Ten years ago, I visited the Everglades National Park for a day. I really enjoyed it and wished to return. Finally I did, only this time I explored the area near Everglades City and learned it has a very storied past. I left with a wealth of historical knowledge.
The everglades region encompasses 4,300 square miles in Southern Florida. The Everglades National Park protects the Southernmost 20% of the Florida Everglades while the Big Cypress National Preserve covers approximately 1,100 square miles.
Early History of the Everglades
Near the Park and Preserves is the Island of Everglades City which is the Western gateway to the area and to Chokoloskee Bay. This part of the Everglades was inhabited for thousands of years by Native Americans prior to the arrival of Europeans.
By the time Spain regained control of Florida from Britain after the American Revolution from 1776-1783, the Seminoles had moved into the state. They provided a safe haven for escaped slaves and acted as a buffer between Spanish Florida and the United States.
The Seminole Wars
Conflicts between American settlers and the Seminoles caused the US Army to attack in the First Seminole War of 1817-1818. The attacks pushed the Seminoles further into the Everglades. Two more wars followed over the next 40 years resulting in the longest and costliest American Indian Wars in US history.
While many Seminoles ultimately moved to present day Oklahoma with signed treaties, some remained and do so today. They are allowed to live, hunt, and carry out everyday life in Big Cypress Preserve unlike others. But I digress.
The wars resulted in US Army exploring and mapping much of the area. With that, soon came settlors who exploited the wildlife. Plume bird hunters killed herons and egrets for their feathers to make hats. The feathers became worth more than gold as they became scarce with entire populations of birds being decimated.
This led to legislation in 1900 that banned plume hunting. Ironically, the Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, to the Northwest of Big Cypress Preserve, is located at a rookery and an old plume hunting camp that wardens guarding the rookery chased off.
In addition to plume hunting, was alligator hunting. Alligator hunting was so prevalent that by 1967 it was added to the endangered species list. An old alligator camp may be seen on Wooten’s Swamp Buggy Tour on the Tamiami Trail. Fortunately, the birds and the alligators have since made a full recovery, but in the meantime, the settlements required a trading post.
The Smallwood Store
In 1906, the Ted Smallwood Store filled the needs. Now a museum, the store is located on banks of Chokoloskee Island. Hunters and Indians traded furs, hides, and farm produce in exchange for survival items. The museum is a time capsule which includes many stories.
The most significant being the story of the townsmen killing Edgar J Watson in the store. It was rumored that Watson would hire runaways to work his sugarcane fields and on pay day, he’d take them to the one of the 10,000 Islands and kill them. Ultimately, he met his fate! The fiction writer Peter Matthiessen has written a trilogy based on Mr. Watson. The first book, Killing Mister Watson, is a National Bestseller.
Everglades City and the Surrounding Development
By the 1920’s, the Everglades became a target of development. The Melaleuca Tree was introduced to Florida from Australia in order to dry up the glades. In addition, the construction of the Tamiami Trail began five years earlier. The 275 mile highway was to go from Tampa to Miami, thus the name. The State of Florida, however, ran out of funds as it reached the east-west stretch in 1923.
As a result, the wealthy businessman from New York, Barron Collier, who had been buying up property including that of William Smith Allen and George Storter Jr who were the original settlors of what was a small fishing village, proposed he would build the road in exchange for Florida naming a county after him. In 1923, Collier County was formed and the Everglades, now Everglade City, became the county seat.
While the Tamiami Trail was being built, the small community grew to include the Collier County Courthouse, the Bank of Everglades Building, and the Everglades Laundry which serviced the Rod & Gun Club and now houses the Museum of the Everglades. The Museum is free to enter, though donations are accepted. It features a few films and several exhibits documenting the history of the area.
Ultimately, the Tamiami Trail, also known as Highway 41 which marks the Northern border of Everglades National Park, took 13 years to build using 2.6 million sticks of dynamite and cost $8 million. There after a road to Everglades City Island was completed and soon the railroad made Everglades City its southernmost point.
Conservation of the Everglades
While development threatened the area, Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Ernest F Coe worked on getting the everglades designated as a national park which took place in 1934. It took an additional 13 years to acquire the land and to secure funding to open the park in 1947.
In the 1950’s, the US Army built many canals, levees, dams and pump stations to control the waters in the marsh land. Little did they know that they were destroying the everglades ecosystem. This, coupled with the plan to build the Everglades Jetport in 1968, prompted Marjory Stoneman Douglas to establish the Friend of the Everglades. The 79 year old charged dues of $1 in order to raise awareness of the Everglades.
While it probably helped that the Boeing 2707 supersonic aircraft program was cancelled, Marjory managed to get construction on the largest proposed airport in the world halted after only one of the six runways was built. The runway is encompassed by the Big Cypress Preserve and is now used as a training facility.
