Signs of the Times

Signs are a critical part of driving. They tell us what road we’re on, how fast we can safely travel, what obstacles lie ahead, and how far we have left to the next major landmark. Road signage is especially important in a state like Florida, which hosts millions of tourists each year. After all, nothing ruins a vacation as quickly as getting lost, right?

As important as they are in the here and now, signs also have a history. Changes in road signage over time are in many ways reflections of changes in the broader history of the state.

Gateway and columns marking the Osceola County line (circa 1920s).

Gateway and columns marking the Osceola County line (circa 1920s).

When automobiles first came on the scene at the turn of the 20th century, there wasn’t much precedent for how the roads would be signed. Cities and towns often signed their local streets, but seldom were the roads outside of town well-marked, and numbered routes like we have today were almost entirely unheard of. Animal-powered carriages and carts had no speedometers, so there was no use in posting a speed limit. The general rule was to drive sensibly, and ask for directions if you lost your way.

Automobiles made it easier for folks to travel farther away from home. They also traveled faster, which made driving more hazardous, especially on curves and near intersections with other roads and railroads. Some local communities began posting signs to help visitors find their way more easily. Businesses often did the same, combining safety messages and directional information with advertising.

A sign near Leesburg giving directions to nearby towns (1913).

A sign near Leesburg giving directions to nearby towns (1913).

It was awfully nice of Goodrich Tires to post this sign near De Leon Springs warning motorists to slow down, but notice they did a little advertising at the same time (circa 1915).

It was awfully nice of Goodrich Tires to post this sign near De Leon Springs warning motorists to slow down, but notice they did a little advertising at the same time (circa 1915).

One of the key characteristics of road signs during this period was the lack of standardization. Public and private entities made signs using whatever colors, shapes, and materials they believed suited their purposes. The result was a bewildering array of road signs so thick motorists often had to slow down or stop completely to read them.

Advertising signage located close to the roadway near Eustis (1917).

Advertising signage located close to the roadway near Eustis (1917).

This somewhat complicated sign warned motorists of an approaching railroad crossing along the Dixie Highway (1924).

This somewhat complicated sign warned motorists of an approaching railroad crossing along the Dixie Highway (1924).

Apparently some speed limit signs even came with attendants, like this one located in Tallahassee (circa 1920).

An unusual speed limit sign in Tallahassee (circa 1920).

Florida wasn’t the only state having this problem, and it wasn’t long before highway officials across the country decided it was time for a solution. In November 1925, the American Association of State Highway Officials met in Detroit and agreed upon a system of standardized highway signs to recommend to their respective states. Florida’s State Road Department chose to accept the suggested signage, and by the 1930s the signs along the state roadways were beginning to look more uniform. The Legislature also began restricting the number and placement of billboards to make things less confusing for motorists.

Standard road signs adopted by the State Road Department of Florida in the 1920s.

Standard road signs adopted by the State Road Department of Florida in the 1920s.

A State Road Department employee works on a batch of standardized railroad crossing signs at the Department's sign shop in Lake City (circa 1950s).

A State Road Department employee works on a batch of standardized railroad crossing signs at the Department’s sign shop in Lake City (circa 1950s).

A few additional changes have happened over the years. The signs marking U.S. highway routes, for example, were originally die-cut to be shaped like shields. These were later replaced by cheaper square signs with the U.S. shield and number printed on them.

In 1956, Florida implemented a system of color-coded U.S. highway signs to help motorists more easily follow their desired routes. The color-coded system was later discontinued because the colored signs faded faster and had to be replaced more often than the standard black and white ones.

A young girl stands in front of one of the old-style U.S. highway shields for U.S. 90 (1946).

A young girl stands in front of one of the old-style U.S. highway shields for U.S. 90 (1946).

Key from an official map published by the Florida State Road Department describing the color coding system for U.S. highways (1957).

Key from an official map published by the Florida State Road Department describing the color coding system for U.S. highways (1957).

Color-coded shield marking the end of U.S. Highway 1 in Key West (1986).

Color-coded shield marking the end of U.S. Highway 1 in Key West (1986).

As roads grew wider and speeds grew faster, it also became necessary to posts signs that would be highly visible from all travel lanes. This was especially important near exits and entrances on the freeways, so motorists could choose the correct lane well ahead of an intersection. As a result, signs became larger and many were placed overhead so they could be viewed more easily from the inner travel lanes.

