One hundred and 25 years ago, the Florida Legislature chartered the town of Carrabelle in May 1893. Oliver Hudson Kelley, founder of the National Grange movement, was the first mayor. He moved his entire family to St. James Island and his niece became the first postmistress. The first industries in Carrabelle were the Franklin County Lumber Company, other sawmills and the Gulf Naval Stores factory. Lumber, barrels of turpentine, pitch and tar, fish, oysters and shrimp were some of the initial exports. Schools and churches were built to serve the community. The Crooked River Lighthouse was lit for the first time on Oct. 28, 1895. It replaced three previously destroyed Dog Island lighthouses, its purpose to guide ships into the bay through the East Pass between Dog Island and St. George Island.
By 1893 there were many lumber and sawmills along the Carrabelle River and the downtown area was established around Coombs Mill, close to the mouth of the river. During this time, the area flourished; docks were stacked high with lumber and turpentine. There was a railroad station from which trains carried salted-down mullet and other goods to points north, as well as bringing in needed supplies for the residents. The railroad also brought tourists from Tallahassee to stay at the Lanark Springs Hotel, a luxurious resort hotel. Lumber and turpentine were king. During a short period, Greek sailors came and began a flourishing sponge industry.
Before the development of dredging, Carrabelle was blessed to be one of only three natural deep-water ports in Florida, along with Key West and Pensacola. By the end of the century, train service and steamships connected Carrabelle to the world. In a 1900 report for the governor, the Florida Secretary of Commerce reported that in the two years ending in 1900, there were more international ships in and out of Carrabelle than any other port in Florida. By 1910 Carrabelle was a notable international deep-water port. Our first boom time! Oceangoing schooners came into port from Europe, Scandinavia, South America and Cuba.
A disastrous hurricane hit the town head-on at the turn of the century, and the downtown area was moved from the waterfront boat ramp to its present location. The town was rebuilt, and many of today’s larger buildings were built during the early part of the 1900s.
Between World War I and II, Carrabelle went into a severe economic slump. Along with the entire country, Carrabelle slipped into the Depression. Fishing became the principal industry and the mainstay of the citizens. During Prohibition, much business was done by barter and there was a brief period in which smugglers from the Caribbean unloaded their contraband in the nearby woods. There were several Work Progress Administration (WPA) projects that brought work and much needed buildings to Carrabelle, including a new city hall, a new K-12 school, water and sewer treatment plants. In the 1930s, the highways and bridges connected the town to the rest of Franklin County and the state.
In the 1940s, the World War II Army Training Camp Gordon Johnston was built and made Carrabelle a boom town again. Thousands of army soldiers went through amphibious assault training on the beaches. For many it was the last stopover for those going to the Pacific or European theaters.
Carrabelle was also an important port for shipping oil during World War II. The oil was shipped from Texas, through the intercoastal waterway to Carrabelle and then on to Jacksonville through a pipeline, where it was loaded on ships for delivery to Europe. The pipeline began at what is now known as Three Rivers.
After the war, vacationers from Tallahassee began to arrive in Carrabelle. Members of the Grand Ole Opry visited regularly to get out of Nashville to enjoy fishing and the woods. Party boats were abundant. Hunting and fishing camps became popular and tourism began to flourish. Rail transportation allowed the shipment of fresh fish to inland markets, and both the commercial and recreational fishing industries grew. Carrabelle became the “Gateway to the Gulf.”
Tamara Allen is director of the Carrabelle History Museum.