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East Coast of Florida

Highways & Byways of Florida


The Florida east coast is one of the most noteworthy of the world's playgrounds. Thither go tens of thousands of winter tourists every year, and thither go a host of families who have built cottages, mansions, and palaces in which they make their homes during the colder months. Such dwellings line the coast almost continuously from one end to the other.

The chief attraction is climate. The winter is mild, foggy or rainy days are exceptional, sunshine predominates, and there is sea bathing the year through. Even the summers are tolerable. They are long, to be sure, but the heat is not so extreme as one would expect, and the nights are seldom uncomfortable.

A peculiar feature of the coast is that the mainland nearly everywhere lies back of salt water lagoons and a series of narrow islands that protect it from the ocean's rude waves and wild winds, and afford for small craft an inside route of sheltered navigation. One of the few stretches of coast that abut directly on the sea is the forty miles between the mouth of the St Johns River and St. Augustine Inlet. It is an unbroken beach forty miles long, backed by scrub-covered sandhills, and strewn with the wreckage of centuries. For walking, driving, or automobiling no roadway made by human hands can excel this superb beach during the hours when the tide is not at its highest.

But the most famous piece of Florida beach is one of similar length extending from Matanzas Inlet to Mosquito Inlet, particularly the southern half beyond Ormond. It is the hardest, smoothest, broadest beach imaginable. During the winter it is traversed by motor vehicles of all kinds, and here the racing cars break the world's speed records. It makes an ideal roadway, and this is renewed twice daily by the outgoing tide. A peculiar pleasure vehicle used on the beach is the "sand-sailer." It resembles an ice yacht on wheels. The beach is on the ocean side of a narrow peninsula that is partly clothed with hardwood forest, and partly with the ordinary beach growth of saw palmetto. On the other side is a slender shallow arm of the sea about twenty-five miles long known as the Halifax River. This is the home of billions of oysters, and on these the aborigines fed from time immemorial as is evidenced by the great heaps of shells found along the banks. Some of the heaps are miniature hills, and even though shells from the mounds have been employed in making scores of miles of roadway there has been no applicable diminution in the supply. Such mounds are distributed very evenly along the greater length of the eastern seaboard. The shells are of various sorts, but those of oysters predominate, and mingled sparsely with the shells are bones of fish and fowl, of turtle, alligator, and deer.

That charming stream, the Tomoka River, joins the Halifax at Ormond. It affords a delightful excursion by power launch or by the daily steamer. The navigable portion winds inland for a dozen miles in long easy curves between wooded banks whence palmettos and live oaks reach out from the jungle over the water. An occasional alligator will be sighted on the shore.

A little below Ormond is another well-known resort town, Daytona, which stands on a hammock ridge that averages two miles wide and stretches southerly for sixty miles.

A short distance south of Mosquito Inlet is New Smyrna, the oldest settlement on the Atlantic coast south of St. Augustine. Here are numerous ruins attributed to the Spaniards, but concerning which nothing definite is known. Authentic history begins in 1767 when Dr. Andrew Turnbull, an English gentleman of fortune, undertook the task of draining the low hammocks back of New Smyrna and making their rich soil fit for cultivation. He organized a syndicate, procured a grant of sixty thousand acres, and then sailed to the Mediterranean where he induced a large number of families, most of them dwellers on the Spanish island of Minorca, to emigrate to Florida. In all, the colonists numbered fifteen hundred. Free transportation, good food, and clothing were guaranteed, and if any were dissatisfied at the end of six months they were to be sent home. Those who remained and worked for three years were to receive fifty acres for each family and twenty-five acres for each child. The voyage proved long, and many died on the passage, but the survivors began work courageously. They built palmetto huts for the approaching winter and planted crops that yielded excellent returns in early spring. On one of the shell mounds Turnbull erected his "castle," which is said to have been a solid structure capable of effective defense. As soon as he made certain that the colony was secure against hunger, he planted indigo. He had three thousand acres of it in 1772.

Success seemed assured, but the management of affairs was left to agents who inaugurated a system of oppression that developed into slavery. Only two years after the colonists came, there was an insurrection on account of the severe punishments inflicted, and a number of the dissatisfied attempted to escape. They seized several small craft, fitted them out from the company's stores, and were about to embark for Havana when a detachment of English soldiers appeared and intercepted the flight. The leaders were arrested and convicted of various alleged crimes. One was found guilty of shooting a cow, an offense at that time punishable by death. Altogether five were judged to merit the death penalty, but two were pardoned, and a third was offered clemency on condition that he act as executioner. To quote the account of one of the jurors: "Long and obstinate was the struggle in this man's mind. He repeatedly called out that he chose to die rather than be the executioner of his friends in distress. At length the entreaties of the victims themselves encouraged him to act. Now we beheld a man, thus compelled, take leave of his friends in the most moving manner, kissing them the moment before he committed them to an ignominious death." By 1776 only six hundred of the colonists were left. They held secret meetings, and a plan was concocted for getting relief. Three of the bolder spirits obtained a leave of absence to catch turtles. But instead they tramped up the coast, swam Matanzas Inlet, and reached St. Augustine. There they appealed to the governor to protect their countrymen if they came thither. This he agreed to do, and they made their way back to New Smyrna. The able-bodied men provided themselves with wooden spears, rations were packed for three days, and with the women and children in the center the six hundred began their march. So secretly was all this managed that they had proceeded several miles before their departure was discovered. No attempt was made to forcibly detain them, and they arrived safely at St. Augustine and reported to the governor. He had them provided with food, lands were assigned them, and they were soon an influential element in the population of the old town. Some returned later to New Smyrna where their descendants are still to be found.

The drainage canals, half overgrown trenches, and crumbling ruins of stone sugar mills and indigo vats are all that now remain of Turnbull's enterprise. For nearly a generation the place was abandoned, but at length a few pioneers made a new start, and by 1835 some degree of prosperity had been attained. Then came the Seminole War, and the inhabitants were obliged to seek safety easterly across the Hillsboro River and see their homes burned behind them. Even after the war Indian alarms continued so frequent that in 1860 barely twenty-five families were living within the present limits of the place.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Mosquito Inlet offered a tempting haven for blockade-runners, and cotton was stored in readiness for them on what has since been known as the Cotton-shed Hammock. Two United States gunboats came to the inlet to break up the rendezvous in March, 1862. A boat expedition of forty-three men was sent to reconnoiter, The boats were fired on from an earthwork near the town, and fifteen of the men were either killed or wounded. The survivors took to cover on shore and rejoined their ships after nightfall. This rebuff did not prevent the destruction of all buildings, wharves, and the like that would be of service to blockade-runners.

On the Cotton-shed Hammock is a piece of truly magnificent woodland-live oaks, magnolias, palmettos, sweet gums, maples, and hickories, with here and there a long-leaved pine overtopping all the rest. This wood is given a peculiar tropical character, both by the trees themselves and by the profusion of hanging moss, ferns, and vines that cling to them. The ferns completely cover the upper surface of many of the larger branches, while the huge vines twist about the trunks or are connected with the tree-tops direct from the ground. So dense are the growths on some of the Florida hammocks, that, though seldom of great extent, one can fancy himself in the midst of limitless forest. It may be well to explain that the word hammock means land whereon hard wood grows. Such a growth indicates a soil of greater depth and containing more humus than that of the flatwoods or pinelands, and therefore more suitable for cultivation.

The region offers fine fishing, hunting, boating, and bathing, and has the added attraction of extensive orange groves. The ocean beach here is without a break for one hundred and thirty miles to the south.

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


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