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St. Johns and Ocklawaha Rivers

Highways and Byways of Florida


The Indians called the St. Johns the Welaka, which means "chain of lakes," and which very accurately describes the stream. When it was discovered by the French, who made it a welcome harbor on the first day of May, 1562, they named it in honor of that month, the River of May. The Spaniards called it the San Mateo (St. Matthew) and afterward San Juan (St. John). It is the one large river of Florida. Indeed, in its lower course it is one of the widest of American rivers, and resembles an arm of the sea. It is one of the few rivers on the continent that run north. For seventy-five miles between Palatka and Jacksonville it is never less than one mile wide, and in places attains a breadth of six miles. In the final stretch of fifteen miles below Jacksonville it spreads over extensive marshes, but is comparatively narrow where it joins the sea.

The St. Johns rises in Saw Grass Lake on the borders of the Everglades, not a dozen miles from the east coast. The water of the upper river is beautifully pure and transparent, but below Sanford it is a dark muddy stream which makes its sluggish way through an interminable succession of swamps. So slight is the fall that the brackish tides are perceptible for a hundred miles above the mouth.

For over two centuries after the Spanish established themselves in Florida the St. Johns was practically the only avenue of travel to the interior of the peninsula. Vessels drawing five feet can ascend it about two hundred and thirty miles, and then are only seven miles from the tide water of the Indian River. The St. Johns affords innumerable attractions to sportsmen' yachtsmen, and fishermen to indulge in their favorite pastime. It is enticing and tricksy for sailing craft, for it starts you out with all manner of zephyrs until you get into the very middle, several miles from land on either side, when down goes your limp sail, and the breeze is off on some other errand, leaving you to your reflections.

The shallows are full of fish, and you may sometimes see mullet leap from the river surface six feet into the air, gleaming like silver in the sunshine.

At Jacksonville the river makes a sharp turn to the eastward. Long before the advent of Europeans this elbow of the river formed a natural rendezvous for tribal, war, and hunting expeditions. An early English name for it was Cows Ford. When Florida was under British rule, what was called the King's Road was built north and south from St. Augustine, and this crossed the St. Johns at Cows Ford.

In 1816 Lewis Z. Hogans, a settler here on the south side of the river, married a Spanish widow, who held a grant of two hundred acres of land on the present site of Jacksonville. After that he made his home on her property. A little later a ferry was established, and in 1820 an inn was opened. Two years more passed, and streets were laid out and a town government organized. In 1833 the place was named in honor of General Andrew Jackson, who was governor of Florida for a time after it was acquired by the United States. During the Seminole War Jacksonville became a place of refuge, blockhouses were erected, and a garrison was maintained there.

A description of the city in 1855 informs us that it had a population of less than two thousand. Its streets were of deep soft sand, but broad and regular. Fine residences were few, and not much attention was paid to flowers or lawns. Most of the dwellers rooted out the grass so that snakes would be less likely to lurk in the yards. There were two or three groves of oaks and magnolias in the place, and a swamp in which the water was several feet deep in spots. The post office was a little ten by twelve wooden structure in which the postmaster conducted a jewelry business. Two mails arrived each week, one from Savannah, and one from Charleston, both by boat. These boats and a stage twice a week to Tallahassee were the only public conveniences for coming to, or leaving, the city.

There was a Masonic Hall and an Odd Fellows Hall. The method used to notify the public when a meeting was to be held in one of these halls was for an official to go to an open window and blow a horn. You can judge that the city was not extensive, for the people could all hear the tooting.

Security at night was secured by two patrolmen who were selected by the marshal each day from the male citizens to serve from eight o'clock in the evening to six in the morning. It was their duty to arrest every colored person who was found away from home without a pass from owner or employer. The place where those arrested were lodged was a small building called "the jug." In the morning they were brought before the mayor, fined, and released.

Several schooners were often at the wharves taking on lumber. A city boat towed many logs from both up and down the river. The captain usually drew near port about midnight, and let every one know he was coming, whether they wished that information or not, by sounding his whistle all the time for the last few miles until he reached his landing.

