Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Reclaiming the Sublime on the Ocklawaha River

"Not surprisingly, Picturesque America took the lead in promoting the funeral moss, grotesque trees, and wild chaotic vegetation of the Florida swamps of the Ocklawaha River. For the well-to-do northerners, the boggy, overgrown southern wetlands offered the perfect dark adventure. For these Victorians, taking a boat ride down a swampy southern river was a thrilling escape into the unknown, a peep show of the grotesque, a blending of the realistic and fantastic, which thrilled in a strange and disturbing way. It was the dark side of the picturesque." – From "Souvenirs of the Old South: Northern Tourism and Southern Mythology" by Rebecca Cawood McIntyre

After the Civil War, northern visitors streamed into Florida and a large number of them took steamboats to Silver Springs via the Ocklawaha River. Palatka was a boomtown where travelers transferred to smaller boats suitable for the winding narrow passageways of the what Creek Indians called "ak-lowahe", meaning muddy or crooked river. The trek into the dark, mysterious wilderness was in alignment with Victorian sensibilities of the time, part of their obsession with the sublime, defined for Victorians as a feeling of "inner greatness of the soul" related to the "sense of grandeur that fuels awe and wonder." As a reaction to the Industrial Revolution that was taking place in the cities of the north, Gilded Age travelers sought out the sublime in nature, and the Romantic Movement helped to perpetuate the notion that a connection with nature was healthy for the soul.

Nineteenth-century travel literature helped promote this fantastic riverboat trip and authors Harriett Beecher Stowe and Sidney Lanier both wrote about their pilgrimages to Silver Springs. A superb example of the nineteenth-century hype surrounding the Ocklawaha trip can be found in the words and images of an influential publication know as Picturesque America. The enormous two-volume set was edited by poet and journalist William Cullen Bryant, who wrote about his own trip up the St. Johns River in 1850's "Letters of a Traveler: Notes of Things Seen in Europe and America." There are nine hundred detailed engravings in the Picturesque America volumes and the images of the Ocklawaha were created by artist Harry Fenn, a prominent illustrator of the era. The romantic language and captivating imagery had an enormous effect on tourism and it earned its publisher a million dollars, according to writer Rebecca McIntyre. The result of the publicity can be noted in the sheer volume of tourists coming into the state, then called "strangers." Historian Tracy Revels documented that in 1874 a reporter estimated 50,000 visitors had traveled by steamboat to Silver Springs. There were 74 steamboats servicing the St. Johns River alone!

While most of the passengers on the steamboats cruising up the Ocklawaha were reveling in the sublimity of the experience, others saw dollar signs in the form of the ancient cypress trees that lined the river. As the river was logged out, part of the tour became passing long rafts of floating logs on their way to a mill in Palatka. When the age of railroads dawned, it became easier to reach Silver Springs by train, and a trip up the Ocklawaha became superfluous. Steamboats were replaced by watercraft with internal combustion engines and by the 1920s the Ocklawaha's steamboat era had ended. But Silver Springs grew into the premier midcentury attraction in the state and the pastel-colored, glass bottom boats are now Florida icons.

Postcard showing Silver Springs, probably from the 1950s.

The romantic, sublimity of the river was forgotten and by the 1930s the waterway was seen as an important link in a canal that would bisect the state, provide jobs and stimulate the economy. Serious construction did not start until decades later in 1964, but it was stopped in 1971 because of ecological concerns raised by an environmental group led by Marjorie Harris Carr. The project was officially de-authorized a couple decades later and the state took over and created what is now called the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway.

Land clearing and controlled fires at Eureka, circa 1960s from the State Archives of Florida.

One of the legacies of the ill-fated project is in an artificial reservoir that has to be drawn down every four years in order to kill the invasive growth that clogs up the 7,500-acre pool. I first visited during the drawdown nine years ago, exploring the area that was smashed by giant crushers and winding through an eerie forest of ghost cypress stumps. During the last drawdown, I had plans to kayak to one of the many springs that are drowned by the tons of water in the reservoir, but a heavy rain "browned out" the springs and I canceled my trip.

Looking for a river's roots

My efforts to get to the "Lost Springs" of the Ocklawaha were almost spoiled again due to heavy winter rainfall, but I decided to forge on, whatever the conditions, as this opportunity might not present itself for four more years. So I arranged a trip with Captain Karen Chadwick of Northstar Charters, my guide nine years ago. On an overcast, late-December day I set out with my brother and his girlfriend's kid, climate change activist Levi Draheim. As we launched from the former steamboat stop at Eureka, clouds threatened, and the river flowed with a strong current from the rainfall of recent days. While it was far from a picture-perfect Florida day, the conditions created a sense of gloom and mystery, the perfect atmosphere to try to imagine how this untamed river might have been viewed through the eyes of Victorian travelers in the nineteenth century.

The steamboat William Howard leaving Eureka Landing from the State Archives of Florida.

Henry Fenn illustration from Picturesque America showing a riverboat on the Ocklawaha at night.

The foreboding atmosphere when we launched was in time replaced by blue skies.
Image by Kilby Photo.
One of our first stops was at the gate of an dam spillway that was never completed, a hideous monument to man's hubris in the pristine wilderness. Looking very much like a dam, it seemed out-of-place in a channel dredged for barges that never came. To me the parts of the waterway that were manmade had a different feeling than the original channel, the conduits carved out by machine were wider, straighter, and felt soulless compared to winding, organic original watercourse. "As we wound along through the dense vegetation, a picture of novel interest presented itself at every turn" notes the writer of Picturesque America.

