The Underground History of Florida Caverns State Park

For the past 74 years, the interpretive cave tours available at the Florida Caverns State Park have made the site one of the Sunshine State’s most unique attractions. Situated about one hour west of Tallahassee in Marianna near the Chipola River, the shimmering limestone caverns of northwest Florida regularly dazzle visitors. Aside from their obvious physical allure, the history of the Florida Caverns further illuminates the evolving social, economic, and environmental landscape of the state. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) first developed the caves into a public tourist destination in the late 1930s, but humans have interacted with some of the caverns for much longer. Since officially opening to the public in 1942, the Florida Park Service has dutifully maintained the caverns. As a result of these conservation efforts, generations of spelunkers, hikers, and sightseers have relished the opportunity to  explore the curiosities of Florida’s underground world.

Colored lights give added dimension to the cave formations at Florida Caverns State Park, 2016.

Colored lights give added dimension to the cave formations in the “Cathedral Room” at Florida Caverns State Park, 2016.

The splendid mineral silhouettes inside the Florida Caverns did not form over a matter of years, decades, or even centuries. Rather, they are the result of 38 million years of falling sea-levels, which left previously submerged shells, coral, and sediment in the open air to harden into limestone. For the next several hundred thousand years, droplets of acidic rainwater passed through the ceiling of the porous limestone cave, and over time minerals bunched into icicle-like formations called stalactites. As the stalactites hung from the cavern’s top, water slowly trickled down to create mineral spires, known as stalagmites, on the cavern floor. In many rooms and hallways, the stalactites and stalagmites have joined to form full columns. Glistening draperies, soda straws, and ribbons complement the proliferation of stalactites and stalagmites, creating a distinct living environment for the cave-dwelling flora and fauna.

View of stalactites and stalagmites inside the Florida Caverns. The lowest point in the caverns is 65 feet below sea level, while the highest point is 125 feet above sea level. The temperature in the caverns hovers around 65 degrees at all times, regardless of seasonal fluctuations. Blind salamanders, crayfish, and gray bats live among the underground limestone formations.

View of stalactites and stalagmites inside the Florida Caverns. The lowest point in the caverns is 65 feet below sea level, while the highest point is 125 feet above sea level. The temperature in the caverns hovers around 65 degrees Fahrenheit at all times, regardless of seasonal fluctuations. Blind salamanders, crayfish, and gray bats live among the underground limestone formations.

Archaeological discoveries of pottery sherds and mammoth footprints in several of the caverns predate European settlement in North America. But the site factors into Florida’s more recent history, too. In 1674, for example, Spanish missionary Friar Barreda allegedly delivered a Christian sermon amid the backdrop of the underground wonderland. Prevailing folklore also suggests a group of Seminoles trying to escape Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal expeditions of the early 19th century took refuge in the caverns. Further, the secluded underground openings have reportedly sheltered outlaws, runaways, and mischievous teenagers for centuries.

Program from services commemorating the 274th anniversary of the first Christian services held at the Florida Caverns in Marianna. Florida Park Service Public Relations Files (S. 1951), Folder 62, State Archives of Florida.

Program from services commemorating the 274th anniversary of the first Christian services held at the Florida Caverns in Marianna, 1947. Florida Park Service public relations and historical files (S. 1951), Box 1, State Archives of Florida.

The Florida Caverns remained one of the state’s best kept secrets until the 1930s, when the economic downturn of the Great Depression precipitated the expansion and creation of state and national parks. After President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, his administration proposed a “new deal” for United States economy, enacting a series of sweeping measures intended to relieve the financial strain of some 12 million jobless Americans, or nearly a quarter of the workforce. One of those programs was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Nicknamed “Roosevelt’s Tree Army,” the CCC, which fell under the operation of the Florida Board of Forestry, was designed to conduct conservation work, including state park construction, while simultaneously providing employment, education, and training to enrollees. State forest officials spied commercial potential in expanding the state park system, and would ultimately utilize federally funded CCC labor to realize that vision. “They [tourists] soon tire of the races, nightclubs, and man-made recreation. They sit in the lobbies of our hotels wondering what to do with themselves. If a park system were shown on the highway maps and their wonders described in the literature of a state department, the tourists would flock to parks by the thousands,” wrote forester Harry Lee Baker to the Florida State Planning Board in 1934. One year later, the Florida Legislature created the Florida Park Service (FPS), an agency overseen by the Florida Board of Forestry. The FPS would operate in tandem with both the National Park Service and the Internal Improvement Fund. By the close of 1935, seven of Florida’s original state parks came under the control of the FPS, including the Florida Caverns.

