A bit more than 30 years ago, a prominent Apalachicola native penned his thoughts on restoration and revitalization along the Apalachicola river basin in two letters to the Times. Some of those ideas have become realities and all are still of interest today.
Last fall I read about and decided to investigate a kind of vacation which is new to Americans, coastal cruises. It was a popular means of vacationing prior to World War II, but coastal cruising stopped after the coming of the war. It did not revive after the war and Americans seemed to lose interest in seeing our country in a leisurely fashion. Some of the cruise ships were idle during the war and did not survive those years; other served out their time in government use, as smaller troop transports. Now however, coastal cruising is back and it is making rapid gains. Cruises are usually for seven days and confined to Intracoastal Waterways.
The American Cruise Line, based in Connecticut, runs summer cruises in New England, fall foliage cruises on the Connecticut and Hudson Rivers and winter cruises from Savannah to West Palm Beach and to Fort Myers via Lake Okeechobee, and back to Savannah, stopping at ports of interest along the way. In May 1984 America Cruise Line will initiate a Gulf Coast Cruise originating in New Orleans with calls at Gulfport, Mobile and Pensacola, returning to New Orleans.
A new entrant into the coastal cruise market is the Coastwise Cruise Line, based in Massachusetts. The parent line of Coastwise, Hy-Line operated ships to Nantucket Island and to Martha’s Vineyard
Coastwise is building a new ship, the “Pilgrim Belle,” in Mobile and launching will take place in September 1984. I have visited with the naval architect in Boston who designed the “Pilgrim Belle” and who also has designed ships for American Cruise Line. The “Pilgrim Belle” will be 192 feet long, with 40 foot beam and 7 ½ foot draft. It will accommodate 100 passengers and rather than have a modern appearance as American Cruise Line ships do, it will emulate, on a larger scale, turn-of-the-century coastal steamers like the old “Tarpon” of Apalachicola memory. “Pilgrim Belle” will begin her service in New England in the fall, shifting to the Florida east coast and Lake Okeechobee in winter.
My question is, “Why not Apalachicola?” The cruises do have to begin and terminate in cities served by scheduled airlines, but tours might originate in Panama City or Tampa and stop at Apalachicola and go on to Columbus, visiting many interesting attractions on route. Apalachicola with systematic, planned attention to its built environment (given its recognition as a National Estuarine Sanctuary) would have the singular advantage of being able to offer the vacationer, simultaneously, both sides of the coin.
Recognition of the combination of natural and historic beauty found in Apalachicola and environs and how this combination could bring development opportunity to the city was the reason the US Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1976 gave a design award to our firm’s study “Apalachicola Economic Development Through Historic Preservation.”
Our study of the built environment respected the fragility of the area in terms of growth and subsequent studies of the natural environment, as well as county plans, have also acknowledged this. It will take the right combination of vision, capital and determination to bring this possibility to reality before the ravages of time diminish what is here: a section of America unique in historic value and natural beauty.
Apalachicola found the catalyst for its birth, some 100 years ago, to be the river. I put forward the possibility that perhaps the river could be catalyst for its rebirth.
From one whose roots are there,
Willoughby M. Marshall
As a follow up to my letter last week regarding the upsurge of ‘coastal cruises’ and their possible appropriateness for Apalachicola, I would like to share thoughts regarding a river adventure I have for years wanted to experience: a trip from the mouth of the Apalachicola River to the headwaters of the Chattahoochee, a point some 550 miles upstream along the Appalachian Trail, close to where the trail enters North Carolina from Georgia.
Last summer my son John and I pursued this adventure. While ideally we would like to have taken the trip by boat, we traveled by car, the only transportation immediately available and the only way to make the trip within existing time limitations. We traveled as close to the river as possible, however, changing routes often to get views as frequently as possible. The Chattahoochee, now a dot-dash sequence of river and lake, is quite different from the way it was in its natural state. There are, nevertheless, stretches where one can see the river as it once was.
We started at eight in the morning on route 65, taking us through the vast, green delta marsh cut across by deep tidal rivulets and interrupted occasionally by oases of palm trees reaching toward the sky. There were the piney woods, the Sumatra, where we could not resist stocking up on tupelo honey at the little store on the right.
We were soon rising from the low, wet coastal plain to the rolling, sprinklered farmlands of Bristol.
There we crossed the Apalachicola to Blountstown, where several weeks earlier my son Jim and I had visited Neal Land Company, right on the river, to view dozens of steamboat photographs displayed on their walls. The river there is wide as it slips swiftly toward the sea. Its banks pitch sharply some hundred feet down to water’s edge. The sloping banks become, at times of high water, part of the river’s bottom and nearby buildings stand on stilts on hard packed sand.
We continued our trip northward, via Lake Seminole to Fort Gaines and the Walter George dam and lock. By then it was noon. We stopped near the dam at a park site, which could have passed by a New Hampshire park site, and had our lunch in a few moments of leisure, high above the broad expanse of Lake Walter George and its background-of blue undulating hills.
After lunch a trip out onto the dam was in order. Except for several fishermen down on the lake, there was no movement other than the shimmer of the lake’s surface. Though I had seen the lock several years before, the sight of it again was more awesome, formidable than I had remembered. The lock chamber is 650 feet long, 82 feet across and 90 feet deep. We were at the top and there was no water in the chamber. This means that almost any boat or combination of boats that could fit into a space 450 feet long and 82 feet wide could be raised 90 feet from the river level or lowered 90 feet from the lake to the river.
From the dam we drove along the Georgia shore, crossing the lake into Eufaula, on the Alabama side. A few turns through the town afforded a glimpse of the extensive renovation and restoration of the built environment taking place in this old river port. Much of the built environment took us back to pre 1860 days. We saw influences of and examples of Federal, Greek Revival, Gothic Revival and Queen Anne architecture, most of it spruced up in shipshape order. Partly because Eufaula, several years ago, took steps to halt decay and demolition of its historic built environment, the city enjoys new vitality and prosperity and a new industry. Its revitalized built environment has brought tourism, drawing many interested visitors to experience the city.
From Eufaula we followed the west bank of the river, crossing the river at Columbus, the week destinations of two generations of our grandfathers who were riverboat pilots. I took them three days to make the trip from Apalachicola; it had taken us only six hours. We took a quick tour of places special to us in Columbus: the Springer Opera House (recently restored) and the adjacent Rankin Hotel (to be restored), which our grandfather had operated for over 30 years, from the mid 1860s to the mid 1890s. We drove down Broadway through the restored and revitalized historic district to the old riverboat landing and then turned north, via Atlanta toward Helen Georgia.
Helen is in the foothills of the Appalachians and is the town nearest the headwaters of the Chattahoochee. Helen has the atmosphere of a Bavarian village or of a New England ski resort, but what interested me the most was that the Chattahoochee River snakes through the village under an assortment of bridges. Its transparent waters tumbling and falling over granite and quartz and audible everywhere. Twelve hours and 550 miles after we left the Gulf at Apalachicola we were having dinner at the German Hofbrau Haus with a dining balcony hanging right over the narrow river and the lights from the restaurant kept the river’s shallow, rocky bottom visible into the night and we saw a lone beaver lazing along the stream, apparently enjoying it and keeping cool.
Just north of Helen is the site on the river where Sidney Lanier wrote, “Song of the Chattahoochee,” and not much farther is the river’s beginning at the base of the Appalachian Trail.
A very interesting trip, but take longer, if you can, to make the trip.
Willoughby M. Marshall