Along Florida's Highways & Byways

Fall 2005 CSANews Issue 56  |  Posted date : May 23, 2007.Back to list

How well do you know Florida?
I've always wanted to write a book about Florida ... to share some of the adventures and special places I've enjoyed over 42 years of visiting the Sunshine State. So last year, my wife Kathy and I started planning a new book to be called, Along Florida's Expressways. It was to be written, when time permitted, between my

Along Interstate-75 work. But last fall, the part-time project became a priority. As August turned to September, Florida was hammered by hurricanes and urgent requests for our I-75 book poured in. Many Floridians evacuated northwards to Georgia...and realized that our book had all the gas, food and lodging information they needed. Sadly, a similar book did not exist for Florida's roads'so we decided to write it and get it to market as soon as possible.

Kathy and I set out in January and drove the entire length of every Florida expressway – each interstate, toll route and limited access freeway – in both directions. We drove a surprising 7,911 km within the state and spent $66.40 on tolls. We were "on the road" for six weeks, stopping at a different place each night. As we travelled, we videoed the road ahead, dictated more than 37 hours of notes and visited many unusual places often missed by those who drive Florida's expressways each winter. We finally returned home in mid-February.

And then the best part of the project began. As an author, there is absolutely nothing more satisfying than immersing yourself in a new book. The pleasure of researching the unusual story "leads" gathered on the road and the enjoyment of crafting your thoughts into words and sentences, are difficult to describe.

We had returned home to an icy Canadian winter, but I never saw it. Working seven days a week in my windowless basement office, I was "in my element" researching, drawing maps and writing. Every day, I was "driving" in Florida. Spring came and turned into one of the hottest summers on record...but I was oblivious to it, for I was on one of the most fascinating journeys of discovery I have ever experienced. Let me share several of the little-known facts I found about this remarkable state.

Was Florida once part of Africa?
When you look at a modern globe, I'm sure the continental shapes are very familiar to you. But 200 million years ago (the Jurassic Period), things were quite different.

At the bottom of the globe lay a super continent called Gondwana. Within it, South America's bulge nestled into the "bight" of Africa, with Florida's tiny and submerged bedrock platform sandwiched between (near modern Africa's Senegal). To the north of Gondwana lay the prehistoric Tethys Sea, and then another super continent called Laurasia – today's North America, Europe and parts of Asia.

Through time, the land masses slowly broke apart. South America separated from Africa; North America split from Europe and drifted northwest, taking the "orphaned" Florida platform bedrock with it. By the Pliocene Age (10 million years ago), the continents were just about where they are today. The Florida Platform, still submerged at the time, was acquiring layer upon layer of marine invertebrate skeletons which would eventually form Florida's distinctive "karst" limestone geology.

By the way, we are still moving and several million years from now, the continents will look quite different again – I'll have to get a new globe!

Nazi Spies Land in Florida
On the night of June 17, 1942, Kapitänleutnant Deeke guided his submarine, U-584, towards the Florida coast using the St. Augustine lighthouse as a landmark. The sea was calm and reflected the lights of the beach houses and occasionally, the voices of late-night revellers floated across the water. Hitler's Operation Pastorius had begun.

In range, Deeke turned U-584's dark silhouette to starboard and headed a little farther north to the dark and lonely beach of Ponte Vedra. The aft hatch opened and four Nazi saboteurspies quickly launched a rubber dinghy from the sea-washed deck. They rowed towards the sands with a cargo of high explosives. Once ashore, they discarded their uniforms and changed into "civvies." Using collapsible spades, they dug a hole close to some stone steps and buried their cache for later recovery.

They looked back at the dark, empty sea...for by now, Deeke had taken U- 584 back out and was at periscope depth while his men listened to their favourite entertainment, "American music" from St. Augustine radio station, WFOY – a real treat, since jazz was banned in Hitler's Germany. The saboteurs were alone in enemy territory.