Jacksonville's first railroad, which extended fifty miles to Alligator, now Lake City, was begun in 1857. was completed in March, three years later, when an excursion was given the people of Jacksonville to the western terminal. A big crowd went, there was a barbecue and speeches, and they had a grand time. About a week later the railroad gave the Lake City people an excursion to Jacksonville, and a maiden of the former place, bearing a pitcher of water from Lake De Soto at her end of the railroad, mingled it with a pitcher of water from the St. Johns River carried by a Jacksonville lass.

At the beginning of the Civil War lumbering had become an important industry in the vicinity, and Jacksonville was without a rival in its shipment of Florida produce. A small Confederate force held the city until March, 1862, when three United States gunboats and several lesser vessels came up the river. The Confederates retreated to the interior, and the place was peacefully surrendered by the city authorities. According to the Federals they found many smoldering ruins of mills and other buildings, but the Confederates declared that this destruction was the work of the invaders. Announcement was made that the place would be permanently held by the national forces, and a meeting of citizens repudiated the ordinance of secession. Yet in less than a month the troops were withdrawn. Many of the inhabitants who had declared their allegiance to the Union feared to remain, and were given transportation to the North.

In the autumn Jacksonville was again occupied for a short time by the Federals. They came for a third time early the following spring. The troops on this occasion were negroes who had lately been slaves. Three transports convoyed by a gunboat brought them up the river. There was no opposition, and when the transports made fast to the wharves the men jumped ashore without waiting for the gang-plank. The townspeople were much alarmed by the arrival of the negro soldiers, but no serious trouble developed.

A considerable body of Confederates was encamped about eight miles to the westward. One day they mounted a gun on a platform car and ran it down the track within range of the city. Several buildings were struck by shells from the gun. The Federal commander went out with a reconnoitering party and lost a number of men in a brush with the enemy. After a stay of only three weeks the Union troops again abandoned the city. In the confusion of departure a mania for firing buildings developed among the stragglers and camp followers. The fleet steamed away leaving the place in flames, which, fanned by a high wind, almost destroyed the town.

In February, 1864, the Federals were back, this time with ten thousand troops, and the intention to secure complete control of the peninsula by marching along the railroad from Jacksonville to Tallahassee. The Confederates had promptly evacuated the former place and withdrawn fifty miles west to the vicinity of Olustee. There they threw up earthwork defenses where the railroad was crossed by a swampy creek with a lake on one side and piney woods on the other. Protracted rains had filled the lowlands with water so that they were nearly impassable. At noon on the 20th of the month the Federal advance neared Olustee and marched into a trap. The mud and water that were in the woods for miles along the railroad, and the jungle of palmetto scrub had caused the omission of any adequate scouting, and the first notice the Federals had of danger was a scathing discharge of bullets from an invisible foe. A line of battle was formed, and a spirited fire was returned, but it was impossible to get at the enemy on account of the morass. Regiment after regiment moved forward, exhausted its ammunition into the screen of pine and palmetto, and fell back leaving a heavy percentage of dead and dying. Late in the afternoon the Confederates assumed the offensive, and the Federals retreated. The victors had captured five hundred prisoners and two thousand small-arms, and inflicted a loss in killed, wounded, and missing of a fifth of their opponent's men. This was the most important Florida battle in the war. The whole field of action can be seen from the car window a mile east of Olustee.

Jacksonville, whose inhabitants now numbered scarcely more than one hundred, remained in Union hands until peace was declared. Its growth since has been notably rapid. It prospers because of its admirable location, with railroads and steamship lines that make it the gateway to the larger part of the state. The greatest event in its recent history was a terrible conflagration in May, 1901, that wiped out the principal part of it. Six hundred and fifty acres were burned over, and nearly three thousand buildings destroyed, entailing a property loss of fifteen million dollars. But a much finer city has arisen from the ashes, and it has become the Florida metropolis with a population that is nearing one hundred thousand. It is the largest orange market in the world. The streets are pleasantly shaded by immense live oaks and other trees. There are a number of bathing resorts on the Atlantic coast within reach of the city, and among its suburban attractions is an ostrich farm.