Governor Farris Bryant (second from left) stands with a group of men in front of a large sign along a new section of Interstate 75 in Hamilton County (1964).

Governor Farris Bryant (second from left) stands with a group of men in front of a large sign along a new section of Interstate 75 in Hamilton County (1964).

Road signs are just one example of commonplace objects with a story to tell about Florida’s history. What other objects can you think of that have changed over the years? Start a conversation by leaving a comment below or sharing this post and your thoughts on Facebook!

Also, if you happen to live near Tallahassee or will be passing through sometime soon, stop by the State Library & Archives to have a look at our extensive map collection. Our holdings include a variety of local, county, and state highway maps dating back to the earliest years of the automobile age!

Florida’s First Steam-Powered Railway

On September 5, 1836, the Lake Wimico & St. Joseph Railroad ran its first train from the Apalachicola River to St. Joseph. It took about 25 minutes to move the eight cars and 300 passengers along the eight-mile stretch of track. An enthusiastic crowd met the train at its destination, delighted in both the local and statewide implications of this short voyage. In addition to boosting the local economy, the Lake Wimico & St. Joseph Railroad had the honor of being the first steam-powered railroad to operate in Florida.

Read more »

Headin’ Down the Waldo Canal

How long do you suppose it would take you to drive 11 miles? Maybe 15 minutes? Probably less if you had an interstate highway at your disposal. And we do it all the time; folks all over Florida are obliged to drive that far and much farther sometimes just to get to work, school, or the grocery store. These days, it’s not much of a hassle to drive 11 miles, but for residents of Melrose, Florida trying to ship oranges and lumber and other products in the late 1800s, traveling that distance to the nearest railroad was a real pain in the neck. Until they decided to do something about it, that is.

Portion of an official Florida highway map showing the area around Waldo and Melrose (1974).

Portion of an official Florida highway map showing the area around Waldo and Melrose (1974).

Even in the late nineteenth century, transportation in the center of the state was difficult. The railroad from Fernandina to Cedar Key was in operation, but getting freight goods to a shipping point on the railroad could be quite a challenge. Roads were sandy and impractical for this purpose. Water transportation, where it could be used, was much more efficient. The citizens of the town of Melrose at the south end of Lake Santa Fe badly needed access to the railroad, but the nearest depot was at Waldo, eleven miles away across punishing terrain.

A reproduction of an 1885 map showing the route of the Waldo Canal linking lakes Alto and Santa Fe. The line extending southeast from Waldo was the proposed route for the Florida Central Railroad between Waldo and Tampa.

A reproduction of an 1885 map showing the route of the Waldo Canal linking lakes Alto and Santa Fe. The line extending southeast from Waldo was the proposed route for the Florida Central Railroad between Waldo and Tampa.

No river ran directly between Melrose and Waldo, but lakes Santa Fe and Alto very nearly made the connection. The lakes were separated by a narrow strip of land that many believed could be crossed by a canal, linking the two bodies of water together and creating a faster, safer water route for transporting trade goods. The Santa Fe Canal Company was chartered in 1877 to begin work on the canal, and construction was completed in 1881. When it was first opened, the passage was about 30 feet wide and about five feet deep. Boats could now gather freight from the communities along the southern end of Lake Santa Fe and get them all the way to the north end of Lake Alto, where they were loaded onto a spur line and carried to Waldo and transferred to the Fernandina-Cedar Key Railroad. A short canal from Lake Alto toward Waldo was also dug, although it never reached all the way into town.

Workers digging the Waldo Canal with the aid of a dredge built especially for the project (1883).

Workers digging the Waldo Canal with the aid of a dredge built especially for the project (1883).

For all its usefulness, the Waldo Canal suffered from a serious case of bad luck. The steamer F.S. Lewis, which had been built in Waldo especially for use in the local lakes connected by the new canal, was a bundle of problems. Its drive shaft broke on one of its first voyages, disabling its paddlewheel and stranding its passengers. Its large size pushed its hull too deep into the water for it to make deliveries or pick up goods at smaller stops like Earleton. On one occasion, the steamboat capsized during a storm. The boat was righted again, only to catch fire and sink while tied up at Shooter’s Landing on Lake Santa Fe.

The F.S. Lewis, a steamer used to transport goods and passengers across lakes Alto and Santa Fe (circa 1880s).

The F.S. Lewis, a steamer used to transport goods and passengers across lakes Alto and Santa Fe (circa 1880s).

