Monday, October 9, 2017

Florida is a Strange Land, 1872

I was charmed by newspaper sketch artist Harry Fenn's account of ascending Florida's St. John's River, which ended up in Picturesque America; or, The land we live in. A delineation by pen and pencil of the mountains, rivers, lakes, forests, water-falls, shores, cañons, valleys, cities, and other picturesque features of our country, edited by William Cullen Bryant and Oliver Bell Bunce, published in 1872.
Florida is a strange land, both in its traditions and its natural features. It was the first settled of the States, and has the most genial climate of all of them; and yet the greatest part of it is still a wilderness. Its early history was one long romance of battle and massacre, and its later annals are almost equally interesting. . . .

Originally starting out for the avowed purpose of hunting the picturesque, we sailed for the mouth of the St. John's—a river that reaches into the very heart of the peninsula, and from the ill-defined shores of which you can branch off into the very wildest of this, in one sense, desolate region.
The text notes that Florida was already becoming a resort for northerners who suffered from rheumatism in the "borean blasts of our long and dreary winters." Jacksonville, the authors say, already had 5,000 inhabitants.

Among the especial resorts for invalids is Green Cove Springs, near Magnolia, famous for curing rheumatism and an hundred complaints, and composed of a series of warm sulphurous pools, in some places twenty-five feet deep. The water is very transparent, and of a pale bluish tint.
Hiring a crude steamboat they named the Flying Swan, the authors headed up the St. John's.

A sail of twenty miles along the St. John's brought us, a little before sunrise, to the mouth of the Ocklawaha River, looking scarcely wide enough to admit a skiff, much less a steamboat. As daylight increased, we found that we were passing through a dense cypress-swamp, and that the channel selected had no banks, but was indicated by "blazed" marks on the trunks of the towering trees. There was plenty of water, however, to float our craft, but it was a queer kind of navigation, for the hull of the steamer went bumping against one cypress-butt, then another suggesting to the tyro in this kind of aquatic adventure that possibly he might be wrecked, and subjected, even if he escaped a watery grave, to a miserable death through the agency of mosquitoes, buzzards, and huge alligators.

As we wound along through the dense vegetation, a picture of novel interest presented itself at every turn. We came occasionally to a spot a little elevated above the dead-water level, covered with a rank growth of lofty palmetto, the very opposite, in every respect, to those stunted, storm-blown specimens which greeted us at the mouth of the St, John's River. Here they shot up tall and slender, bearing aloft innumerable parasites. often surprising the eye with patches, of a half-mile in length, of the convolvulus, in a solid mass of beautiful blossoms.
There are many species of convolvulus, but the blossoms along the St. John's likely included the moonflower, Ipomoea alba, shown above.

