Florida Gulf Coast

The coast of Florida on the Gulf of Mexico has various attractive places, reached by a convenient railway system. Homosassa is a popular resort about fifty miles southwestward from Ocala. A short distance in the interior is the locality where the Seminoles surprised and massacred Major Dade and his men in December, 1835, only three soldiers escaping alive to tell the horrid tale. The operations against these Indians were then mainly conducted from the military post of Tampa, and thither were taken for deportation the portions of the tribe that were after-wards captured, or who surrendered under the treaty. When Ferdinand de Soto entered this magnificent harbor on his voyage of discovery and gold hunting, he called it Espiritu Sancto Bay. It is from six to fifteen miles wide, and stretches nearly forty miles into the land, being dotted with islands, its waters swarming with sea-fowl, turtles and fish, deer abounding in the interior and on some of the islands, and there being abundant anchorage for the largest vessels. This is the great Florida harbor and the chief winter resort on the western coast. It was the main port of rendezvous and embarkation for the American forces in the Spanish War of 1898. The head of the harbor divides into Old Tampa and Hills-borough Bays, and on the latter and at the mouth of Hillsborough River is the city, numbering about twenty-five thousand inhabitants. The great hotels are surrounded by groves with orange and lemon trees abounding, and everything is invoked that can add to the tourist attractions. The special industry of the resident population is cigar-making. Port Tampa is out upon the Peninsula between the two bays, several miles below the city, and a long railway trestle leads from the shore for a mile to deep water. Upon the outer end of this long wharf is Tampa Inn, built on a mass of piles, much like some of the constructions in Venice. The guests can almost catch fish out of the bedroom windows, and while eating breakfast can watch the pelican go fishing in the neighboring waters, for this queer-looking bird, with the duck and gull, is everywhere seen in these attractive regions. An outer line of keys defends Tampa harbor from the storms of the Gulf. There are many popular resorts on the islands and shores of Tampa Bay, and regular lines of steamers are run to the West India ports, Mobile and New Orleans. All the surroundings are attractive, and a pleased visitor writes of the place : ” Conditions hereabouts exhilarate the men ; a perpetual sun and ocean breeze are balm to the invalid and an inspiration to a robust health. The landscape affords uncommon diversion, and the sea its royal sport with rod and gaff.”

Farther down the coast is Charlotte Harbor, also deeply indented and sheltered from the sea by various outlying islands. It is eight to ten miles long and extends twenty-five miles into the land, having valuable oyster-beds and fisheries, and its port is Punta Gorda. Below this is the projecting shore of Punta Rassa, where the outlet of Lake Okeechobee, the Caloosahatchie River, flows to the sea, having the military post of Fort Myers, another popular resort, a short distance inland, upon its bank. The Gulf Coast now trends to the southeast, with various bays, in one of which, with Cape Romano as the guarding headland, is the archipelago of ” the ten thousand islands,” while below is Cape Sable, the southwestern extremity of Florida. To the southward, distant from the shore, are the long line of Florida Keys, the name coming from the Spanish word cayo, an island. This remarkable coral formation marks the northern limit of the Gulf Stream, where it flows swiftly out to round the extremity of the Peninsula and begin its northern course through the Atlantic Ocean. Although well lighted and charted, the Straits of Florida along these reefs are dangerous to navigate and need special pilots. Nowhere rising more than eight to twelve feet above the sea, the Keys thus low-lying are luxuriantly covered with tropical vegetation. From the Dry Tortugas at the west, around to Sand’s Key at the entrance to Biscayne Bay, off the Atlantic Coast, about two hundred miles, is a continuous reef of coral, upon the whole extent of which the little builder is still industriously working. The reef is occasionally broken by channels of varying depth, and within the outer line are many habit-able islands. The whole space inside this reef is slowly filling up, just as all the Keys are also slowly growing through accretions from floating substances becoming entangled in the myriad roots of the man-groves. The present Florida Reef is a good example of the way in which a large part of the Peninsula was formed. No less than seven old coral reefs have been found to exist south of Lake Okeechobee, and the present one at the very edge of the deep water of the Gulf Stream is probably the last that can be formed, as the little coral-builder cannot live at a greater depth than sixty feet. The Gulf Stream current is so swift and deep along the outer reef that there is no longer a foundation on which to build.