But Pastorius was well planned and they knew what to do next. The spies walked to the old beach highway, stopping for a smoke before buying night bus tickets for Jacksonville at the local general store.

The mission had been personally ordered by Hitler and had taken two years to plan. His aim? Demonstrate to the Americans that they were not safe in their own homeland. Blow up and destroy power plants and canal locks. Plant explosives in public places and create panic and fear.

Four nights earlier, a similar landing operation had taken place at a lonely beach on Long Island. That night, U-202 landed four spies and crates of explosives, but things had not gone as planned. After burying their cargo, they ran into a suspicious Coast Guard officer who spread the alarm.

The spies ran, and their buried cache was quickly discovered, setting off a huge FBI manhunt. One of the men decided to give himself up in exchange for clemency, and his information led to the quick arrest of the others. After a closed Military Commission trial, six were sentenced to death by electric chair and two informers were imprisoned.

A footnote to history – the 1942 closed Military Commission was used as a legal precedent for indefinitely detaining suspected Al Qaeda terrorists in the post-9/11 days.

Who was the first European to see Florida?
It certainly wasn't Columbus who, in 1492, didn't come close to the North American shore and it may not even have been the first documented explorer, Spain's Ponce de Leon, who landed near St. Augustine in 1513.

In light of recently discovered documents, historians now believe that it was probably John Cabot who, in 1498, sailed with a fleet of five ships from England, under a charter issued by King Henry VII. But he and his ships never returned from this voyage.

After Spain's King Ferdinand heard about the Englishman's 1498 departure, he dispatched the brutal Spanish explorer-buccaneer Alonso de Hojeda with three ships to discover Cabot's whereabouts. American Indians showed Hojeda parts of a sword and some jewellery, probably owned by the Englishman. A map later published by Cosa, an experienced mapmaker in Hojeda's crew, identifies five American coastal landmarks with the notation, "mar descubierto par inglese" (sea discovered by the English).

There is no record of Cabot landing in Florida, but it's now accepted that he probably sailed along Florida's Atlantic shoreline in 1499 before arriving in Venezuela, where he and his crew were murdered by Hojeda.

Why Florida's mail was late
It's 110 km from Miami to Palm Beach and, in the mid- 1800s, delivery of a letter between the towns would take six to eight weeks. It had to go 4,800 km by boat to Key West, to Havana, Cuba, to New York and to Jacksonville, before being delivered to its destination.

This wasn't good enough, so a local group decided to do something about it. They hired 11 young men who carried mail by foot, on the beaches. The mailmen had to cover the round trip in six days and were then given one day off before starting again. Three-day mail service had finally arrived.

The "Barefoot Mailmen" (they ran in bare feet on the sand with their shoes dangling over their shoulders) became famous and the mail was only late twice in the service's 13-year history.

The first time was in 1886, when a mailman found the cargo from a wrecked Spanish ship – hundreds of casks of wine – scattered all over the beach. The mail was very late that week!

The second time occurred a year later, when mailman Ed Hamilton disappeared en route. Search parties found his clothes and mailbag hanging in a tree on Hillsboro beach; the mailman's boat was on the other side of the inlet. A further search found his jawbone, identified by a gold tooth. All concluded that the mailman had stripped to swim across the inlet to get his boat, but had been attacked and eaten by an alligator!

Tampa Bay was once a valley far inland from the ocean
Twelve thousand years ago during the Ice Age, the sea level was 300 feet lower, exposing much of the Florida Platform. The Florida Peninsula was much wider (450 km) than it is today (215 km). The climate was quite different, as well. Cooler and wetter with annual snowfalls, much like Virginia's climate today. When the glaciers melted 3,000 years later, the locked-up ice water returned to the world's oceans and the sea rose to its present level, forming Florida's modern coastline.

These are just a few of the very unusual Florida stories we researched and included in "Along Florida's Expressways." How well do you know Florida?

Dave Hunter is the author of the award-winning "Along Interstate-75" and the new "Along Florida's Expressways."