Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Ulele Spring 2.0

When Ulele Spring was "re-discovered" next to the Tampa's old Water Works in 2006, Tom Ries had to see it for himself. Hacking through dense growth that had gone unchecked for years, Tom discovered the spring boil just feet off North Highland Avenue near the heavy traffic of I-275. The spring dropped into a lower pool full of lily pads that surrounded a small island of palm trees and then the water disappeared. Marching in a straight line from where the run ended to the Hillsborough River, Tom found a pipe where the outflow entered the river. He looked down at the river, and he saw a manatee looking up, drawn by the crisp, clear water flowing from the spring. And that's when Tom started working on a plan to restore the spring, located within shouting distance of downtown Tampa.

It's ironic that I would get to re-visit Ulele Spring the same week as the Florida legislature decides on the future of the Florida Springs and Aquifer Protection Act. While lawmakers in our state capitol sat idle allowing the health of our springs to decline, Tom Ries got busy saving a spring. His ambitious plan required cobbling together a half dozen grants in order to make it happen. The restored spring is positioned between a new restaurant in the old Water Works building and a brand new city park, marking the terminus of a Riverwalk that stretches more than two miles to the Tampa Bay History Center. The invasive undergrowth has been removed and replanted with native foliage, and the passage to the river will be opened up, creating a new basin that should be large enough for wintering manatees. Two bridges over the spring run will connect Tampa's new Water Works Park and the restaurant site. A statue commissioned by the restaurant's owner will immortalize the fictitious Indian maiden for the whom the spring was re-named: Ulele (it was originally called Magbee Spring.) The restaurant also bears her name, and is owned by the same group that owns Florida's legendary Columbia Restaurant.

I was able to see the spring during the construction phase because my friend and colleague John Moran had connected with Tom and he volunteered to give us a tour. It been just over a year since my first visit to the spring and I was impressed with the how much had happened in such a short period of time. The spring restoration should be done soon and the park is scheduled to be open in time for a concert on the 4th of July. Tom walked us through the site, explaining how he found another small spring on a map from 1888 and discovered it under the water works building being piped into Tampa Bay. It's now being piped into the Ulele run and it should add to the overall flow. He also explained that every year between 300,000 and 400,000 people flock to the power plant south of Tampa to see manatees in winter. If the Ulele Spring project is successful in bringing manatees to its man made basin, the park and project are guaranteed to be a favorite destination for residents of the Tampa Bay area. In my mind it's already a hit. Maybe if we can find 1,000 more motivated individuals like Tom, and they each adopt a spring, create a restoration plan, and line up funding, we can save all of our springs!

Tampa Water Works, 1918
Burgert Bros. Photography Collection
at the Tampa Hillsborough County Public Library

Al Severson and Maudie in boat at Tampa Water Works Park, 1925
Burgert Bros. Photography Collection
at the Tampa Hillsborough County Public Library

Al Severson and Maudie in boat at Tampa Water Works Park, 1925
Burgert Bros. Photography Collection
at the Tampa Hillsborough County Public Library

Elise Frank School of Art students painting at Water Works Park, 1948
Burgert Bros. Photography Collection
at the Tampa Hillsborough County Public Library
1888 map showing the original location of Ulele Spring
across the street and a second spring to the north

Looking towards the Hillsborough River
Lilies survive from the early days of Water Works Park
John Moran scouting new photo opportunities for his upcoming "Springs Eternal' book
The rocks around the spring basin were a new addition since my previous visit

John Moran and Tom Ries discuss the history of the restoration, years in the making
This will be the new basin that will hopefully attract manatees and snook

An overview with the Tampa skyline on the right and the Hillsborough River on the left
Today the spring bubbles up on the opposite side of the road from the original boil

The opposite side reads: "Prior to 1907 Ulele Spring was part of a beautiful stretch of Florida's natural habitat, an undisturbed waterway that provides Tampa's drinking water."

Saturday, April 19, 2014

My Seven Wonders of Old Florida

The March Madness style competition to pick the Seven Wonders on the Old Florida and Visit Florida Off the Beaten Path Facebook pages concluded last week after about a month of head-to-head battles. The match-ups were seed based on nominations received on the two pages, although some of our Facebook folks didn't understand how the seeding worked. There were a few complaints when disparate items like a natural resource and a restaurant were pitted against each other. In retrospect I probably wouldn't do it this way again, but when we started it seemed like a good idea to follow the model set forth by the NCAA basketball tournament.