When one starts from Jacksonville on a voyage up the river he soon leaves behind the city uproar, the skyscrapers and drawbridges and shipping, and is amid scenery that has changed little from the days before the white men came, when the waters of the river were navigated only by the picturesque Indian dugouts fashioned by fire and hatchet from a single cypress log. At Jacksonville the St. Johns is three miles wide, and as far as Palatka it continues so broad that the shores as seen from the steamer present no very distinctive features.

Back of the swamps that border the stream is higher ground where are attractive villages, groves, and farms, but these are for the most part beyond the voyager's sight. Occasionally he gets a glimpse of a road that comes down through the sand from a sub-tropical wilderness that is almost primeval. The road ends at a long pier that reaches out across the shallows to where there is deep water., which is only near the middle of the stream.

Some years ago "A Florida Housekeeper" wrote to a New York newspaper to enlighten the thousands of people who each year go up and down the river and return North with very little more idea of Florida than they had when they came from their homes. Her own home was only a stone's throw back from the borders of the stream. She says:

"Our house is on a shell mound a good many feet above the water level. These shell mounds are frequent on the river. Our house is very comfortable, and we live a pleasant life. Cattle can be bought for fifteen dollars a head, and live on the food in the woods. Our cattle are branded and range for twenty miles. We keep the calves at home, and the cows come to them every evening. We have about sixty cattle, and once in two or three weeks we kill one of them. We eat some of the beef while fresh, and corn the rest. Chickens we get for thirty cents each. About once a week our man kills a wild turkey in the woods near the house. About once in two weeks some one of the household shoots a deer, and we have venison. Early in the morning we send a man with a cast net to the river, and he catches about twenty fish. Our hogs number about thirty. A grown pig is worth four dollars. They range the woods and feed on what they find. Besides the above list of meats we have quail and ducks, pigeons, and bear's meat. Bears sometimes help themselves to one or two of our pigs.

"We had from our garden last year Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, cabbages, lettuce, tomatoes, peas, turnips, and beets, which the soil yielded with very little trouble and expense. We also had figs, oranges, lemons and citrons, grapes and blackberries, huckleberries, watermelons, peaches, and bananas. We have our own corn and hominy, also our own syrup of sugarcane, and our own rice. We have a mule to plough and work, and we have a horse for family use. We have our watch dog, and ten hunting dogs which keep us in venison and game. We have colored servants, and they do well. Pine wood for house fires, and oak for cooking in a stove is all picked up on the place. We sail and drive and walk and are busy early and late.

"I heard a Northern party remark that they had seen no flowers in Florida but pumpkin blossoms. I suppose some people go through the world with their eyes shut; or what shall I suppose with flowers all about me?"

If you are in a village near the St. Johns in the early morning you are likely to hear the tinkle of cowbells on the street, and you will see the scrub cows of the place rambling toward the river. There they wade out perhaps several hundred yards into water as deep as permits them to stand without swimming. They are after the tender leafage of aquatic plants. When they have satisfied their appetites they return to the shore and repose beneath the live oaks chewing the cud of contentment. The cows are particularly fond of water hyacinths, and keep them close cropped along the borders of such parts of the stream as they frequent.

These plants everywhere line the river bank, and little green rafts of them are continually floating down the stream. They are equipped with air bulbs that enable them to keep afloat even when separated from their moorings. When they blossom in the spring they make the margins of the broad river a blue sheen of dainty color. On the creeks where they are undisturbed by browsing cattle, or by boats, they crowd the surface from shore to shore with serried ranks of their green air bulbs, and effectually halt all navigation. They are capable of growing on marshy land beside the streams, but for the most part are in the water where they attain their largest size when floating without being attached to the bottom. The rosettes formed by the blossoms sometimes reach up two feet above the water. Within a few years after they had been introduced on the St. Johns for the purpose of beautifying the stream they threatened to render navigation on the river impossible. Great masses of the plants collected along the shores and were shifted by wind and current until they formed obstructions extending over its entire breadth, through which even steamers could not penetrate.

As one goes up the river, Mandarin, fifteen miles from Jacksonville, is exceptionally interesting because here Harriet Beecher Stowe made her winter home from 1868 to 1884- She came south to escape the bitter New England weather, and to help educate the colored people whom she had done so much to set free. First she hired an old plantation on the west side of the St. Johns near the present village Of Orange Park and established her son Frederick there as a cotton planter. But raising cotton was not a business success and was abandoned after a two years' trial.