CCC workers construct mess hall at the Oleno forestry training camp in Columbia County, Florida, 1935. With the establishment of the Florida Park Service, thousands of unemployed Floridians were put to work by the CCC to develop state parks for public use.

CCC workers construct mess hall at the Oleno forestry training camp in Columbia County, Florida, 1935. With the establishment of the Florida Park Service, the CCC put thousands  of unemployed Floridians to work developing state parks for public use.

In order to make the newly discovered series of caves accessible to tourists, CCC enrollees were paid approximately one dollar per day to work on the project from 1938 to 1942.  Underground, the “gopher gang” removed hundreds of tons of soil and rock to create usable pathways and clearings large enough for people to walk through, while also installing a light and trail system to guide visitors through the caves. Above ground, CCC workers helped construct a visitor center, fish hatchery, and nine-hole golf course. With the onset of America’s involvement in World War II, the federal government discontinued the CCC, and work on the caverns project abruptly stopped. In 1942, the 1,300 acre Florida Caverns State Park officially debuted to the public, charging 72 cents for general admission.

Golfers in play on the Florida Caverns Golf Course, 1947.

Golfers play on the Florida Caverns Golf Course, 1947.

Thousands of visitors descended into the bowels of the “underground wonderland” during its first years of operation. The caves soon emerged as a popular Sunshine State tourist destination during and after WWII. As Florida’s total population more than doubled between 1940 to 1960, the FPS proposed several improvements and expansions to the state park to accommodate more visitors. No expansion issue was more sensitive, however, than the subject of segregated park restrooms for blacks and whites. A reflection of the separate and unequal Jim Crow South, the FPS designed the state parks system in the 1930s with only whites in mind–admission fares necessarily excluded African-Americans.  However, the booming wartime economy of the early 1940s opened more economic opportunity to black Floridians, and in turn, lined their pockets with more disposable income to spend on recreation. Florida Caverns Superintendent Clarence Simpson observed the changing demographic of visitors and agreed that “they [African-Americans] should be given the same service that we accord to anyone else,” but warned that it would be “a grave mistake [to] allow them to use the same rest room.” Segregated bathroom facilities were eventually built for black patrons, and segregation persisted at all of Florida’s state parks until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 effectively outlawed the practice.

Letter dated May 25, 1943 from Superintendent of Florida Caverns, J. Clarence Simpson to FPS Director Lewis Scoggin regarding segregated bathroom facilities. Florida State Parks project files (S. 1270), Box 1, State Archives of Florida.

Letter dated May 25, 1943 from Superintendent of Florida Caverns J. Clarence Simpson to FPS Director Lewis Scoggin regarding segregated bathroom facilities. Florida State Parks project files (S. 1270), Box 1, State Archives of Florida.

In addition to offering integrated bathrooms and impressive guided cave tours, by the mid-1960s, Florida Caverns State Park also boasted new campgrounds, a swimming hole, expanded hiking and biking trails, and a bath house.

Florida Caverns State Park promotion brochure, ca. 1950. State Library of Florida vertical file collection.

A young visitor is pictured standing inside the “Cathedral Room” on the cover of a Florida Caverns State Park promotional brochure, ca. 1950. State Library of Florida vertical file collection.

While perhaps not as well-known as Virginia’s Lurary Caverns or Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave, the eerie calm of the luminescent mineral contours at Florida Caverns State Park consistently draws droves of new and returning visitors each year. The next time you find yourself driving on the historic Highway 90 corridor in northwestern Florida, follow the signs for the caverns at Marianna, and uncover some of Florida’s underground history.

Entrance to Florida Caverns State Park in Marianna, c. 1950.

Entrance to Florida Caverns State Park in Marianna, c. 1950.

Interested in planning a trip to Florida Caverns State Park? Visit the Florida State Parks website for more information.

 

 

 

 

New Collection: Florida Maps

Florida Maps is the newest addition to Florida Memory’s ever-growing document collections. This is a selection of over 300 maps from the State Library of Florida’s Florida Map Collection. In addition to the standard cataloging included in all of our digitized collections, these maps have been indexed for all place names, counties, business entities, forts, lighthouses, land grants, and more. A new zoom feature allows users to view each map in full detail.

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With over 70,000 place names across the more than 300 maps, this collection offers an extensive presentation of the cartographic history of Florida. A great resource for researchers, genealogists and map lovers,  these maps are browsable by their geographic scope, temporal coverage, thumbnails, format, and subject terms.

The popular shopping cart feature, previously only available for the Florida Photographic Collection, is now available for Florida Maps. Now you can purchase high-resolution scans or prints up to 16″ by 20″. Explore the new Florida Map collection on Florida Memory today—what will you discover?

What’s a Bahia Honda?

