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Indian River, Florida

Highways and Byways of Florida


Not far below New Smyrna is the north end of the Indian River, and the distance to Jupiter Inlet, its other end, is one hundred and-forty miles. The most interesting fact about this river is that it is not a river at all, but a salt-water sound. This sound is superlatively safe, placid, and beautiful. It varies in width from scarcely a hundred feet at the Narrows, to eight miles, and is so straight that when one looks along it north or south, water and sky seem to meet. On either side it is fringed by points, harbors, coves, and islands. Near the head of the river are large islands or peninsulas, and at the St. Lucie and Jupiter narrows are innumerable small islands covered with an almost impenetrable growth of mangroves and other tropical vegetation. It is separated from the ocean by a wonderfully attenuated strip of land, portions of which are only a few rods wide, and which rarely exceeds the width of a mile, and seldom rises to more than twenty feet above high water mark. This strip is barren in some places, but for the most part is covered with a sturdy forest growth that serves as a windbreak to curb the fierce gales of the Atlantic.

The river is fed by numerous fresh-water streams, so that though it is connected with the ocean by several inlets through which the tides ebb and flow, it is much less salt than the open sea. Not all the inlets are permanent. A number have opened within the memory of persons now living, and then, after a while, have closed.

Every house along the river has its own pier, and every family possesses some sort of water craft. There are sailing vessels in great variety, and power boats from tiny open launches to ambitious cabined steam yachts. The river is a great highway for the dwellers on its banks.

The mainland which borders this "streak of silver sea" is notably well suited for residence sites, and the soil is unsurpassed for the cultivation of citrus fruits and pineapples. The pineapples hide the earth on the ridge next to the river for miles and miles with their prickly green leaves. In places the plants are under slatted sheds acres in extent. They grow from two to four feet high and each produces a single fruit amid a whorl of long stiff rough-edged sword-shaped leaves. The pineapple is a native of tropical America and is found wild in sandy maritime districts of northeastern South America. Great care is requisite in its cultivation to produce fruit that is delicate and richly flavored. Without such care it is insipid and fibrous.

The fertile belt skirting the river is comparatively narrow, and much of the country beyond is wilderness haunted by bears, panthers, wild cats, and deer, and by wild turkeys and the lesser varieties of wild-fowl. It is a swampy wilderness containing many streams and shallow lakes navigable for canoes.

When the turtles lay their eggs in the seashore sands in the spring of the year the bears resort to the beaches and devour the eggs with great gusto. Bruin will even swim across the Indian River to get at the eggs on the island shore beyond. Only the desire for these eggs will tempt the bears to venture from their hiding-places back inland, or from the almost impenetrable labyrinths of the mangrove islands. The bears have long ago learned that a man with a gun is dangerous, and they have become exceedingly shy and retiring. If the hunter wants bears he has to go after them, for they have no fancy to go after the hunter. Even when tempted out of their wild haunts by turtle eggs they visit the shore by night and with such caution that they are seldom seen.

Eatable fish in great variety abound in the river, and there are oysters and clams, shrimp, and turtle. Besides, excellent bream and black bass fishing is to be had in the fresh water streams that enter the river from the mainland. The Florida cruiser need never go hungry, even when his supply of "broughten grub" fails, if only he has the knowledge and skill to help himself from nature's largess.

An expedition in a small boat after dark is particularly enjoyable. The water is usually highly phosphorescent then, and at times the display of nature's fireworks is quite wonderful. Multitudes of fish dash against the boat, and sometimes leap over or into it in frantic efforts to escape.

Oysters cover a considerable portion of the river bottom, and though they are often small they are unsurpassed in quality. In some places along the banks are enormous piles of the oyster shells deposited there by the Indians, who, whatever their faults, have at least given the Florida peninsula a few hills. How they must have feasted to leave such heaps of shells behind them! The red men are gone, but the oyster-beds remain, and if the winter refugees continue to flock to the region and to eat oysters freely, in the course of time the vicinity of the resorts will become a fine mountainous country. Meanwhile tourists and residents must find what comfort they can in such hills as the good appetite of their predecessors have already furnished.

The climate along the river from October to May is a perpetual Indian summer, seldom interrupted by storms; and most of the time there is a gentle breeze coming inland from the even tempered waters of the Gulf Stream. One proof offered of the winter blandness of the air is that frequenters of the region, both male and female, sometimes bathe the old year out and the new year in.