Meanwhile, she had been attracted by the charms of Mandarin on the other side of the river. Many years before, an English colony had settled there in the jungle and started orange groves. In a short time the scent of the waxy white orange blossoms filled the air each spring with rich perfume, and toward the year's end the trees were decked with golden fruit. Slender lines of docks were built far out across the river shallows to where ships could take on cargoes of the precious harvest for Northern ports. Along the lanes were hedgerows, the gardens bloomed with English roses and lilies and violets, and ivy climbed over the, porches. Mrs. Stowe bought a place containing two hundred acres. On it was a comfortable cottage, five large date palms, an olive tree in full bearing, and a fine orange grove of one hundred and fifteen trees that in a recent year had yielded fruit that sold on the wharf for two thousand dollars. The story-and-a-half dwelling stood on a bluff overlooking the St. Johns, which is five miles broad at this point. It nestled in the shade of a grove of superb moss-hung live oaks, round one of which the front piaSt. Johns and Ocklawaha Riversa was built. Everywhere about were flowers and singing birds. Northern sightseers, attracted by Mrs. Stowe's fame, would sometimes land at the wharf, roam over the place, pick flowers, and peer into the house through the doors and windows.

There was no railroad nearer than Jacksonville, and the family were chiefly dependent on the river steamers for keeping in touch with the rest of the world. When they wanted to make a land trip they would go in an old wagon drawn by a mule, a worn-out patriarch named Fly. If any of the darky tribe were behind him he would prick up his cars and trot at a decent pace. But with the white women and girls in the vehicle he was obstinately determined not to put one foot before the other one bit faster than he was actually forced to do. Down would flop his ears, down went his head, and he crept along contemplatively "looking for all the world like a very rough dilapidated old hair trunk in a state of locomotion." However, there was one accomplishment in which no mule could have been better versed than was Fly-he could be trusted to stand for any length of time without an attempt to move.

Mandarin prospered until 1886. One noon in February of that year the mercury stood at eighty. Winter seemed to be past, and the languorous spring had apparently arrived. In mid-afternoon clouds drifted up from the southwest, and there was much rain. The weather turned chilly, and the chill increased until late in the day the last of the rain that fell on the tree foliage became icicles. These icicles swayed and tinkled in the northwest wind all night, and before morning the thermometer had registered fifteen degrees above zero. A thousand acres of orange trees at Mandarin were frozen, trunk and branches. But the trees started up from the roots, and the more courageous colonists nursed their orchards back into bearing, only to have them cut to the ground by frost a second time about ten years after the other freeze. Most of the people moved away, and for a long time tenantless houses and gardens overgrown by jungle were numerous in the vicinity. Mrs. Stowe's house was torn down, and its very foundations have been obliterated by the tangle of wild verdure which in that climate overuns everything so quickly when not repressed. But the live oaks with their towering rounded heads still remain.

Not much more than a dozen miles south of Mandarin is Green Cove Springs. The spring that has made the place famous is one that discharges three thousand gallons every minute at a temperature of seventy-eight degrees the year round. The wonderful purity of the water and its green mysterious depths and reflections are a source of never-ending pleasure.

At the head of deep water navigation is Palatka, one of the most important towns of the interior of the state. The river here is one mile broad, and is crossed by the only vehicle bridge in its entire length. There was formerly published at Palatka a newspaper which was so noted for its alligator stories that the editor was universally known as "Alligator Pratt."

Near the town is a two thousand acre camphor plantation, the only one in the United States. The camphor gum is extracted from the leaves and twigs.

South of Palatka the river is comparatively narrow and swift, and so crooked that the distance is twice that by rail. The trees on the banks and the flourishing and unfamiliar vegetation, and the frequent towns and villages are now close enough at hand to be interesting. Sanford, which is probably the best known of all the places on this part of the river, is becoming celebrated as "The Celery City." When a traveler steps off a train there in April he is accosted by a smiling young woman who says, "Won't you try some of our celery?" and proffers a fragrant, tempting stalk or two with the remark, We are very proud of the celery we grow here, and want all strangers to know how good it is."