The Florida Keys stretch for some 200 miles from Biscayne Bay near Miami to the Dry Tortugas. About 1,700 individual islands make up the archipelago. Looking on the bright side, that’s a lot of breathtaking Florida scenery to explore. On the other hand, that’s also an awful lot of islands to have to name and chart on a map!

Tough as it may have been to give each of the Florida Keys a unique and memorable name (and indeed there are still a few without names), explorers and locals have generally been up to the challenge over the years. Moreover, many of the names contain a little gem of history about the islands they’re identifying. Today’s blog explores a few of the more unusual place names in the Florida Keys, along with the history they represent.

First off, here’s a map showing the places we plan to discuss (click the map to enlarge it):

Excerpt of the Florida Department of Transportation's official 2014 Florida Highway Map showing the Florida Keys, highlighting the four unique place names we discuss in this post. Click the map to enlarge it.

Excerpt of the Florida Department of Transportation’s official 2014 Florida Highway Map showing the Florida Keys, highlighting the four unique place names we discuss in this post. Click the map to enlarge it.

Plantation Key

The Florida Keys might not seem much like the place to have a plantation, but that’s exactly how this island got its name. Plantation Key is located between Tavernier and Islamorada. Spanish charts generally do not give it a name, but by the 18th century it appeared on some maps as Long Island. The “Plantation” appellation likely stems from its use for coconut and pineapple production in the late 19th century by Captain Benjamin Baker. Baker was widely known as “King of the Wreckers,” engaged as he was in the business of salvaging the cargoes of ships that had foundered on the Florida Straits. An 1871 account in Harper’s Monthly Magazine claimed Baker had realized a profit of seven thousand dollars from a single year’s crop of pineapples. Not a bad haul for a second job!

Two men wearing leis made from sponges - Plantation Key (circa 1910).

Two men wearing leis made from sponges – Plantation Key (circa 1910).

Bahia Honda

No, this place name has nothing to do with foreign automobiles. Bahia Honda (pronounced Bah-EE-ah OWN-dah in Spanish) is a key located just southwest of the Seven Mile Bridge and northeast of Big Pine Key. The name, which means “deep bay” in Spanish, has appeared on maps and nautical charts at least as far back as the late 16th century. When Henry Flagler began building his Over-the-Sea Railroad through the Keys in the 1900s, Bahia Honda became home to two large dormitory-style buildings for the crews building the Bahia Honda Bridge connecting the island with West Summerland Key.

Excerpt of a 1763 British map of Florida showing the Florida Keys, including Bahia Honda. Map Collection, State Library of Florida. Click the map to enlarge it.

Excerpt of a 1763 British map of Florida showing the Florida Keys, including Bahia Honda. Map Collection, State Library of Florida. Click the map to enlarge it.

Original Bahia Honda Bridge under construction (circa 1908).

Original Bahia Honda Bridge under construction (circa 1908).

Ramrod Key

Ramrod Key is located about 25 miles northeast of Key West between Summerland and Big Pine keys. Despite the name, the island is shaped nothing like a ramrod. Evidence pointing to the origin of this unusual name is a bit hazy, but local experts generally agree the name hails from a British ship called Ramrod that wrecked nearby in the early 19th century. The name was well enough known by the 1850s that it began appearing on government surveys. A post office operated at Ramrod Key from 1917 to 1951, whereupon mail service was transferred to neighboring Summerland Key.

Ramrod Key Post Office (ca. 1950).

Ramrod Key Post Office (ca. 1950).

Lake Surprise

Lake Surprise is one of the first bodies of water crossed by the Overseas Highway after it leaves the Florida Mainland. As strange as it might seem, this is indeed a true lake contained entirely within Key Largo, and its discovery was truly a surprise, and not a pleasant one. The lake was unexpectedly encountered by the construction crews building Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway across Key Largo. The water had not appeared on preliminary surveys of the island, and it presented one of the earliest major obstacles for the project. When the crews attempted to fill in a causeway for the railroad rather than build a bridge, the fill material simply disappeared. Lake Surprise was eventually conquered, but only after 15 months of fill work.

Florida East Coast Railway engine #10 crossing Lake Surprise on a barge. The engine was used by railroad work crews during construction to transport workers, supplies, and building materials (1906).

Florida East Coast Railway engine #10 crossing Lake Surprise on a barge. The engine was used by railroad work crews during construction to transport workers, supplies, and building materials (1906).

These are, of course, only a sample of the many unusual names found throughout the Florida Keys, but hopefully it will inspire you to pull out a map and explore further. Who knows? You may get some ideas for a future Florida vacation!

A State Treasure at Cross Creek

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wasn’t just an author in Florida. She lived Florida. Her stories are laden with imagery and themes that Floridians know as their own. From South Moon Under to Cross Creek to The Yearling, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939, Rawlings’ books continue to give readers the opportunity to experience Old Florida charm with the turn of every page.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings at her home in Cross Creek (circa 1940s).

