Saturday, January 7, 2017

Dowling Park

If you happen to be driving west through Suwannee County towards the Suwannee River and the county line on CR250, you will pass through Dowling Park. If you blink, you might not notice it. Very little exists along CR250 – little more than a couple of convenience stores and a church. You will probably see signs for Advent Christian Village, but unless you actually make the turn to enter the Advent Christian Village, you’ll be over the Suwannee and into Lafayette County before you know it. However, if you look to the south while you’re crossing the Suwannee River, you’ll get a glimpse of Dowling Park’s past: an old railroad trestle, crossing the Suwannee.

Originally, the area was known as Hudson on the Suwannee; however, when Live Oak, FL-based Suwannee County timber magnate Thomas Dowling located the center of his expanding timber enterprise there at the turn of the twentieth century, it was renamed Dowling Park.

Dowling Park Lumber Company, early 1900s [source]

The Dowling Park sawmill and railroad depot were located adjacent to a railway line initially named the R.L. Dowling Shortline (after a relative, Robert L. Dowling, who served as vice president of the railroad), which connected Dowling Park to the main railroad line passing through Live Oak. It was later renamed the Live Oak, Perry, and Gulf Railroad as it expanded westward towards Perry and the Gulf.

In addition to serving as the community surrounding the sawmill, Thomas Dowling hoped that his Dowling Park would become a popular vacation resort area. As such, in the early 1900s, he opened the Dowling Park Hotel Resort, which contained swimming pools, bowling and billiards, and other resort amenities along the Suwannee at Dowling Park.

Park Hotel, ca1905

Dowling Park Hotel Resort Assembly Hall, billiard and bowling hall, early 1900s

Thomas Dowling (left) and Richard Sears of Sears, Roebuck & Co. (right) beside the Park Hotel Pavilion, early 1900s [source]

Dowling Park street map, 1906

The original community of Dowling Park served the sawmill and the people who worked there. However, once local timber supplies began to dwindle and the logging industry followed the expansion of the railroad westward, a new purpose was required if any of the community were to survive. Prior to his death in 1911, Thomas Dowling’s pastor, Burr Bixler of the Advent Christian Church of Live Oak, persuaded him to deed 120 acres of his property at Dowling Park – in the area which had been the location of the sawmill and railroad depot, among other aspects of the Dowling Park community. Bixler’s initial plan for the land was to use it as an Advent Christian campground; however, after being contacted by a widowed parishioner in failing health who was seeking a home for her soon to be orphaned children, Bixler set about establishing a home for orphans and a retirement community for members of the Advent Christian Church clergy in Dowling Park. In December of 1913, the first building of the American Advent Christian Home and Orphanage at Dowling Park opened its doors to its first orphans.

Original Advent Christian Church in Dowling Park, ca1915 [source]

Construction of the original "old folks home" at Dowling Park, ca1920 [source]

Live Oak Perry & Gulf Railroad crossing the Suwannee River at Dowling Park, 1942

Live Oak Perry & Gulf Railroad, westbound near Dowling Park, ca1945

Live Oak Perry & Gulf Railroad crossing the Suwannee River at Dowling Park, 1945

Today, if you turn north off of CR250 and enter the Advent Christian Village, you will find an incredible and far from desolate self-contained retirement community, featuring stores, hospitals, restaurants, a post office, and residences ranging from individual homes to a full-care nursing home facility. I drove all around the facility, thinking that many people would find it a pleasant place in which to retire, although I could see no signs of Dowling Park’s historical past. Based on the maps, it would seem that the woods to the south of the Advent Christian Village’s Tresca Park Campground and Park of the Pines Neighborhood would be the location of the former railway depot, and possibly aspects of the sawmill and lumber company as well. However, I felt weird enough driving around a retirement community where I knew no one, and didn’t know how they’d take to me bushwhacking through their woodland.

North Entrance on CR136

Along Dowling Park Drive after entering from the South Entrance on CR250

A Google Earth glimpse of where the railroad depot and sawmill would have been located, in relation to the modern day facilities of Advent Christian Village.

Back on CR250, shortly before you reach the Suwannee River, if you look to your left at just the right spot, you can see the old railroad bed, coming out of the woods and merging with what is now CR250. Just before you reach the bridge over the river is a turnoff on the northern side of the road, which will bring you to a small park and boat ramp. From there, you can look southward and see the old railroad trestle. A walk under the bridge carrying CR250 across the Suwannee will take you to the remains of the old railroad trestle, where engines of the Live Oak, Perry, and Gulf Railroad once steamed through. The rails have been removed, but the bones of the bridge remain. It is possible to walk along the railroad bed itself back up to where it merges with CR250.

Looking south from the boat ramp. The bridge in the fore is CR250; the bridge in the rear is the remains of the railroad trestle.

Another view from the area near the boat ramp.

Walking south, approaching the railroad trestle.

At the base of the railroad bed

Railroad trestle of the former Live Oak, Perry and Gulf Railroad, crossing the Suwannee

What remains of the railroad trestle up close.

Looking back toward Dowling Park along the old railroad bed

Occasionally one comes across a remaining railroad tie.

Where the old railroad bed merges with CR250.

On Google Earth, you can see the traces of the old railroad. (Below, shown with and without highlights of the old railroad.)