The never-used dam spillway at Eureka, photo by Kilby Photo.
As was often the case on nineteenth-century excursions of the river, the journey up the Ocklawaha was made at night, and the surrounding forest was lit by firelight.  "No imagination can conceive the grotesque and weird forms which constantly force themselves on your notice as the light partially illuminates the limbs of wrecked or half-destroyed trees, which, covered with moss or wrapped in decayed vegetation as a winding sheet, seem huge, unburied monsters..." Although we traveled by day, I observed that the edge of the dense swamp surrounding the river is still lined with amazing trees of different shapes and varieties. One particular "monster" was a huge hollow cypress, accessible only because of the drawdown, still standing because lightning must have damaged it and loggers thought it unworthy of harvesting. Inside it was large enough for several people and holes in the tree made perfect windows. For me, standing in this goliath was one of a highlight of the trip, a moment in which we felt like Hobbits or other creatures of folklore, finding shelter in a magical realm.

The big tree, image by Kilby Photo. 
Perfect in its imperfection, image by Kilby Photo. 
Looking up towards the top of the hollow cypress, image by Kilby Photo.
It's hard for me to imagine cutting one of these mighty trees with just an ax.

Another highlight for us was the opportunity for spectacular bird-watching – my brother, Levi and I are all bird lovers. This portion of the river was chock full of limpkins, ibis, herons, egrets, wood storks, hawks, and a lovely group of Roseate Spoonbills – a rarity I'm told. In Picturesque America, passages are devoted to the water turkey (Anhinga), white crane (egret), and turkey-buzzards that "wait patiently" for the decomposition of an alligator. Gators seemed to be around every turn as we wound our way downriver, and they rarely felt obliged to move as we passed, allowing for spectacular views of these prehistoric-looking animals. Today, we are satisfied to shoot these ubiquitous reptiles with cameras, but Victorian visitors often shot alligators with rifles for sport. Picturesque America tells of the "sudden interruption of a rifle ball" against an alligator's "mailed sides."

Roseate Spoonbills. Image by Kilby Photo.
Great Egret. Image by Kilby Photo.
White Ibis. Image by Kilby Photo.
American Alligator. Image by Rick Kilby.
In some ways, not much has changed since 1872.

One of the more interesting illustrations of the book shows a mailbox nailed to a large cypress tree –  an everyday object incongruous in this wild setting. In addition to the ugly vestiges of the canal project near Eureka, a surprising manmade-object along the river was the home of Dr. Stange, a physician once based in McIntosh, Florida who included Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings among his patients. He tragically drowned in the river, but the ruins of his once beautiful home survive, including the remnants of a swimming pool.  The tile floors and masonry walls are being swallowed up by jungle and the windows now serve as frames for the unchecked wilderness that will soon reclaim this crumbling edifice.

The illustration is titled "A post-office on the Ocklawaha."
The house of Dr. Strange, image by Kilby Photo.

Into the transparent depths

In the nineteenth century, the payoff of any journey up the Ocklawaha was a stop at the magnificent Silver Springs, at that time the largest array of freshwater springs in North America. In Picturesque America, the author marvels at the transparency of the water and drops a pebble wrapped with a piece of white paper to watch it flutter into the depths. We were not so sure if the spring we were visiting would be visible at all with the recent rains, so as we navigated into the narrow spring run, we crossed our fingers. As we pulled into the cove of Cannon Springs, it still possessed that unmistakable blue-green hue present in most of Florida's springs. Levi jumped in immediately and my brother and I soon followed, hovering over the boil and posing for the photos to document our trip to a remarkable lost spring. Although it felt cold initially, the water felt great once we got accustomed to it, and we were welcomed with hot chocolate once we got out. While the spring was not a first magnitude wonder, it still had its own charm, as all Florida springs do. The fact that it is ephemeral, made the visit even more special. The spring was browned out the following day by rainwater released upstream.

Silver Spring from Picturesque America.

The canopied spring run to Cannon Springs, image by Kilby Photo.
Levi and I agree –  the dam is dumb. Image by Kilby Photo.

Levi the fish, image by Kilby Photo.
Cannon Springs, image by Kilby Photo.

A sublime sink

Sublime is not a word that most of us use often in our present-day vocabulary; we tend to gravitate to over-the-top terms such as awesome, spectacular, and mega-everything. A few, however, seem comfortable talking about a sense of spirituality that can be found when experiencing the natural world. In my mind, there is little doubt that the Ocklawaha River is a special place, and that we need to reverse the damage caused by our attempts to channelize this wild waterway. Those who want to preserve the dam and maintain the status quo believe that the reservoir has created a paradise for bass fishing. But as a child, my father and I went undertook many fishing trips on the undammed portion of the Ocklawaha near the St. John River and we met with plenty of success. And we were not alone – I remember wave after wave of bass boats speeding down the river to their favorite fishing holes.

Perhaps what is needed to reclaim the river is a paradigm shift towards the values of the Victorians who sought out the mysterious and sublime. An inwardly focused approach, based less on external thrills and more on the journey of the spirit, could have an enormous effect on this part of Florida. The soul of a river waits to be released.

Author Bill Belleville writes of yearning for an opportunity to "sink into gator time," which he describes as an appreciation of the "long natural continuum" that our wildlife enjoyed in the time before man. "Sinking," describes Belleville, is an act that that requires the "timeless patience of a reptile to be so deep inside nature that you become blissfully unaware of all else." If you should have the opportunity to float down the untamed Ocklawaha River, I wish you a good "sink."

Image by Kilby Photo. 
Image by Kilby Photo. 
Image by Kilby Photo.
Image by Kilby Photo. 


  1. Very good writing, and well put together adventure! As the waterways cry Mercy...Will Anyone Listen?

  2. Wish the governor would take the time to visit Cannon Springs. Don't know how anyone who loves Florida can go out there and not want the Oklawaha restored.