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings at her home in Cross Creek (circa 1940s).

Rawlings died in 1953, but she left far more than just her iconic writings as a legacy. She also left her home at Cross Creek, a tiny community packed into a small strip of land between Orange and Lochloosa lakes in southern Alachua County. The area had been settled since the 19th century, but few would have known how to find it until Rawlings’ fame put it on the map.

Excerpt of a Florida Department of Transportation Map showing Cross Creek and vicinity (1990).

Excerpt of a Florida Department of Transportation Map showing Cross Creek and vicinity (1990).

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings purchased her Cross Creek home in 1928 and began renovating it in 1930. Historic preservation experts believe the house was originally built in the 1880s as a two-room cabin with a “dogtrot,” or a breezeway running through the house from front to back. Additional bedrooms were built in the 1890s, while a dining room and kitchen were added in the 1920s. The house was not electrified until Rawlings had been living in the house for ten years, and even then the source of power was a Delco generator installed in the nearby pump house.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home at Cross Creek (circa 1980s).

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home at Cross Creek (circa 1980s).

When Rawlings died, she left her home to the Florida Endowment Corporation, now known as the University of Florida Foundation. Since 1970 it has been managed by the Florida Park Service. Thousands of visitors come to the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings house each year to tour the grounds and learn about the life and career of this remarkable Floridian. The house became so popular in the years following the release of the movie Cross Creek in 1983 that state officials closed the site for a year while the foundation was strengthened to handle the added burden.

A barn on the Rawlings property at Cross Creek (1965).

A barn on the Rawlings property at Cross Creek (1965).

The Florida Photographic Collection contains numerous pictures of Rawlings, Cross Creek, and other places associated with her stories. Some of the rarest photos were taken by agents of MGM Studios in the 1940s as they searched around north and central Florida for settings to use in a film adaptation of The Yearling. This first attempt at turning the prize-winning book into a film faltered, partly due to the onset of World War II. MGM finally released the movie in 1947. Gregory Peck, Claude Jarman, and Jane Wyman starred, and the film won two Oscars for art direction and cinematography. It was nominated for five other Academy Awards.

Farm house scouted by MGM Studios as a possible filming site for a film adaptation of The Yearling (1940).

Farm house scouted by MGM Studios as a possible filming site for a film adaptation of The Yearling (1940). Search the Florida Photographic Collection to find more MGM photos.

On September 29, 1970 (45 years ago this week), the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home was added to the National Register of Historic Places. If you haven’t been to see it, you owe it to yourself to visit when you’re in the area next. Click here for more information from the Florida Park Service.

Until you’re ready to make the trip, of course, you can always search for photos of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Cross Creek on Florida Memory!

Farming at Fellsmere

The town of Fellsmere is located just west of Sebastian off Interstate 95 in Indian River County. It was one of many small communities wrestled from the swampy plains of South Florida in the early 20th century to serve the growing number of farmers making their living in the region.
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Welcome to Dunedin

Floridians have a diverse collective heritage that connects the state with all parts of the world. Dunedin, a quiet city on Florida’s Gulf Coast, is a perfect illustration of this. Dunedin citizens take pride in their town’s Scottish roots, such that tartan kilts and bagpipes are as a common a sight as palm trees.

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Second Chances

Second chances come more easily in some cases than in others. When a 3,500-year old bald cypress tree near Longwood, Florida known as “The Senator” burned in 2012, local residents could not have imagined that any such second chance was in store for their beloved landmark. Thanks to the determination of the local community and a little luck, however, the outcome was nothing short of miraculous.

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Cherry Lake

Cherry Lake is a small community located less than five miles from the Georgia State Line in Madison County. It has been home to one of the state’s most vibrant 4-H summer camp programs since 1937, but it was a hub of activity long before that time.

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A State Park Under the Sea

One of the greatest strengths of Florida’s state park system is its diversity. Between the caves, springs, towering forests, picture-perfect beaches, and historic structures, there’s a park to suit almost every interest. Heck, Florida is even home to the nation’s first underwater state park, located down in the Florida Keys. Read more »

Jacksonville’s “Treaty Oak”

“Big Oak is really big.”

Someone once wrote these profound words on the back of a photograph to describe what may be one of the oldest single living things in the entire city of Jacksonville. “Big Oak,” now known as “Treaty Oak,” is an enormous Southern live oak tree (Quercus virginiana) estimated to be well over two centuries old. It’s located in Jacksonville’s Jessie Ball duPont Park, parts of which were once known as the Dixieland Amusement Park. Read more »