Under the Spring

What’s the best way to explore a cool, crystal-clear Florida spring? Usually, we recommend getting up close and personal by swimming in it yourself, especially during hot weather. There are other ways, of course. Glass-bottom boats, for example, have plied the waters of Florida springs for more than a century, allowing visitors to glimpse into their underwater worlds without needing a change of clothes afterward.

But that just wasn’t enough for the early owners of Rainbow Springs near Dunnellon in Marion County. Around 1940, they decided to put their visitors even closer to the underwater action by offering rides around the spring in a submarine!

Visitors view Rainbow Springs through their own personal portholes in one of the park's

Visitors view Rainbow Springs through their own personal portholes in one of the park’s “scenic submarines” (1956).

Well… it was at least a kind of submarine. The boats didn’t exactly dive below the surface, but the passengers themselves were seated 5 feet beneath the water line, which gave them a breathtaking view of Rainbow Springs and the wildlife that lived there. Brochures called it “America’s most unusual boat ride.” Here’s one of those brochures:

Brochure from around 1959 advertising Rainbow Springs. Click or tap the image to view the entire brochure.

Brochure from around 1959 advertising Rainbow Springs. Click or tap the image to view the entire brochure.

The idea started back in the 1930s when Frank Greene and F.E. Hemphill began making plans to develop Rainbow Springs as a privately owned park and tourist attraction. When they opened for business in 1937 they had a lodge, a gift shop, a dance pavilion, a boat dock and a ticket office. They also put two glass-bottom boats into service, much like the ones a few miles away at Silver Springs. They hired a small staff to run the place, including Dave Edwards, a young African American man who had grown up just south of Rainbow Springs. Edwards did a wide range of odd jobs at the park, even slapping Rainbow Springs stickers onto the bumpers of cars in the parking lot. When he began training to be a glass-bottom boat captain around 1940, he hatched an idea. Why not build a boat that let the visitor actually go beneath the water to see Rainbow Springs at eye level rather than from above? He sketched out some plans, and the owners decided to give the idea a shot.

The Mermaid, one of the

The Mermaid, one of the “submarines” at Rainbow Springs (ca. 1950).

The new “submarines” were a big hit with visitors, and they became a major selling point for Rainbow Springs. Much like the glass-bottom boat tours that came before, the magic came from a combination of beautiful underwater scenery and expert narration from the captains. These guides did more than just run down a list of plants and animals along the tour route. Over time, they developed a spiel that became almost musical in its delivery. “Skipper” Manning Lockett, one of the original employees of the park, earned a reputation as the “bard of Rainbow Springs” for the poetic way he conducted his tours. It was unique and enjoyable enough that the park owners recorded his tour and offered it for sale in the gift shop. The following is an excerpt from one of Skipper Lockett’s tours, although we daresay reading the tour does it no justice. We recommend listening to the recording as well… all of it.

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Rainbow Springs.
Rainbow Springs is one of Florida’s most beautiful and scenic attractions.
Rainbow Springs is a beauty, created beneath deep waters, made only by the hands of God.
Now look through your left-side port hole, far as your eyes can see, watch that dreamy sunlit landscape.
Looks like mountains, looks like valleys, looks like green pastures.
And the fish look like birds [winging?] in the air, and the turtles look like cattle roving in the forest.

“Skipper” Manning Lockett aboard one of the “submarines” at Rainbow Springs (ca. 1950).

Rainbow Springs flourished throughout the heyday of the Florida roadside attraction in the 1950s and 1960s, but sales began to decline in the 1970s. Interstate highways siphoned travelers off the smaller routes like U.S. 19 and U.S. 41 where many of the roadside parks like Rainbow Springs were located. Supersized theme parks like Walt Disney World also helped draw the crowd away. By the end of the decade, many roadside parks like Rainbow Springs had closed their doors or were barely hanging on.

Postcard showing the fleet of submarine boats at Rainbow Springs (ca. 1960).

Postcard showing the fleet of submarine boats at Rainbow Springs (ca. 1960).

In 1973, the owners of Rainbow Springs told the managers to close the park on Sundays and Mondays as a cost-saving measure. Less than a year later it closed to the public entirely. The property sat neglected for a number of years until a company called Chase Ventures bought it in 1984. By then, nature had reclaimed much of the area around the springs, but the new owners allowed local garden clubs to go in and spruce things up. In October 1990, the State of Florida purchased the 55-acre site, plus a 600-acre buffer zone, and turned Rainbow Springs into a new state park.

A few things have changed since the old days, of course. Skipper Lockett and Dave Edwards have passed away, and the “submarines” they piloted are no more, except for one the park is saving as the centerpiece of a historical exhibit. The springs themselves go on, however, reminding visitors of Florida’s majestic natural beauty.

Man holding a model of a Rainbow Springs submarine boat (ca. 1950s).

Man holding a model of a Rainbow Springs submarine boat (ca. 1950s).

Looking for more information about Florida springs that became popular roadside attractions? We recommend Glass Bottom Boats & Mermaid Tails: Florida’s Tourist Springs by historian Tim Hollis.