By: Homer Hirt
The Apalachicola River is Florida’s largest river. It begins in Florida at the Georgia state line, where it is formed by the confluence of the Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers, and it flows southward for one hundred seven miles, through swamps and past steepheads and tributaries and distributaries, and through some of the largest forests, both public and private, in the state.
If you leave Jackson County and decide to venture out, to explore our Florida, as the tourism group RiverWay South Apalachicola/Choctawhatchee Inc. (RWSAC), recommends, you will venture through some of the forests and go past the tributaries and distributaries (where water flows out of the main river into the lowlands on either side).
Take this trip down the east bank of the Apalachicola River: depart the City of Chattahoochee, which is the home of the restored Apalachicola Arsenal, circa 1834, sitting on top of high bluff, and head south. Soon you will be near the small town of Greensboro. In the middle of the town you will see the restored Apalachicola Northern Railroad Depot, now a museum. Continuing on a southerly route you will swing back to the River, and soon will be near the Garden of Eden, so named because Mister E. E. Calloway read his Bible and related the torreya tree, also called the “stinking cedar”, to the wood from which Noah built his ark. The tree grows here, and also in the Tigris-Euphrates Rivers area, so the man may have been correct.
Close by is the Torreya State Park, with its magnificent pre-Civil War mansion on a broad overlook. The mansion originally was on the Gregory plantation across the river, but in the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps took it apart, piece by piece, and reassembled it on its present site. It was put together largely with wooden pegs. You can stand on the bluff and imagine steamboats passing, and you can tread across gun emplacements that have been there since the American Civil War. Hikers planning to walk the Appalachian Trail come here to train. An author once referred to the Apalachicola River as “Florida’s Mountain River”.
Leaving behind this mark of the plantation society, you will come to Bristol, a town in the midst of the timber industry, both in the past and now. Soon you will see vast plantings of pine trees, privately owned, which will meld into the Apalachicola National Forest as you cross the line over into Franklin County. Trails, once cut to provide for logging, wend their way through the low, damp and swampy areas, with hammocks of dwarf cypress trees, full grown at the height of fifteen feet, scattered throughout.
Reptiles, including alligators, rattlesnakes and cottonmouths abound, as well as harmless snakes that keep the balance of the fauna. Birds fly overhead: the bald eagle, the osprey, egrets, songbirds, all are plentiful. Most birders keep an eye out for the red-cockaded woodpecker, a bird that nests only in pine trees seventy feet high or higher, so if you see a bird with a tape measure flying by, you will recognize him (or her) as a woodpecker looking for a tall pine…….
Soon, deep into Franklin County, you will see a sign that informs you that you are entering Tate’s Hell State Forest. The story there goes like this: in 1876 Cebe Tate, a farmer from that area, went into the dense woodland one day, armed with a shotgun, accompanied by his hunting dogs and aiming to bring in some game. A week later he came out near Carrabelle, nursing a snakebite, bug nibbles and other injuries Wild-eyed, he fell to the ground and cried out: “Fellows, I’m Cebe Tate, and it’s hell in there”, and he fell dead. From then on, the forest was Tate’s Hell, and if you wish you can hike through it, but watch out for the ghost of ol’ Cebe and his hounds!
The tributaries begin with the Chipola River and its cutoff, a long trench dug by slaves before the War. Other streams flow into it from both sides: Graham Creek, Owl Creek, Florida River. A favorite of mine, if only for its name, is the River Styx. The Styx of ancient mythology was the river that souls had to cross to go into the afterlife, and the boatman that rowed them over was named Chiron. Once there was a sign pointing the way to Florida’s Styx, and underneath someone had painted, crudely, “Chiron Retired”, which gave you fair warning that you would have to row your own boat.
Soon the traveler will be on the coast, and will find other wonders, some manmade some, natural, but few can beat the sights of the Apalachicola River, especially Tate’s Hell!