Another sharp turn, and the wreck of an old dead cypress is discovered, its huge limbs covered with innumerable turkey-buzzards, which are waiting patiently for the decomposition of an alligator that some successful sportsman has shot, and left for the prey of these useful but disgusting birds. The sunshine sparkles in the spray which our awkward yet efficient craft drives from its prow, and then we enter what seems to be a cavern, where the sun never penetrates. The tree-tops interlace and the tangled vines and innumerable parasites have made an impenetrable mass over- head.
But the prominent living object to the stranger in these out-of-the-way places is the alligator, whose paradise is in the swamps of Florida. . . . It was a comical and a provoking sight to see these creatures, when indisposed to get out of our way, turn up their piggish eyes in speculative mood at the sudden interruption of a rifle-ball against their mailed sides, but all the while seemingly unconcious that any harm against their persons was intended. . . . On one occasion we fired into a herd of alligators, and the noise of two or three shots caused all but one to finally disappear. For some reason it seemed difficult to get the remaining one to move, the creature lying with its head exposed to our gaze, looking as demoniac as possible. A bullet, which struck somewhere in the vicinity of its jaws, touched its feelings, and then, with a grunt not unlike that of a hog, it buried itself in the muddy water. This unwillingness to move was then explained by the appearance of a large number of young alligators, which, in the confusion, came to the surface like so many chips. We had, without being aware of it, attacked the mother while she was protecting her nest.
In the vicinity of the alligator's nest we came upon a primitive post-office, consisting of a cigar-box, bearing the magic letters " U. S. M.," nailed upon the face of an old cypress-tree. It was a sort of central point for the swampers, where they left their soiled notes and crooked writing to be conveyed to the places of destination by "whomever came along." We, desiring to act the part of a volunteer mail-carrier for the neighborhood, peeped into the post-office, but there were no signs of letters; so our good intentions were of no practical effect.
Our little craft bumps along from one cypress-stump to another, and fetches up against a cypress-knee, as it is termed — sharp-pointed lances which grow up from the roots of the trees, seemingly to protect the trunk from too much outside concussion; glancing off, it runs into a roosting-place of innumerable cranes, or scatters the wild-ducks and huge snakes over the surface of the water. A clear patch of the sky is seen, and the bright light of a summer evening is tossing the feathery crowns of the old cypress-trees into a nimbus of glory, while innumerable paroquets, alarmed at our intrusion, scream out their fierce indignation, and then, flying away, flash upon our admiring eyes their green and golden plumage. It now begins to grow dark in earnest, and we become curious to know how our attentive pilot will safely navigate this mysterious channel in what is literally Egyptian darkness. While thus speculating, there flashes across the landscape a bright, clear light. From the most intense blackness we have a fierce, lurid glare, presenting the most extravagantly-picturesque groups of overhanging palmettos, draped with parasites and vines of all descriptions ; prominent among the latter is the scarlet trumpet-creeper, overburdened with wreaths of blossoms, and intertwined again with chaplets of purple and white convolvulus, the most minute details of the objects near being brought out in a sharp red light against the deep tone of the forest's depths. But no imagination can conceive the grotesque and weird forms which constantly force themselves on your notice as the light partially illuminates the limbs of wrecked or half- destroyed trees, which, covered with moss, or wrapped in decayed vegetation as a winding-sheet, seem huge unburied monsters, which, though dead, still throw about their arms in agony, and gaze through unmeaning eyes upon the intrusions of active, living men. . . .
A sharp contact with a palmetto knee throws around the head of our nondescript steamer, and we enter what appears to be an endless colonnade of beautifully proportioned shafts, running upward a hundred feet, roofed by pendent ornaments, suggesting the highest possible effect of Gothic architecture. The delusion was increased by the waving streamers of the Spanish moss, which here and there, in great festoons of fifty feet in length, hung down like tattered but gigantic banners, worm-eaten and mouldy, sad evidences of the hopes and passions of the distant past. So absorbing were these wonderful effects of a brilliant light upon the vegetable productions of these Florida swamps, that we had forgotten to look for the cause of this artificial glare, but, when we did, we found a faithful negro had suspended from cranes two iron cages, one on each side of the boat, into which he constantly placed unctuous pine-knots, that blazed and crackled, and turned what would otherwise have been unmeaning darkness into the most novel and exciting views of Nature that ever met our experienced eyes.
In the morning the vessel has to halt because a great tree has fallen across the river, and it takes the crew some time to clear it away with axes.
While this work was going on, which consumed some hours, we waded — we won't say ashore — but from one precarious foothold to another, until, after various unpleasant experiences — the least of which was getting wet to our waist in the black water of the swamp — we reached land, which was a few inches above the surface of the prevailing flood. We were, however, rewarded for our enterprise by suddenly coming upon two "Florida crackers," who had established a camp in a grove of the finest cypress-trees we ever saw, and were appropriating the valuable timber to the manufacture of shingles, which shingles, we were informed, are almost as indestructible as slate. These men were civil, full of character, and in their way not wanting in intelligence. How they manage to survive the discomforts of their situation is difficult to imagine, but they do exist, the mosquitoes drawing from their bodies every useless drop of blood, the low swamp malaria making the accumulation of fat an impossibility, while the dull surroundings of their life, to them most monotonous, cramp the intellect until they are almost as taciturn as the trees with which they are associated. But their hut was a very model of the picturesque, and the smoldering fire, over which their dinner-pot was cooking, sent up a wreath of blue smoke against the dark openings of the deep forest that gave a quiet charm, and a contrast of colors, difficult to sufficiently admire, and impossible to be conceived of in the mere speculations of studio life.
The next morning they woke to an amazing site:
Our rude craft was in a basin, possibly a quarter of a mile in diameter, entirely surrounded by gigantic forest-trees, which repeated themselves with the most minute fidelity in the perfectly translucent water. For sixty feet down- ward we could look, and " at this great depth see duplicated the scene of the upper world, the clearness of the water assisting rather than interfering with the vision. The bottom of this basin was silver sand, studded with eccentric formations of lime-crystals of a pale emerald tint. This we soon learned was the wonderful silver spring of which we had heard so much, which every moment throws out its thousands of gallons of water without making a bubble on the surface. The transparency of the water was marvelous. A little pearly-white shell, dropped from our hand, worked its zigzag way downward, deepening in its descent from a pale green to a rich emerald, until, finding the bottom, it seemed a gem destined forever to glisten in its silver setting. Procuring a "dug-out," we proceeded to inform ourselves of the mysteries of the spot. Noticing the faintest possible movement on the surface of the basin at a certain point, we concluded that it must be over the place where the great body of the water entered the spring. So, paddling to the spot, we dropped a stone, wrapped in a piece of white paper, into the water at the place where the movement was visible. The stone went down for some twenty-five feet, until it reached a slight projection of limestone rock, when it was suddenly, as if a feather in weight, forced upward in a curving line some fifteen feet, showing the tremendous power of the water that rushes out from the rock. 

They had reached Silver Spring, already becoming a tourist destination, shown directly above in 1886.

I wonder if that steamboat is the same one that carried Harry Fenn and his companions, or perhaps its sister ship?

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

"It was the first settled of the States, and has the most genial climate of all of them"

...pardon? What was that about a genial climate? Did people in 1872 somehow believe that 100% humidity and 80+ degrees for much of the year was pleasant?

I've spent a substantial period of time living in Florida, and I can tell you that I was often loathe to go outside because it is just so monstrously hot and muggy so very often. The only time of year it's remotely pleasant is in the "winter", which is more like a warm autumn in more northern climes.

When I contrast my time in Florida to living in places much further north, all I can think of is how much more time I enjoyed spending outside in more temperate climates, enjoying the outdoors. I can't imagine how anyone could describe an entire state of sub-tropical swamps, wetlands, prairies, and scrub pine forests as "genial" - and that's even before you add in all the unpleasant plantlife and insects infesting every corner of the place.