The opening words in her book, The Everglades: River of Grass, exclaim “There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth; remote, never wholly known. Nothing anywhere else is like them…”
She goes on to explain, “the rainfall on which South Florida counts, comes from evaporation in the Everglades. The Everglades evaporate, the moisture goes up into the clouds, the clouds are blown to the north, and the rain comes down over the Kissimmee River and Lake Okeechobee. Lake Okeechobee is fed by these rains. The lake fills up, and the excess water drains down the Caloosahatchee River into the Gulf of Mexico to the west, or through the St. Lucie River and into the Atlantic Ocean to the east. The remainder spills over the southern rim of the lake into the great arc of the Everglades.”
Recent History of Everglades City
If it weren’t for her and the Friends of the Everglades, the everglades would likely not exist today. Now, however, they provide a diverse ecosystem of many species and some fun adventures for tourists which brings me back to Everglades City as it is about the only place visitors can stay near the western area of Big Cypress Preserve and Everglades National Park unless visiting a resort town like Marco Island 20 miles away.
Everglades City could not overcome the damage of the 1960 hurricane Donna and as a result the county seat was moved to the ever-growing Naples. Additionally, with the crackdown of commercial fishing in the Everglades, the small town of 600 faced a difficult time.
As a result, most residents began fishing for square grouper, blocks of marijuana which were thrown overboard or dropped by plane. It was a perfect drug operation as only the locals knew how to navigate the 10,000 islands. During Reagan’s war on drugs, however, the DEA executed two highly publicized raids in 1983 and 1984 which resulted in 80% of the Everglades City male population being incarcerated!
It is funny, because as we took a scenic drive on the Loop Road which was once planned as part of the Tamiami Trail, I commented to my friend Page, “You know if you wanted to get rid of someone, this is the place to do it. Anyone gone missing in the Everglades would never be found. Little did I know of the criminal storied past of its residents.
Everglades City Tourism
Now, Everglades City Everglades City is a town of 600. The locals, who are likely all related in some way, are low key, friendly, and extremely knowledgeable about the history and environment in which they live. You’ll likely meet a python hunter, a fisherman, and a naturalist all at the gas station.
Everglades City is the gateway to fishing and kayaking in the 10,000 Islands as well as home to adventures tours in the Preserve and Park. Tours in the surrounding area include a swamp walk, airboats, kayaks, swamp buggies, and pole skiffs. Find out more on tours in the swamp at my latest post. Additionally, here is a list of most the operators in the area:
Ivey House – Ivey House is a hotel in Everglades City. It is nothing fancy, but has the regular amenities and the staff will help organize some tours. They organized our kayak tour with Everglades Adventure Tours for us.
Clyde Butcher – Clyde Butcher is a famous black and white photographer who has a gallery on the Tamiami Trail. The gallery includes a short trail through a swampy area, guided swamp walks as well as two bungalows for overnight stays. It is definitely the pricier way to go.
Trail Lakes Campground – Trail Lake Campground provides camping, tours and is also home to the Skunk Ape Headquarters. The back room houses a handful of pythons they have caught in the Everglades along with some alligators and free range chickens for the gators’ lunch. The mini zoo is free to enter with the purchase of a tour, otherwise there is a fee.
Everglades Adventure Tours – Everglades Adventures Tours operate out of the Skunk Ape Headquarters and the Ivey House. They offer kayaking tours, guided swamp walks, and pole boat tours. They also provide kayak rentals.
Wooten’s – Wooten’s sells Swamp Buggy Tours and Airboat Rides. The tickets for these tours include entry into a gator show and animal sanctuary with lions and tigers. There are combo tickets for the budget minded.
Coopertown, the Original Airboat Tours – Coopertown is closer to Miami than Everglades City so it draws day visitors. That said, it is the original airboat tour company and that is its only focus. Private or group tours are available.
Everglades Fishing Company – I didn’t fish, but this company is based out of the Marathon Gas Station in Everglades City which is also home to a great restaurant called Nely’s Corner. The folks are very friendly, and I’d use them if I had friends that fished.
Everglades City Fishing Charters – This company works with the Ivey House. Again, I didn’t fish, so I can’t provide more insight beyond what is on their website.
Big Cypress Institute – I stumbled upon this group too late. The Big Cypress Institute is hidden off Turner Road in the Big Cypress Preserve. It offers walking, bicycling, paddling, beginner birding, and swamp buggy tours. It seems very nature oriented and the prices are more affordable. If I were to return, I’d likely do a bicycle tour and swamp walk with them.
They each have a website and brochures can be found at all the local establishments. Or the below map is interactive. Click on the points of interest for more information. ETB
Check out the photographic note cards and key chains at my shop. Each card has a travel story associated with it. 20% of proceeds are donated to charity.