Monday, February 4, 2013

Down the Tamiami Trail

Gusts didn't rattle aerialist Nik Wallenda. 

He kept both his composure and balance as he walked the high wire 200 feet above US 41 in his Florida hometown of Sarasota last month. 

The scion of the famed Flying Wallendas skywalked about 600 feet of open space with a friendly crowd of spectators lining both sides of the highway.  

They had to look quickly. Wallenda covered the distance in about seven minutes. He didn't use either safety net or safety tethers.

The photo appeared in the next day's newspaper (January 30, 2013). It's a feat we're glad Wallenda did and we didn't have to. We prefer our brave acts carried out closer to the ground.

The story interested us for a couple reasons. First is the adventure of it. It exemplifies the need of the human spirit. We like to prove that the impossible really isn't. 

The bigger reason is that we're familiar with US 41. The highway is a north-south route from the Midwest to Florida. Millions of sunseekers use some portion of this road as they follow the Gulf coast down. 

Tamiami Trail is another name for US 41 in Florida. You see the name a lot. 

We learned about the Tamiami Trail on previous visits.
The highway, which took thirteen years to complete,  opened to great fanfare in 1928 when it linked the east and west coasts of southern Florida.

The name is a combination of Tampa and Miami, start and end of the Tamiami Trail. We figured this out fast. 
It took longer to feel confident we were pronouncing the word correctly.

Everyone knows the feeling. You're in a new place and  an outsider right off because you don't know how to say the name for sure.

Every geographical name with any hint of being a tongue twister, or with the potential to make a fool of a newcomer, should come with pronunciation guide on the signboard. It saves the baffled visitor a great deal of confusion and embarrassment.

Fortunately we had the TV on one evening while on the road. A really obnoxious car dealer commercial was droning on. 

The slick oversell of the product wasn't the fortunate part. The luck was in the auto dealership's location. It was on Tamiami Trail.

Tamiami was pronounced as the locals say it. That's all it took for us to blend in. Since then we say it as we heard it. We say it as if we knew it all along.

The car commercial pronounced Tamiami like "Tammy Ammy." It's a lilting lovely name said that way. It sounds like a song rolling off your tongue.

I believe there actually is a song about the Tamiami Trail. It dates from the building of the road. These were the free-wheeling days before the Depression hit.

It was the 1920s and the country was having a love affair with Florida. Folks tired of the cold, or aiming to start over, and others, on both ends of land speculation deals, flocked to the Sunshine State in droves.

Many were northern transplants anxious to put snow behind them. Thirteen new Florida counties were created reflecting the unprecedented growth. 

Nine of the counties were in south Florida. Collier County, established in May 1923, was one of them. It sat
between the Gulf of Mexico and the Everglades and was mostly unsettled. 

There was a small Indian population of Seminole and Miccosukee. Scattered about were cattle ranches, logging operations and small settlements that persistently hung on.

Roads were rudimentary if they existed. Much of the travel between the communities was by boat. Collier County, for years out of the mainstream, was soon to be gathered to the whole. 

During this same period, between 1923 and 1925, an estimated 300,000 people became Florida residents. Add millions of visitors to this. There were 2.5 million in 1925 alone.

The figures may seem small potatoes compared to current visitor numbers or state population, which is over 19 million. In the context of the US population at the time, however, they gain their proper significance. 

The Florida land boom, which largely brought about the migration, is the background for the building of the Tamiami Trail. 

There's another thread to the story. It's the Everglades.
To the American public the Everglades was a place of danger, mystery and intrigue.

It was feared for its snakes and alligators. It was heralded for its multitude of bird life, its far-reaching skies and sheets of rivers which drained imperceptibly to the sea.

It was as if the 20th century was shifting the American frontier from the West to the Everglades.

The unfenced West was being glorified by the cowboy movies filmed in Hollywood. The cinemas were taming the West as they served up its mystique as Saturday matinee fare.  

Florida with its flamboyant wading birds, subtropical climate and impenetrable Everglades was assuming the larger-than-life quality that was once the brand of the West. Florida was the next big thing as we like to say.

Hunters and poachers who used the Everglades as their personal game farm had largely been shut down by this time. Regulatory legislation was among the first conservation measures enforced in the area.

At the height of poaching crocodiles and egrets were killed in alarming numbers. Fashion helped fuel the demand. It dictated egret feathers as essential trimmings for ladies hats.

As outrage swelled over the decimation of native wildlife, including the large white egrets, Americans awoke to the allure of this strange swampy land. 

Now itching to hit the road and enjoy the good life, they arrived in Florida as the Tamiami Trail was in its first stages of completion.