In the end we kept the bracket match-ups going until we reached the Elite Eight, and then we voted on each of those the one with the least amount of votes was left off the final Seven Wonders.

The Final voting was:
1) Everglades - 733
2) St. Augustine - 706
3) Weeki Wachee - 583
4) St. Johns River - 535
5) Silver Springs - 470
6) Ichetucknee - 453
7) Seven-Mile Bridge - 384

Eighth-place was Key West with 285.

I was surprised that the Everglades received the most votes as it came in as a 16-seed, meaning it received only a couple nominations. It's interesting that a natural resource that has been under siege from corporate agriculture and residential development for decades is considered so beloved. Let's hope it can be restored.

St. Augustine and Weeki Wachee were number 2 and number 1 seeds respectively, so there is no surprise there. Silver Springs was also a number 1 seed, but the Ichetucknee's appearance in the final Wonders was unexpected. I think it shows that Floridians treasure their springs (and that the springs community has an active Facebook presence!) 

The St. Johns River and the Seven-Mile Bridge in the Keys were also unexpected finalists, but perhaps it is evidence that Floridians love their natural resources. While the bridge is man made, it's certainly the beautiful environment in which it sits that makes it so memorable. 

If I were to chose my Seven Wonders, I think I would have to separate out some of the the natural resources and focus on places that are (or were) one-of-a-kind attractions for visitors to Florida. My list, in no particular order, would be:

1. The Senator Cypress Tree in Seminole County
3,500 years old. That's all you need to know. 1,500 years old at the time of the birth of Jesus. It was so large that it was difficult to even properly photograph. Tragically burned down, this behemoth was cloned and a newer, smaller version was planted at Big Tree Park. There is still, however, Lady Liberty which is only about 2,000 years old or so. One has to wonder how many other "Senators" were lost when most of the old growth cypress was cut down in the 19th and 20th century.

It's not the flashiest attraction in the state, but it's one of the most beautiful. Set on the highest spot in peninsular Florida, the Gothic-Deco structure is ornate and striking. I had the rare privilege of going to the top of the tower, and hearing the carillon bells from inside the bell tower. I'll never forget it. And the gardens are gorgeous.

3. Silver Springs
In terms of volume of water, Silver Springs used to be the largest array of springs in the world. In the 19th century steamboats would travel from Jacksonville bringing tourists and celebrities like Ulysses S. Grant and Harriet Beecher Stowe to the spring basin to gaze into the crystal clear waters. One of the best marketed attractions in the mid-twentieth century, Silver Springs was recently converted to a State Park. While no longer sporting the kitschy trappings of a roadside attraction, the springs remain a Florida icon. And you can still ride a glass bottom boat.

4. The Tampa Bay Hotel (now the University of Tampa and the Plant Museum)
Like the former Hotel Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine, the Tampa Bay Hotel was built by one of Florida's railroad barons and it now home to a college. To me this architectural masterpiece near the Hillsborough River is like a time machine that takes you back to the Victorian era when the tastes of the day favored anything from the exotic Mediterranean or Middle East. It shines like a beacon of antiquity against downtown Tampa's skyline. It's perhaps my favorite building in the state.

5. The Coral Castle near Homestead
A testament to one man's determination, the Coral Castle is Edward Leedskalnin's monument to lost love. More quirky than majestic, this quirky roadside oddity is lushly landscaped and intimately proportioned. Folks still wonder how one man built it all by himself and that's part of charm of this South Florida Wonder.

Library of Congress
6. Castillo de San Marcos
Florida has some wonderful forts, like Ft. Clinch on Fernandina Beach and Ft. Pickins near Pensacola, but to me none is as iconic as the former Ft. Marion. Rich in history, it's the anchor of St. Augustine, a city I can't seem to get too much of. It's also the site of the first photo I took of myself and the young lady who would later become my bride. So it has sentimental value too.

7. Seven Mile Bridge (The Overseas Highway)
Flagler's Folly. Love 'em or hate 'em, few individuals did ad much to open up the state to Northern tourists as the two Henrys, Plant and Flagler. The influence of these two men is still felt in our state today, and although much of Flagler's overseas railroad to Key West was destroyed in a hurricane, the first bridge that carried cars across the Keys was built on his foundation (literally.)

That's my seven for now. I reserve the right to change mind (and often do.)