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Jun 4 , 2016

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Blazing the Tamiami Trail

by Frank Ross
Blazing the Tamiami Trail

Driving traffic-clogged US 41 in Sarasota can be a maddening experience, when you’re behind a barrier of “Honey, look over there” drivers, and twenty minutes late for an appointment. A minor fender-bender never fails to block traffic somewhere around South Gate, and progress comes to a radiator-steaming halt. This will be little consolation, but next time you are sitting, drumming your fingers on the steering when in similar circumstances, consider the good old days when the Tamiami Trail was only the dream of a handful of Dade and Lee County promoters.

Sloshing to Miami from the west coast required several wet weeks, incredible stamina and an Indian guide. At that time there were no cross-state highways south of New Smyrna. Everyone recognized the need to connect both coasts with a highway; however, conservative opponents to the idea felt it was an impossible dream because of the sea of sawgrass that grows as high as a man over the 4,000 square miles of rivers and marsh water that make up the largest swamp on the continent of North America. Some alarmists predicted that Miami would be flooded if a road cut the swamp in half.

The first white man crossed the Everglades during the Seminole War in 1857. The field notes of an Army scouting expedition commanded by Captain Jacob Mickler and guided by “Old Polly,” an Indian squaw, document the weeks of hardship it took to reach Fort Dallas (where Miami stands). Though that first foray into the unknown was successful, few were anxious to repeat it. In the next 58 years, several military and civilian forces explored the “Glades,” but none were able to discover a safe passageway.

Early in 1915, Captain James F. Jaudon, a Miami real estate developer, went to Tallahassee. He met there with state officials and Francis W. Perry, president of the Florida Board of Trades, to discuss the possibility of building a highway across the Everglades from Miami to Ft. Myers. Judge E.G. Wilkinson and E.W. Crayton of Naples were also present. The Lee County men agreed with Miami’s principals that if Captain Jaudon would guarantee that Dade County would build the leg from Miami to the Lee County line, their people would stand good for the portion to Ft. Myers.

From these early meetings came the proposed names of the “Miami to Marco Highway” and the “Atlantic to Gulf Boulevard.” At a meeting in May 1915, Tampa Trade Board member E.P. Dickey suggested that the logical name should involve the major cities at either end of the intended route.

“The Tamiami Trail” caught the public’s fancy and stuck. It has long been called simply “The Trail” by locals.

At the time, a segmented road system placed the responsibilities for roads on each county. Counties built to their lines and stopped. Between conception and completion, three new counties would be formed by the legislature, further complicating the road’s progress.

The quality of roads in the state varied greatly from county to county. In 1914, a group called the “Sarasota Good Road Boosters” organized the effort that paved a road from Sarasota to Venice. Every road had its particular personality. The road to Bradenton was called the “Wished to God” road because drivers usually wished to God they had taken another set of ruts.

In 1916, the commissioners and voters of Dade County approved a bond issue of the then-enormous total of $275,000. Of this sum all but $25,000 was to be used for construction. In light of the finished price tag of $13 million, this original bond was something of a joke.

Bond issues were bold moves in years of difficult and uncertain times for the fledgling state. No one involved ever dreamed that a world war would begin and end and three new counties would be created before cars could roll across paved swamp.

The project was almost the highway that never started. Dade commissioners asked for bids. None were received. Undaunted, they advertised in newspapers and finally awarded a contract to the J.B. McCrary Company of Atlanta, which was to build the Miami-to-Marco segment.

McCrary, in turn, sublet the project to the Morgan Paving Company of Miami, which discovered almost immediately that the money though grossly inadequate, was the least of their troubles.

All types of water-born devices were used to drive pilings into the swampy land.

Engineers wading chest deep in snake-infested water and mud had only glimpsed the dangers that awaited the arriving crews. Special advance crews of sharpshooters preceded workers to shoot the alligators, snakes and crocodiles that were in the highway’s path. Other workmen followed, clearing the underbrush with machetes and matches. They burned and hacked their way slowly ahead of the crews, building temporary bridges so they could bring in equipment to build the real bridges.

Frequently these temporary overpasses gave way beneath the heavy machines, dropping thousands of dollars of equipment into the water and ooze. The disheartened workmen would then spend days fishing the equipment out. Sometimes they abandoned it and brought in more to continue work.

For a time, it seemed nature had created an impenetrable barrier that refused to be paved. The highest point of land was found to be only 12 feet above sea level. In the dry season there was very little water; and the rainy season, water stood 15 feet in some places. Then there was the ever-present wall of sawgrass.

At night, workers stuck close to a campfire and slept under the stars or in mobile bunk houses pulled by tractors. In the daylight, workers moving from one camp to another had to burn smoke signals in order to find each other in the ocean of swaying sawgrass that slashed the skin to ribbons.

Under the surface of the water, a layer of soft muck covered a foundation of hard, jagged-edged limestone that made difficult footing. In the beginning, the workers attempted to spread flat layers of crushed rock over the limestone to make a suitable roadbed. But in wet weather, muckish formations would cover the rock completely. In dry weather, on the other hand, the rock burned in spots. With its heavy vegetable oil content, the peat-like ground was often set afire by carelessly placed campfires. When these fires started, they burned acres of black earth to ashes that smoldered until it rained again.