The Trail was an ambitious project conceived by visionaries, followed through by risk takers and achieved through the efforts of business people, project engineers and government working together.

It was a sometimes odd alliance that paid off handsomely in the end.   

The route in its finished form is about 264 miles (length varies according to the reference consulted). 

As I understand it the original plan was for the cities along the route to fund their own section and build it.
Construction began on the Gulf side in 1915. Work got underway at the same time on the east coast.

Florida's Atlantic coast was the prime boom area. Miami was growing fast. In fact it was helping to lead the chase. It had the railroad to bring folks down as winter residents and to settle and invest.

This put Miami in the driver's seat for securing financing through the raising of bonds to take care of its part of the project.

The Miami section was almost completed by 1922. The Gulf link, which was to come down from Tampa through Bradenton, Sarasota and Fort Myers, and then cut across the Everglades, was meanwhile in a bind.  

The project stalled out. Lack of money, and the Everglades a formidable hurdle up ahead, was too much. Trail work bogged down like a swamp buggy in the mud in the new Collier County.

Here the county's namesake, Barron Gift Collier, stepped to the plate. 

The millionaire, who had made himself Florida's biggest landowner, pledged his own money to complete the Trail. 

About 76 miles was through Collier County. This terrain, which took in the Everglades, was the toughest of the entire route

Collier recognized the project as opportunity masked as a task that comes at great cost and with extreme difficulties.

He knew the completed road would open the way to tourism. Southwest Florida would grow. The economy on both coasts would get a huge assist. The paved road was as good as completed when he gave his word on it.

The Collier County Museum at Naples and its branch museums have put together interesting displays on the building of the Tamiami Trail.The museums are manageable in size and bring out the story well.

The museum at Everglades City, 35 miles southeast of Naples, is understandably proud of its Tamiami Trail exhibits and memorabilia. 

Originally Everglade, then Everglades (and much later Everglades City) the townsite growing out of the estuarine mangrove swamps became, in 1923, the first county seat of Collier County. 

For years anchored by Storter's general store, the village was a shipping point with a farm and fishing economy. Its primary access was by water and it otherwise had remained very remote. 

This all changed with its acquisition by Barron Collier in 1922. Everglades was subsequently revitalized as the construction base for the Tamiami Trail when the final phase got underway through Collier County.

Chief engineer David Graham Copeland is another notable in the completion of the roadway. Along with his boss, Barron Collier, Copeland left a large imprint on the work he was brought in to supervise.

The former career Naval officer and engineer came to the Tamiami Trail project in 1925. He turned the little town of Everglades into a model of efficiency as a supply and support unit of the construction work going on in the difficult terrain. 

He brought reorganization to the construction project as well. Improved machinery was ordered to replace underpowered equipment. Supply lines were set up to expedite progress on the road. 

This was an important overhauling since the work had gotten off to a perhaps not surprising shaky start. 

The Everglades were throwing the road crews for a loop until Copeland's keen assessment of things intervened. He seems to have had the knack of shaping things up.

The Tamiami Trail has been called Florida's Appian Way. It's an apt comparison.

The engineering genius of the Romans created a road system which allowed their legions to march out to conquer and bring large areas of the known world into Rome's governance. 

Florida's version of Rome's ancient road was built into the empire of the Everglades

This watery domain of sawgrass, palmetto scrub and cypress swampland was  known to few and traversed by even fewer until Collier's backing and pocketbook and Copeland's determination came along.

The displays at the Collier County museums make an  interesting account of the project. Al grasped the mechanical aspect of the construction as he studied the old photographs.

"It was a dredge and fill operation" he said. "It wasn't complicated but it was hard work.

I could look at the dredges, drilling rigs and supply barges and hear Al's explanation of the work. The gaps in my comprehension remained as large as the boulders hurtled out of the limestone bedrock blastings

Gradually a clearer picture developed. It was helped along by a Bay City walking dredge, one of three brought in to get the job done.

This dredge, named a National Historical Mechanical Engineering Landmark site, is the last existing dredge of its type.

It impressively rests inside Collier-Seminole State Park between Everglades and Naples. US 41, which the dredge helped build, passes the park's front entrance.

The dredge, built in 1924 in Bay City, Michigan, with a 50 horsepower internal combustion engine, was specifically designed for wetland conditions like the swampy, slippery terrain of Big Cypress Swamp and the Everglades through which the Tamiami Trail was cut.

Understanding one piece of equipment led to a better sense of the construction operations for me. Often you have to start with one small chunk of knowledge to get the rest straight. 