The waters of the upper river and of the numerous lakes it links together are teeming with bass, pickerel, perch, and other varieties of fish; and in the cooler part of the year they are the resort of myriads of ducks and snipe. The virgin forests that stretch away on either side abound in quail, turkey, and deer, and contain now and then a bear, wild cat, and panther.

Palatka is the starting-point of the Ocklawaha steamers. They go south twenty-five miles, then turn west and enter the old forests of the "dark crooked water," which is what the name of the stream means in English. The journey ends at Silver Springs, one hundred and ten miles farther on. Enthusiasts call the Ocklawaha "the sweetest water-lane in the world," and the voyage through this liquid silent forest aisle is full of weird interest. Certainly no trip to Florida is complete which does not include an outing on this romantic stream with its ever-changing scenes and its tonic air laden with the balsamic odors of the forest. The voyage is a visit to fairyland. A native of Vermont cleared the river of fallen trees, snags, and other obstructions and began to make the Ocklawaha trip with passenger steamboats at the close of the Civil War. Before that nothing larger than barges propelled by poles navigated the stream.

As the river winds along, it almost doubles on itself in places. Often it is so narrow that it is no more than a creek, and the passengers wonder if the boat will not be obliged to retreat. But the vessel has been built to overcome these difficulties, and while having no more than the deck dimensions of a tug makes up in height what she lacks in length and width. Besides she has a peculiar recessed stern wheel, and double steering gear. She turns and twists with the channel, now approaching this shore and now that, and sometimes running so close to the trees that the branches flap against the people in the more exposed deck positions. You can seldom see more than a few hundred yards ahead, but each turn reveals some new attraction. More than nine-tenths of the voyage is through a dense growth of partly submerged cypress, and only at a few points does dry land approach the channel, but the edges of the swift deep stream are defined by the flowers and leaves of aquatic plants, among which are the familiar lilies, "sitting on their round lily-pads like white queens on green thrones."

One annoyance to sensitive persons on the old-time passenger boats was the constant firing of sportmen's guns. These guns were in the hands of men who seemed to think that the chief end of man is to shoot something. They were not shooting to procure food or fur or feathers, for the boat kept on its way, and they secured nothing that they hit. It was an indiscriminate killing and maiming without a particle of sympathy for the animals of that paradise through which the boat was passing. The fusillade spared no living thing that showed itself. If a bird was hit and hung head downward from a limb with a broken wing, the deed was greeted with a chorus of laughter. If an alligator was struck the applause redoubled, and the creature's dying agonies were found extremely diverting. Several shooting accidents to passengers, one of which resulted fatally, at last compelled a reform of the abuse.

Animal life along the river had been nearly exterminated, but since the use of firearms has been prohibited the wild creatures of the swamps have become quite fearless. You will see herons, eagles, and other denizens of the watery forest, and sometimes a timid deer. On the partly submerged trunks of trees are numerous turtles sunning themselves. There they sit in solemn, silent rows until the steamer draws near, and then they plunge into the water and swim away under the surface. But the creature which arouses the most interest is the alligator. To lie all day on a log or on the bank basking in the sunshine seems to be the ideal of its existence. The hotter the day the more alligators are visible. Several are sure to be seen on any day when the weather is warm, and half a hundred are sighted sometimes. The largest are fully twelve feet long. Most of them slide into the water with surprising nimbleness as the boat approaches, but there are those who refuse to budge.

Besides furnishing pleasure to tourists, the Ocklawaha is something of a commercial highway. From far back on the gently rising uplands that lie beyond the swampy shores of the river come flatboats loaded to the water's edge with crates of oranges. They are propelled down dark lagoons and sinuous creeks till they arrive at the river, where the accommodating steamer stops to take their freight on board. You may also encounter a raft that is being navigated to a sawmill by a couple of negroes. At long intervals there is a clearing with orange groves and a house or two, and there are remains of former lumber camps, and a few landings where you may see an occasional human being.