It is a delight merely to view the river from the shore. As you look off across the blue water from the mainland you see the islands dim in dreamy haze on the other side. Schools of fishes flash their silvery sides to the sun in the shallows; farther out frolicsome mullet leap high into the air and fall back with a resounding splash; herons large and small stand and meditate in or near the water; and cormorants, black and ungainly, sit on piles of abandoned docks for hours motionless, or, if one makes a plunge for a fish, he promptly flops back to his perch. During the winter the river is a resort for innumerable ducks. In places the surface is fairly covered by them, and a boat voyaging on the river will make flocks rise from the water every few hundred yards to travel off and settle down elsewhere. The pelican, with its big bill, awkward figure, and voracious appetite, is a familiar bird here, but lacks one essential attraction for the sportsman—its flesh is too tough and the taste too rank to be eatable.

One of the curious inhabitants of the waters, especially near the mouth of the St. Lucie River, is the manatee or sea cow. It has in part the character of a fish, and in part that of a land animal. It is warm-blooded and suckles its young, and yet lives in the water, though obliged to come to the surface every few minutes to breath. This necessity is apt to prove its undoing when a hunter is in pursuit. A full sized one is a monstrous ungainly creature that measures a dozen feet in length and weighs over a ton. It is seldom found except in or near the rivers that indent the southern coast. The vegetation that grows in the streams is its food.

You may sometimes hear beneath the water a strange low thumping sound as of the beating of a muffled drum. It is the love-song of the drum fish. These fish feed on young oysters, cockles, and crabs. They travel in schools, and several hundred of them can do an amazing amount of damage to an oyster bed. Some of them weigh as much as seventy pounds, although a third of that is more usual.

In the northern part of the river is Merritts Island, forty miles long and, at its upper end, six or seven miles broad. The country on the island has the appearance of a park, the timber bring principally scattered pines interspersed with an occasional forest of palmetto, or of live oak and other hardwood timber. The island contains some of the finest and oldest of Florida orange groves.

Over on the opposite mainland is Titusville, of which a tourist records that the following romantic and unconventional custom of hunting prevailed as recently as 1890. Every night while he was there the proprietor of one of the largest hotels, and other sensible business men, sallied out with conch horn and dogs to pursue possums in the neighboring pine woods. They started from the center of the town, and as they went on toward the outskirts the party was constantly receiving fresh recruits, who brought with them more dogs and horns, and ere long the air was thrilled with the blasts they blew as they struck the trail of a possum.

A place farther down the Indian River with a character of its own is Rockledge. The appropriateness of the name is evident when one observes that the shore for three or four miles is coralline rock that rises abruptly to a height of from six to twelve feet.

One of the most charming streams of this vicinity is the St. Lucie River with its abounding palmettos. Many of the trees are close to the water's edge, and some have lopped down till they are half submerged and furnish ideal places for rows of turtles to sun themselves. There the turtles sit in solemn silence, but when a boat comes along they plunge beneath the surface with much splashing.

The finest fishing on the coast is to be had at Jupiter Inlet. The beach on either side of the inlet is strewn with sun-dried sponges, sea-beans, cocoanuts, and numerous strange forms of animal and vegetable life brought from the tropic seas by the Gulf Stream, whose dark waters may be seen a few miles off shore. The floating treasures are deflected to the coast by easterly gales. In this vicinity is an oyster shell mound forty feet high and a quarter of a mile long. During the Civil War adventurous blockade runners that passed out through Jupiter Inlet made flying trips to the Burmudas and the West Indies Islands. The safety with which they went and came was largely due to the fact that they had their own code of signals arranged with the inlet lighthouse people.

The next slender coast lagoon beyond the Indian River is Lake Worth, twenty-two miles long, and with an average width of a mile. It is connected with the ocean by a single shallow inlet. The normal winter temperature of the vicinity is about seventy-five degrees. The eastern shore is the favored garden region of the lake, for it is protected from ocean gales by the heavily wooded peninsula, and the marvelously rich soil fosters the growth of fruits, flowers, and vegetables. From nearly every house here a walk or trail leads across the ridge to the ocean beach, where a magnificent warm surf comes rushing in from the Gulf Stream laden with shells and marine curiosities that tempt collectors to wander for miles along the sands searching for treasures. After an easterly storm the beach is sure to be particularly interesting in its accumulation of waifs and wreckage.

Excerpt from "The East Coast and the Indian River" Highways and Byways of Florida, 1918.


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