For more information:

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Lee: Little but Proud

The tiny community of Lee is located in eastern Madison County, between the towns of Madison to the west and Live Oak to the east. I’ve had a hard time finding much information about the history of the small town, but judging from the number of photographs I was able to find in the Florida Archive, it was once much bigger than it is today. Here’s what I was able to learn:

Settlement of Madison County began in the early 1800s, initially led by cotton planters clustered around the city of Madison. However, the area where the community of Lee sprang up began to coalesce into a community in the decades following the Civil War. As with many of the small communities that emerged across north Florida in the late 1800s, the settlers of eastern Madison County made their livings off of lumber mills, cotton, farming, and the railroad. The first sawmill in what would later become known as Lee was established in the 1890s, although the community itself wasn’t formally incorporated until 1909. During the early decades of the twentieth century, Lee had an active depot on the Seaboard Air Line Railway, a drug store, shoe store, gas station, barber shop, bank, post office and grocery. 

First sawmill in Lee, 1890s

J.E. Whitty and Son Drugstore,1918 (store built 1910)

Interior of shoe shop, early 1900s

Kinsey's Barber Shop (left); Emory Turlington's store (right), early 1900s

Farmers Bank, Early 1900s

Interior of Farmers Bank, early 1900s

Lee School, 1920s

JC Black Cotton Gin, 1934

Seaboard Air Line Railway Company Depot, 1938

When you arrive in the modern community of Lee, one of the first things you will see is the town motto - Lee: Little but Proud. The town is indeed little, with fewer than 400 residents. Not much remains of the businesses that once clustered along the railroad; however, signs of the town's former glory can still be seen.

Formerly Kinsey's Barber Shop

Formerly Kinsey's Barber Shop

Formerly Emory Turlington's store

The view from Kinsey's Barber Shop towards Turlington's store

I am not sure what kind of business is (was?) run by David Joseph, but it is nice to see the Farmer's Bank still stands. It also served as the location of the Lee Post Office for a time.

Across the street from the remains of Kinsey's Barbershop is the picturesque old Fry Grocery Store.

I wish I had been able to find an old photo of this structure because it was quite fun to photograph, and I'd love to see it in its former glory.

Looking north from the former Farmers Bank

Sadly, there was no sign of many of the former businesses, such as the sawmill, drugstore, shoe store, or the railway depot.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Dixie Mainline and Shired Island

The area of Florida known today as Dixie County remains sparsely populated – with fewer than 20,000 residents – and filled with vast swaths of picturesque desolation. While the county itself wasn’t formed until 1921 (when it separated from Lafayette County), the area was first inhabited by non-indigenous settlers in the 1820s. However, it is the period of the 1920s where today’s story begins. During that time, Florida’s logging industry had begun expanding into the swampland near the coast of the state’s Big Bend region. Due to the swampy nature of much of the land, raised rail-beds for small-gauge trams needed to be constructed in order to bring equipment in and to haul logs out. The longest of the former tram-beds, which ran from the town of Suwannee northward nearly to the community of Horseshoe Beach, was known as the Dixie Mainline.

The following three photographs are from the State of Florida Archives. They are labeled as logging from this time period in Dixie County, although whether or not they are from the Dixie Mainline is unknown. However, this should give you a good idea of how the logging operations in the area at that time looked. All three photos are from the 1920s.

The boom-years of the Dixie County logging industry were from the 1920s through the 1940s, after which point the area was nearly entirely denuded of old growth forest. The rail lines were pulled, but the raised beds remained. The area was purchased in the late 1970s by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and turned into what is now the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. In the 1990s, the Dixie Mainline was made navigable once again: the lime-rock was shored up, and concrete bridges were erected over the various creeks. It was opened for public use in 1998.

The Dixie Mainline Trail extends 9 miles through the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. It continues a further six or so miles as a county road. The Mainline can be driven, hiked, or cycled. There are several places along the Mainline where one can park in order to explore trails that can only be traversed on foot. However, when my mom and I visited in October 2016, little more than a month had passed since Hurricane Hermine had struck the area. As such, while the Mainline itself was perfectly passable, not all of the trails were.

Much of the Dixie Mainline looks like this.

One of the first places to pull off the Mainline (if you're heading north from Suwannee) is at Salt Creek, where there is a nature trail as well as a boardwalk. However, while the boardwalk has clearly been repaired following Hurricane Hermine, the trail... hadn't exactly been. The beginning of the trail has recently been bushhogged, but only a little ways into the woods. At that point everything remains covered in storm surge detritus. The did re-hang the sign, though!

The view from the boardwalk over Salt Creek is quite lovely, however:

As the Mainline continues, you move away from pineforests and into palm-filled marshland:

The map provided by the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge shows available canoe launching where the Mainline crosses Sanders Creek and Shired Creek; however, there didn't appear to be a visible launch point as such. While these would be gorgeous places to launch a canoe or kayak, getting into the water might be an adventurous process!

The rather rocky "canoe launch" at Sanders Creek

Sanders Creek

Shired Creek

Shired Creek

The official Dixie Mainline Trail ends at its intersection with Hwy 357. Turning left onto this highway will bring you to Shired Island (pronounced share-ed, BTW). The county park and campground at Shired Island is incredibly popular with locals during the summer, and is typically the opposite of desolate. However, the fact that Hurricane Hermine had done a number on the park's few facilities combined with the fact that my mom and I were there on a Friday in October meant that it was desolate indeed.

The dock at Shired Island was destroyed by Hurricane Hermine, as were several of the picnic shelters on the site. There were a couple of headless palm trees as well.

However, for much of the area, you would never guess that it had recently taken the brunt of a hurricane.

There were fiddler crabs everywhere!

The shell-mound island to the north was covered in driftwood, although much of it clearly predated Hurricane Hermine.

We spied an osprey with its dinner...

....of which it was very proud!