The latter part of the Ocklawaha journey is made at night, and it is then that the river is seen most impressively after a fire of pine knots has been kindled in a big iron box on the top of the pilot-house. This blazes finely, and the light from the resinous yellow flames advances up the dark sinuosities of the stream in a manner that is enchantingly mysterious. The foliage which it touches is magically green, the festooning mosses are transformed to silvered garlands, the tree trunks turn to corrugated gold, and the black slimy stumps become jeweled pillars. When the fire dies down a little the distant scenery becomes indistinct and shadowy, and the great trees are pallid and ghostly. Then fresh knots are thrown in, the fire blazes up, and again the winding forest walls are brightly lighted amid the impenetrable surrounding mirk, while everything is reflected in the smooth water.

It is hard enough for the boat to twist and squeeze herself along the river in broad daylight, and navigation is doubly difficult at night. Sometimes there is a scraping of limbs and twigs along the sides of the vessel, and she halts with a sudden thump. A little bell tinkles, and the motion of the engine ceases. In rounding a sharp curve the boat has run her nose smash into the bank. Then the colored deck hands get busy with their poles, and push until the bow is swung out into the stream. Again the wheel turns, and the little vessel puffs calmly onward. The river damp wraps all things in grateful coolness, and the boat glides forward into filmy mists out of which fly startled birds into the bright light, and after an instant of illuminated flight vanish into the darkness. Can you wonder that some travelers remain on deck until morning to enjoy the fascinating revelation of the marvels of "The Mysterious River" as the vessel swings on around the curves through the mazes of this Southern forest?

The last nine miles of the voyage is on Silver Spring Run, and the change from the dark brown water of the Ocklawaha to the crystal transparency of the Run is almost startling. The Run has a white bottom, and, though very deep, the darting fish and the waterweeds are revealed with amazing clearness. For much of the way on either side the shores are grassy levels beyond which is cypress and oak woodland. The journey ends in the diminutive lake of Silver Springs. These springs are one of the wonders of the world. They are the outlet of an underground river that daily discharges three hundred million gallons of water, and are contained in a number of limestone basins. The largest basin is about eighty-five feet deep by two hundred wide. The water rushes upward through dark fissures in the rock, keeping the beds of white sand at the bottom of the springs in constant agitation. It is hard water and not good to drink, but so clear that the bottom is distinctly visible. If you row out on the lake you marvel that such an unseeable water can support anything so substantial as the boat you are in. It seems more like atmosphere than water, and you fancy that you could walk about down below and not get wet. Every pebble and aquatic plant you glide over is invested with prismatic brightness, and a fish near the bottom will cast a shadow when the sun is shining.

These are the most famous springs in Florida, perhaps because they are the most accessible, for there are others that are not unworthy rivals, each with some charm peculiar to itself that leaves the visitor in doubt as to which should be ranked first in beauty. There are five principal openings through which the Silver Springs issue near the spring head. Others occur at intervals along the Run. At one of them, known as "The Boneyard," about two miles down the stream, have been discovered the bones of whales and the petrified remains of a marine monster ninety feet long and five feet in diameter. Along the river are many Indian mounds that contain ornamental and useful implements of stone and copper.

Twenty miles west of Ocala is the charming Blue Spring, three hundred and fifty feet wide. It is surrounded by an amphitheater of bluffs which are covered with a fine growth of magnolia, hickory, live oak, and other trees. The stranger who looks into its clear bluish water from the bank cannot be convinced that the basin is deeper than three or four feet. A favorite pastime among the newly-arrived is to estimate the depth, and then paddle out and reach down with an oar. The actual depth is at least twenty-five feet. Much of the spring's peculiar beauty is derived from the wonderful vegetation that grows in endless variety of color and form along the rocky dykes and sand-bars of the bottom. To float on the invisible water above those fairy bowers is an experience never to be forgotten.

The water flows away in a considerable stream that can be descended by either steam-launch or row-boat, six miles, to Dunnellon. The voyage is a series of surprises. At intervals there are deep rocky chasms through which volumes of water force their way upward, and other springs burst from the banks. Some of the latter are utilized to turn water-wheels. The lower reaches of the stream are bordered by a cypress swamp, and are frequented by garfish, turtles, and alligators.

An excerpt from "The Stately St. Johns and the Beautiful Ocklawaha" Highways and Byways of Florida by Cliffton Johnson. Published 1918 by the Macmillan Company, New York.


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