The Gulf Stream is the best known of all the great ocean currents. The northeast and southeast trade-winds, constantly blowing, drive a great mass of water from the Atlantic Ocean into the Caribbean Sea, and westward through the passages between the Windward Islands, which is contracted by the converging shores of the Yucatan Peninsula and the Island of Cuba, so that it pours between them into the Gulf of Mexico, raising its surface considerably above the level of the Atlantic. These currents then move towards the Florida Peninsula, and pass around the Florida Reef and out into the Atlantic. It is estimated by the Coast Survey that the hourly flow of the Gulf Stream past the reef is nearly ninety thousand million tons of water, the speed at the surface of the axis of the stream being over three and one-half miles an hour. To conceive what the immensity of this flow means, it is stated that if a single hour’s flow of water were evaporated, the salt thus produced would require to carry it one hundred times the number of ocean-going vessels now afloat. The Gulf Stream water is of high temperature, great clearness and a deep blue color; and when it meets the greener waters of the Atlantic to the northward, the line of distinction is often very well defined. At the exit to the Atlantic below Jupiter Inlet the stream is forty-eight miles wide to Little Bahama Bank, and its depth over four hundred fathoms.

There are numerous harbors of refuge among the Florida Keys, and that at Key West is the best. This is a coral island seven miles long and one to two miles broad, but nowhere elevated more than eleven feet above the sea. Its name, by a free translation, comes from the original Spanish name of Cayo Hueso, or the Bone Island, given because the early mariners found human bones upon it. Here are twenty thousand people, mostly Cubans and settlers from the Bahamas, the chief industry being cigar-making, while catching fish and turtles and gathering sponges also give much employment. There are no springs on the island, and the inhabit-ants are dependent on rain or distillation for water.

The air is pure and the climate healthy, the trees and shrubbery, with the residences embowered in perennial flowers, giving the city a picturesque appearance. Key West has a good harbor, and as it commands the gateway to and from the Gulf near the western extremity of the Florida coral reef, it is strongly de-fended, the prominent work being Fort Taylor, constructed on an artificial island within the main harbor entrance. The little Sand Key, seven miles to the southwest, is the southernmost point of the United States. Forty miles to the westward is the group of ten small, low and barren islands known as the Dry Tortugas, from the Spanish tortuga, a tortoise. Upon the farthest one, Loggerhead Key, stands the great guiding light for the Florida Reef, of which this is the western extremity, the tower rising one hundred and fifty feet. Fort Jefferson is on Garden Key, where there is a harbor, and in it were confined various political prisoners during the Civil War, among them some who were concerned in the conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln.

Here, with the encircling waters of the Gulf all around us, terminates this visit to the Sunny South. As we have progressed, the gradual blending of the temperate into the torrid zone, with the changing vegetation, has reminded of Bayard Taylor’s words :

“There, in the wondering airs of the Tropics, Shivers the Aspen, still dreaming of cold : There stretches the Oak from the loftiest ledges, His arms to the far-away lands of his brothers, And the Pine tree looks down on his rival, the Palm.”

And as the journey down the Florida Peninsula has displayed some of the most magnificent winter resorts of the American Riviera, with their wealth of tropical foliage, fruits and flowers, and their seductive and balmy climate, this too has reminded of Cardinal Damiani’s glimpse of the “‘Joys of Heaven”:

” Stormy-winter, burning summer, rage within these regions never, But perpetual bloom of roses and unfading spring forever; Lilies gleam, the crocus glows, and dropping balms their scents deliver.”

Along this famous peninsula the sea rolls with ceaseless beat upon some of the most gorgeous beaches of the American coast. To the glories of tropical vegetation and the charms of the climate, Florida thus adds the magnificence of its unrivalled marine environment. Everywhere upon these pleas-ant coasts _______

“The bridegroom, Sea, Is toying with his wedded bride,—the Shore. He decorates her shining brow with shells, And then retires to see how fine she looks, Then, proud, runs up to kiss her.”