Dredges followed the drilling rigs which bored holes into the bedrock.

The holes were filled with cypress posts and dynamite. The ear-shattering blasts sent boulders and rocks far and wide.

Dutifully I tried to grasp what 2.6 sticks of dynamite detonated might sound like. It was estimated that it took about this many sticks of dynamite to complete the final 31-mile stretch to the Dade County line.

The hard job of getting the road through the bedrock of the Everglades moved Florida to 3rd place as consumer of dynamite by 1927. 

Construction equipment scooped out and piled up the broken rock from the blastings into a rough causeway. 

This became the roadbed. Skimming equipment and grading equipment smoothed it and leveled it to make it a roadway. At some time, I don't think right away, it was given an asphalt hard surface.

It all seems very mechanical and organized and this is what it was.

I'm more drawn to the logistics of feeding and taking care of the road construction crews.

I can appreciate the conditions under which the crews labored. At the worst, thinking about humidity or mosquitoes, conditions were brutal. Sometimes not so bad.

Some worked in waist-high water, no doubt keeping a lookout for water moccasins and alligators. Further reading indicates prison inmates were picked for some of those jobs.

The road workers were plagued by insects, dealt with sun and heat, rescued pieces of equipment when they sunk in the muck, survived the fierce 1926 hurricane and rose to other challenges. 

The men came off their shifts exhausted, dirty, hungry and ready to hit the sack. Portable bunkhouses and a rolling kitchen made things somewhat comfortable, as a hot meal can, and a sure place to lay your head. 

No doubt the laborers, who numbered in the hundreds, were pleased that food and bunk came with the job. Many were grateful to have a job. By this time the land boom had gone bust. 

Coming to Florida full of hope, a certain  percentage had lost their homes or property or were newly unemployed or never found a job in the first place. 

The average trail builder didn't make big earnings. There was enough to maybe set some aside and let the rest jingle in the pockets.

There was money, when there was time, to see the movies that played at the theater at Everglades. One can picture the community full of life as trail work progressed.  

There may have been leisure for the men to fish or go courting. In time some workers must have settled locally and raised their families.

Three years down the road the Trail was unfinished. Expenses were eating Collier up. He had spent a million dollars and the end wasn't in sight.

The State of Florida picked up the costs to complete the project. The cost of the last section of the trail was nearly 8 million dollars. This comes out to about $25,000 per mile.

In gratitude for their help as guides and as Trail builders  Collier offered Seminole free bus fare on the daily passenger bus service that was soon inaugurated between Fort Myers and Miami. 

Not one human life was lost during construction of the Tamiami Trail through the Everglades. Death of a different kind waited in the wings.

Alterations to water flow as a result of the road building added to destructive changes for the Everglades.

The Everglades continue to strangle as their waters are blocked by ditches, canals and other forms of agricultural and urban development.

Deterioration of the Everglades ecosystem, coming from within nature and from human sources, requires major restoration far into the future.

This brings me to an article about a plan for a bike & hike trail across the Everglades. The proposal will make it a third route, an alternative to US 41 (Tamiami Trail) and I-75 (Alligator Alley), a road project of the 1960s.

The River of Grass Greenway, as it is named, is envisioned as a 75-mile path for walkers, bikers, bird watchers and any Everglades enthusiast who desires a leisurely pace apart from the two busy highways.

The pathway has the appeal the Tamiami Trail had when presented to those who Trail supporters had to convince to make the project happen.

It can be a world-class trail says a member of the bikers coalition quoted in the recent newspaper article. 

This was the same bright promise of the Tamiami Trail as it went before its own hearing committees.

The present routes give views of the Everglades from the car. The proposed pathway points a new direction. It offers a road less traveled making you part of the Everglades experience.

The Tamiami Trail was built when sensitivity to environment was largely unconsidered. Environmental impact is studied carefully these days. Proponents of the greenway know and are ready for this.

Ideas carried out have long-range sway. Nowhere is this clearer than in the wild fragile beauty of the Everglades.

Down the Tamiami Trail, or driving seventy on I-75, or someday pedaling the River of Grass Greenway, we have a wonderful sensation of physical contact with places entered and passed through.

If we don't let ourselves be changed a little by the places we visit we miss the boat a bit. Places are meant to change us. They're supposed to change us. 

This is a tacit understanding of travel. No two things come together but that energy is exchanged and something new arises from it.  

Pathfinders, trail blazers and road builders are the real heroes. Every road is a Tamiami Trail in that respect.
They're built that we may connect and explore.

Ro Giencke - February 4, 2013 





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