Friday, January 16, 2009

Walking to Port Leon

Almost two years ago on 28 January 2007 Judi and I made a hike to Port Leon and back. I hadn't visited the site for around twenty years, while Judi had never been there.

Port Leon had been a boom town on the Saint Marks River back around 1840. In the late 1830s, the terminus of the Tallahassee - St Marks Railroad was on the Saint Marks River in the town of Saint Marks. The cotton output of the Red Hills region was hauled by mules down the tracks from Tallahassee to Saint Marks, where it was loaded on seagoing ships in Apalachee Bay. Railroad officials asked the town of Saint Marks for more land for warehouses. Quite reasonably, the people of Saint Marks wanted to be paid for the land, which was not part of the railroad's expansion plans. Undaunted, the railroad put a bridge across the Saint Marks River and extended the track two miles downriver where they founded Port Leon. Sited on deeper water than Saint Marks, the new port was soon handling most of the cotton exports of the area, was incorporated, acquired a post office, a hotel, a newspaper, and a reputation as a refuge of the wicked. By 1843 Port Leon was slated to become the county seat of newly-formed Wakulla County, but then the town was destroyed by a hurricane.

The town was never rebuilt, but Port Leon never quite dropped out of history. During the Civil War Confederate pickets stationed at Port Leon fought off United States military personnel heading up the river to raid Saint Marks. The Saint Marks National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1931, and in 1936 the first headquarters of the Refuge was established at Port Leon. The "Federal Dock" pilings in the Saint Marks River probably date from this period. One of the Refuge's three forest ranger towers was built at Port Leon in the 1930s. Later, though, the headquarters was moved and the watch towers were abandoned, and Port Leon fell back into slumber.

Judi and I parked at the current refuge headquarters and started our hike. We followed a blue-blazed trail just north of the parking lot. This trail follows an old unpaved road in a southwesterly direct. It's an absolutely flat, wide, and straight, wide road--extremely straight. There are no turns on this road for 3.1 miles. Judi did not find this enchanting.

At 0.8 miles we came to an intersection with the Florida National Scenic Trail. One branch joined the road we were walking on while another branch headed south to the Refuge dikes. We kept going straight, now following the orange blazes of the Florida Trail. This took us through a refuge gate. By now, the vegetation had changed from a pleasant mix of pines, palms, and hardwoods to a pine-and-palmetto forest. The first turn was still over two miles ahead and you could see the whole way there.

At 3.1 miles, we finally came to the turn. There was a primitive campsite there for Florida Trail though-hikers. To the right, the orange blazes turned north to head for the town of Saint Marks. I had been to that point on the trail once; it's on the opposite side of the Saint Marks River from the town. There is no bridge; a sign instructs you to "hail boat to cross." Today, however, we wouldn't be trying to hail any boats. We followed the blue-blazed trail to the left that led to Port Leon.

Shortly after leaving the Florida Trail we came to where our trail turned in a more westerly direction into some older pines. A sign warned "NO VEHICLES BEYOND THIS POINT." We crossed through this gateway into Port Leon.

The first thing I noticed was that the old fire tower was gone. This had been just south of the terminus of the old rail grade and although the foundation elements were still there the tower itself was missing. Sometime since my last visit in the 1980s it had been removed. We made our way out to the river front. The wharf pilings in the water had aged quite a bit in the last two decades. Elsewhere, the old rail grade and other earthworks were visible, as were wooden culverts and wooden pilings for buildings. Some of these certainly go back to the nineteenth-century origins of Port Leon, but other features clearly date to later periods like the early years of the Wildlife Refuge. The beer cans were even more recent. There is no Port Leon cemetery.

Having seen Port Leon, we returned the way we had come. The road hadn't become any less straight during our stay.

The trail to Port Leon start just north of the Saint Marks National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center, 1255 Lighthouse Road, St Marks, FL (this point appears on maps as Plum Orchard, FL). Lighthouse Road runs south from US 98 outside of Newport, just east of the bridge over the Saint Marks River. The visitor center is a 3.7-miles drive on Lighthouse from US 98 (drive another six miles to visit the Saint Marks Lighthouse). There is a $5.00 per vehicle fee to enter the refuge.