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.

 

 

 

 

Family History on the Farm

Sometimes the best genealogical information comes from truly unexpected sources. The State Archives of Florida holds records from a wide variety of state agencies, many of which have had direct contact with the state’s citizens over the years. As a result, many of the records document the specific locations of specific individuals at specific times, which can be a big help for folks tracing their family trees. Read more »

Which Way to Two Egg?

If your boss tells you she’s off to a meeting in Jacksonville, no one blinks an eye. A cousin heading to Key West? Maybe a bit of envy and best wishes for a pleasant suntan. But when someone says they’re off to Two Egg, Florida, there’s bound to be a either a giggle or a look of pure confusion.

1950's era map showing the location of Two Egg northeast of Marianna. Note: This map precedes the construction of Interstate 10.

1950s era map showing the location of Two Egg northeast of Marianna. Note: This map predates the construction of Interstate 10.

The bustling metropolis of Two Egg is located a few miles northeast of Marianna in Jackson County. Although it’s little more than a wide spot on a curve of State Road 69, it was a prominent crossroads in the region as early as the 18th century. Europeans and native Creeks established trails in the area heading to Neal’s Landing and Thomas Perryman’s trading post on the east bank of the Chattahoochee River. The route between Perryman’s in the east and the natural bridge over the Chipola River in the west crossed right through what we now know as Two Egg. Although the road has been slightly reshaped and much improved over the past 200 years, it still follows roughly the same path.

Department of Transportation highway map showing the Two Egg area with the location of dwellings, churches, and a school (revised 1946).

Department of Transportation highway map showing the Two Egg area with the location of dwellings, churches, and a school (revised 1946).

How the crossroads got its peculiar name is something of a debate among local historians. It was originally called Allison, after the family that established a sawmill and general store in the area in the early 20th century. The name “Two Egg” began appearing during the 1930s, some say as a result of a cultural phenomenon brought on by the hardships of the Great Depression. With jobs and cash as scarce as hen’s teeth, local citizens had very little money to buy the goods they needed from the general store. As a result, they turned to the barter system, trading in a few vegetables or other farm products for the materials they needed to make it through the week.

John Henry Pittman and his wife at their general store in Two Egg (circa 1970).

John Henry Pittman and his wife at their general store in Two Egg (circa 1970).

According to one legend, a local man named Will Williams decided during this difficult time that since he couldn’t afford to give each of his 16 children an allowance, he would instead give them each a chicken. Whenever one of the chickens would lay eggs, the child who owned it could trade them at the store for whatever they pleased. A traveling salesman witnessed one of the children trading two eggs for some candy, according to the story, and decided to nickname the town accordingly. At least a dozen versions of the tale exist, but the majority seem to agree on the common thread of bartering with eggs. However the name came about, by 1940 it was in use on official state road department maps.

Sign explaining a two-cent charge for opening cans at Pittman's general store in Two Egg (circa 1970).

Sign explaining a two-cent charge for opening cans at Pittman’s general store in Two Egg (circa 1970).

A sign in Pittman's general store (circa 1970).

A sign in Pittman’s general store (circa 1970).

A combination of New Deal relief programs and the arrival of World War II breathed new economic life into the families living around Two Egg. Perhaps just as importantly, as more people began traveling to Florida in the postwar era, curiosity about the strangely named town led an increasing number of visitors to pass through for a quick stop at the general store. John Henry Pittman’s store was the main place to shop for a number of years, although it eventually closed, leaving the Lawrence Grocery as the sole business in town. As late as the early 2000s, the grocery remained open, selling candy, cigarettes, cold drinks out of a machine, and Two Egg souvenirs.

Street view of Lawrence's grocery in Two Egg. This was the last store open in town. Note the license plate on the car reading

Street view of Lawrence’s grocery in Two Egg. This was the last store open in town. Note the license plate on the car reading “Two Egg Florida” (1985).

The Lawrence Grocery eventually closed, and the Pittman store was condemned and destroyed in 2010. The town, if it could be called that, serves more as a bedroom community for Marianna nowadays, but signs on State Road 69 still proudly mark the location of Two Egg. When the signs aren’t being stolen, that is. Locals say the signs for Two Egg are stolen more than any other place name markers in the state. Even bolting the signs to their posts hasn’t stopped the problem; the thieves simply cut the signpost off at the bottom when they cannot remove the sign itself. In a way it’s a sort of backhanded compliment to the uniqueness of this small Florida curiosity. We at Florida Memory, however, would encourage visitors to leave the signs alone and just take a picture or two.

What unusual places have you visited in Florida? Tell us about your favorite by leaving a comment below or on Facebook!