray moss. Again you find it creeping over the ground in a thick mat with its golden buds and open bells peeping up from the huckleberry bushes and sedge grass. Sometimes it clambers all over a fallen tree weaving itself about the gaunt upreaching branches and throwing off long sprays and streamers that flutter out charmingly against the blue of the sky.

The sparkleberry, a tall shrub with vivid green foliage that hangs full of clusters of small white blossoms, comes into its glory as that of the jasmine is passing away. Prickly pear grows in great clumps adorned with bright yellow blossoms. Here and there in the wire grass are patches of blue and white violets. The former are large and long stemmed. The latter are very fragrant, and they whiten the ground in some places. Along the watersides may be found clumps of pale pink azalias that fill the air with their honeyed sweetness. Here too grow the blue iris and the white lilies, and you may find a pool yellow with bladder-wort. Often the dells are lighted up by the white showy blossoms of the dogwood, or are brightened by a redbud which is like a bush of pink flame. As the season advances, blue wistaria climbs from branch to branch, and there are the coral-honeysuckle, the trumpetcreeper, and a multitude of other flowers.

The winter aspect of the wild lands may be somewhat somber, but spring is as much a pomp and glory here as in the North. Nothing could exceed the outburst of vividness and vigor when the sun returns to make its power felt. In the North and West blizzards may rage and railroads be blocked by snowdrifts, while throughout Florida the coming of summer is heralded by the singing of birds, the maturing of fruits and vegetables, and the air is sweet with the odor of orange blossoms.

Excerpt from "Some Characteristics" Highways and Byways of Florida, 1918.


Home > Floripedia > Florida: Geographical Characteristics
Site Map

Exploring Florida: A Social Studies Resource for Students and Teachers
Produced by the Florida Center for Instructional Technology,
College of Education, University of South Florida © 2005.