To cross such a formidable land, they needed a uniform, indestructible roadbed. After much consideration, engineers decided to use the material at hand. Well, almost at hand. The limestone they wanted to use lay under a covering of water, muck and rotting vegetation. Workmen faced the Herculean task of blasting the rock loose and building an elevated roadbed safe from the swamp’s high water mark.

It sounded simple enough on the drawing board! Blasting crews used ox carts to haul in the 3 million pounds of dynamite that it took to blow up 90 miles of hard rock. In the process, several workmen blew themselves up along with the pieces of flying swamp.

The magnitude of the undertaking was fully realized as funds allocated by Dade and Lee Counties sank like so many stones tossed into the swamp. The Morgan Company eventually admitted defeat, placing the responsibility of the contract on the McCrary Company of Atlanta. Additional bond issues were raised from time to time, but progress slowed to a snail’s pace. In 1919 it appeared Lee County, with 121 miles of road to build, would be unable to raise its share of the money.

When he realized this, Captain Jaudon offered to construct a section of the road if it could be re-routed across his company’s land holdings in Monroe County. Company spokesmen said the highway then would be dedicated to the public. Jaudon’s company, the Chevelier Corporation, began work soon after the proposal was adopted.

In 1923, Barron G. Collier, a New York financier and land developer, began buying up land in Lee County until he owned over one million acres. Soon the state legislature lopped off part of Lee County and named it Collier County after its owner. Soon a struggle began, as both Collier and Jaudon wanted the road to pass through their land.

The struggle ended when the state took over the project and surveyors cited inadequacies in the Monroe section owned by Jaudon. Against strong objections by Monroe County officials and Jaudon’s Chevelier Corporation, who had stood by their half of the agreement, the route went through Collier County. On an official road map issued in 1941 by the State Road Department, the Monroe section is marked as “State Highway 27.”

The Trail took thirteen years to complete. It was complicated not just by money problems, construction halts and a world war, but also by predictions of doom from disbelievers. Fortunately, there was a small band of influential men who believed in the road – not to mention the profits their land would yield once the Trail passed their way. To keep the idea alive in the public’s mind, they sought favorable coverage from the press and staged publicity stunts.

The most famous stunt was known as the “Tamiami Trailblazers.” In 1923, with several workmen dead and little progress made, the outlook appeared dismal. In a dramatic attempt to revive interest in the fading dream, a group of 23 white men and 2 Indian guides formed an expedition that set out on a perilous three-week trip across the Everglades from Ft. Myers to Miami.

With a commissary truck, seven Model-T Fords and a new Elcar, they set out on what they thought would be a three-day jaunt. Three weeks of misery later, they arrived in Miami a little worse for wear and without a certain bottle of grape juice entrusted to them. This bottle of juice had been given to the Trailblazers by noted inventors Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. They were to deliver it to William Jennings Bryan in Miami. Unfortunately, the juice came to the expedition’s attentions when food and water were running low. It was consumed at once. One of the men did report to Bryan that it was the finest grape juice he had ever tasted.

When the expedition finally arrived in Miami, trailing a wake of stripped and bogged down Model-T’s, it was a triumph for the men and the Model-T’S that did finish the course. The Elcar, which a Fort Myers dealer entered in the effort to show the car’s stamina and ruggedness, did not fare as well. It made about 100 yards of the trip past the end of civilization at Everglades City. When the shell road stopped, so did the Elcar.

Many sensational news stories abounded when the men became long overdue. Planes sent out to try to spot them were at first unsuccessful because the men were hacking their way through cypress forests when the plane flew over. Some reports had them swallowed up by the swamp’s quicksand, lost and starving, captured and tortured by the Indians, and one even speculated that they were traveling with women and in no hurry to find their way.

The truth was that they knew their approximate position all the time, thanks to two excellent Indian guides, Little Billy and Abraham Lincoln.

In the end these wild fabrications probably did as much good as harm. The adventure captured the attention of the entire world as press coverage widened. An estimated 35,000 columns of front page publicity in America and Europe was generated by this little “three day jaunt.” Film clips on newsreels in movie houses told the story of man conquering the last untamed frontier in North America. This brave band of optimists proved it was possible to find a route across the southern end of the state. Soon the wheels of progress were turning again.

When the state legislature created a state road department, the uncompleted Tamiami Trail was recognized as a priority project due to state funds. In three years, the Trail was completed. Much of the road lay over Indian trails that had been used for a hundred years. Despite many fears, the Indians of the Everglades did not rise up against the new encroachment of the white man. There was only one incident during the long construction years. Workmen awoke on day to a large band of Seminoles angry over the height of a new bridge. They were unable to paddle their dugout canoes underneath the low span. The bridge was quickly rebuilt and the happy Indians faded into the brush, content with their victory.

On April 25, 1928, the finished road was opened to the public – 13 years and $13 million after its naïve beginning in a Miami meeting room. A great motorcade formally opened the route by driving from Tampa to Miami with frequent planned stops for parties and speeches.

For the workmen who brought this dream to reality, heroism and tragedy were accepted as part of the day’s work. Men say their fellow workers killed in explosions and drowned in unforgiving water they struggle to cross. All those who survived were scarred and battered by the relentless demands of taming a savage land.