The F.S. Lewis was replaced by the Alert, a tugboat purchased in Jacksonville and transported to Alachua County by flatcar. The Alert was smaller, more fit for service than luxury, but it was sufficient to resume the transportation of freight and passengers across the lakes and through the canal. That is, when the canal was not filling up with sand. With a depth of only a few feet, the canal was frequently blocked by soil washing in from the sides, and workers would have to dig it out before traffic could resume. Water hyacinths also took their toll over the years.

The Alert, a smaller vessel used after the F.S. Lewis was destroyed (circa 1880s).

The Alert, a smaller vessel used after the F.S. Lewis was destroyed (circa 1880s).

The death of the Waldo Canal as a commercial enterprise came partly as an act of Nature and partly as a result of man-made technology. In the 1890s, a series of severe freezes devastated the citrus industry in the area near Melrose, driving citrus growers southward and depriving the canal of some of its biggest shipping customers. Not long afterward, the arrival of the automobile led to the construction of new roads to replace the old sandy trails that had been so tough to navigate in earlier years. The canal itself remained open to small craft, but the era of inland steamboat transportation was coming to an end in Florida.

A more modern view of Lake Santa Fe from the western shore (2007).

A more modern view of Lake Santa Fe from the western shore (2007).

Did you know the Florida Photographic Collection has over 1,300 images of steamboats in Florida? Find a steamboat that once operated in your favorite part of Florida and share our photo of it on Facebook!

The Trials and Tribulations of the Early Automobile in Florida

The automobile is a beautiful toy,
And a useful one, too, as everyone knows;
But you really can’t count it an unalloyed joy
For it’s only a pleasure, as far as it goes.

Florida Highways, December 1923

These travelers struggle to free their car from the mud along a wooded stretch of early Florida roadway (circa 1924).

These travelers struggle to free their car from the mud along a wooded stretch of early Florida roadway (circa 1924).

While automobile use was on the rise in the 1910s and 1920s, state and local governments across the United States struggled to build the roads necessary for safe and speedy motoring.  Florida, with its unique and varied geography, posed some particularly daunting challenges for motorists and road builders alike.  The Florida State Legislature created the State Road Department in 1915, along with a fund to aid highway construction.  Fifteen percent of the money collected for automobile registrations was set aside to help support the new projects, along with a new property tax.

Despite the efforts of both state and federal governments to provide a system of good roads, however, curious visitors to Florida frequently ran into trouble getting from place to place.  Their enthusiasm for exploring the Sunshine State knew no bounds, but it would be a few years before the state’s road system could catch up.  The following photos depict some of the trouble Florida’s early motorists encountered.

The Tamiami Trail, which now carries U.S. Highway 41 across the Florida Everglades, was once a muddy quagmire for much of its route.  The highway was completed in stages, and these men were the first to travel across the unfinished portion between Fort Myers and Everglades City.  The group included one commissary truck, seven Model T Fords, and a new Elcar.  Only the Model T Fords managed to complete the trip (1923).

The Tamiami Trail, which now carries U.S. Highway 41 across the Florida Everglades, was once a muddy quagmire for much of its route. The highway was completed in stages, and these men were the first to travel across the unfinished portion between Fort Myers and Everglades City. The group included one commissary truck, seven Model T Fords, and a new Elcar. Only the Model T Fords managed to complete the trip (1923).

Another photo of the first group to cross the unfinished portion of the Tamiami Trail between Fort Myers and Everglades City in 1923.

Another photo of the first group to cross the unfinished portion of the Tamiami Trail between Fort Myers and Everglades City in 1923.

Harriet Bedell, an Episcopal deaconess, set up a mission in Collier City, Florida to minister to the Seminole Indians.  Getting around in this region was hardly a cakewalk, as this photo suggests (circa 1930s-1940s).

Harriet Bedell, an Episcopal deaconess, set up a mission in Collier City, Florida to minister to the Seminole Indians. Getting around in this region was hardly a cakewalk, as this photo suggests (circa 1930s-1940s).

Mikasuki Indians help Deaconess Bedell free her car from the mud in South Florida (circa 1930s-1940s).

Mikasuki Indians help Deaconess Bedell free her car from the mud in South Florida (circa 1930s-1940s).

Interested in the history of the roads in your county?  The former State Road Department’s publication Florida Highways is an excellent place to start your research.  Visit the State Library of Florida to get a look.

You might also be interested in our collection of photographs from the Florida Department of Transportation.