North Florida was the final leg of I-10 through Florida, connecting Jacksonville to Los Angeles, California around 1980. I-10 changed our area in many different ways, but if we go back about 100 to 150 years, we had another type of interstate travel which was very different, but equally important!
During the 1800's, the river, the first interstate travel system, was about the only way one could travel a long distance in the South. There were steam powered ships and paddle boats, and some smaller boats which were pushed with long poles up and down the smaller, shallower waterways. The Chipola River had active river traffic for many years.
While there were many smaller rivers in the southeast, a large number of them flowed into the Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers, the major rivers servicing Georgia and eastern Alabama to move products and people into and out of our area. The smaller rivers allowed people and products throughout the South to use many rivers to connect with the larger rivers to travel for business, for pleasure and to relocate their families from one area to another.
Homer Hirt remembers, as a child, hearing his aunts telling how they took "excursions" on the river boats, going to visit relatives via the river. He wishes he had listened more intently as they told their wonderful stories.
The Chattahoochee and the Flint Rivers merge at the Alabama, Georgia and Florida state lines, which are located very near the Jim Woodruff Dam area. At that point they become the Apalachicola River which continues flowing to the Gulf of Mexico near Apalachicola.
It is very difficult for us to imagine a time that there were no real roads in our area, as we know them, or in most of the South. The Spanish Trail, now known as US 90, was totally unpaved. Horses, buggies and wagons did not require much road base, and travel was slow and very difficult.
A trip from Tallahassee to Marianna was a 2-day horse-back or carriage trip. As late as the early 1920's it was reported that a trip by car from Marianna to Jacksonville was several days in length, with multiple break-downs, flat tires and road hazards to overcome.
The first cars which came to the Marianna area around 1908 were shipped to Atlanta by rail from Flint, Michigan. J. D. Smith had a contract with the Buick Company to provide the cars as he ordered them, and he didn't order until the car was sold. Milton Smith tells that his job was to ride the train to Atlanta and drive the car back to Marianna. He says the 90 mile road from Atlanta to Macon was a sand-clay graded road, but from then on, via Americus, Albany and Bainbridge, it was just a well-worn country road, with a few creeks to ford. The doctors were the first automobile customers in our area as this new means of transportation greatly increased their ability to make house calls, even if it was over extremely rough roads.
Products which were carried from our area on the river included tobacco, cotton, syrup, honey, salted fish, vegetables in season, turpentine, lumber and other products produced in this area. However, the ships brought products which were needed here and produced in other parts of the country.
Many of the larger plantations along the rivers had their own landings so they could receive and send products without having to haul them so far. Neal's Landing, Snead's Landing, White's Landing, Ocheesee Landing and many, many others made up the river interstate system.
Apalachicola had a huge canning industry as they canned oysters and shrimp which were shipped out to all parts of the country. At one time, Apalachicola was known as "The Seafood Capital of the World" and was the second largest cotton port on the Gulf of Mexico.
Milton Smith tells in his historical compilations that between 1828 and 1916 there were 126 steamships commissioned to operate out of Columbus Georgia, with many others commissioned from Bainbridge, Georgia and Apalachicola and other places along the river. This would indicate that the rivers were a very important part of life in this area during those years, doing a brisk business of hauling products, people, and sometimes animals up and down the rivers.
The Dunaway family tells of their ancestors coming to Neal's Landing with all their worldly possessions on the paddle wheeler, the M.W. Kelly. They settled on Nubbin Ridge Road near Greenwood, the area where two Dunaway families still reside over 100 years later.
Many families have a similar story. The Lovic Sexton family, as did many others, came through Georgia and up the river from a landing on the Apalachicola River. Other families came down the river from areas in Georgia or Alabama or beyond, all by the paddle wheelers and other ships serving the rivers flowing through our area. The Sexton family and many of the descendants of those other hardy families still reside in our area today.
In 1883, rail service was completed from Pensacola to the Apalachicola River, a distance of 170 miles. Marianna and Milton were the only two stations on the line. Soon afterward a rail bridge was built across the Apalachicola River. The train service added much to the river traffic when millions of acres of pine forests furnished great supplies of timber. These virgin pine forests produced huge logs. The production of turpentine and rosin and the main cash crop of cotton, the "lifeline of the South", were an important part of this change from only river traffic to "North Florida-and-beyond" rail service. Many short-line railroads were constructed throughout the area to bring products from the out-lying areas to the rail centers.
Train service was beginning to be available by the late 1800's and that made business and pleasure travel much more comfortable. River Junction at Chattahoochee was the first place in our area to have train service connected to the northern areas of the country.
As train service was developed over the years, rail service took over much of the needs of the river, and by 1915 no more ships were being commissioned to serve the river traffic and the river traffic gradually declined. Thus the romantic era of the river steamboats became "a thing of the past."
With our modern-day travel so efficient, we should never forget the heritage we have which developed over the years to make all of our wonderful means of transportation a reality. An hour on I-10 to Tallahassee surely does beat a two day trip on a horse, doesn't it?