Our next stop after Miami was Everglades City. This remote city is the northwestern gateway to Everglades National Park, which we’d visited on a couple of day trips. For some perspective, this corner of the Everglades is 100 miles from Flamingo, where we stayed for two weeks on the southernmost tip of mainland Florida. There is only wilderness between the two, but the surrounding waters, which are part of the Park, contain over 10,000 islands. The trip between Everglades City and Flamingo is very popular with expedition kayakers and takes nine days. The National Park has built platforms called chickees which may be reserved for backcountry camping.
We stayed in a beautiful campground by the Barron’s River. And we planned some shorter outings so that we wouldn’t be away from Angel too long. Our exploration included an Everglades National Park boat tour, an airboat ride and visits to the Historic Smallwood Store and the Everglades Museum.
To further explore the vast area around the 10,000 islands, we took an Everglades National Park boat tour. A pod of dolphins greeted our boat as we started the tour. The area is quite beautiful, and we could definitely see the appeal for kayakers. The narration included information about the animals, ecosystems and history of the area. We even stopped at an Osprey nest that had recent fledglings nearby.
We also took an airboat tour, which went through both mangroves and grasslands. Airboats are highly maneuverable and fun to ride, but are really loud and not the best for viewing wildlife. But it was a great way to get to the middle of the grasslands and see the vast expanse that is the Everglades from a different perspective. And this time, we were welcomed back by dolphins when we returned.
We took Angel in the car on our visit to nearby Chokoloskee, which is deep in the heart of the 10,000 islands and was once the southernmost mainland city of the U.S. Here we visited the Historic Smallwood Store, which was established in 1906 by Ted Smallwood as a store, Seminole trading post and Post Office. The store was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and remained open and active until 1982. In 1989, Ted’s granddaughter reopened the store as a museum. The museum’s center section has remained much as the original store, and the rest of the museum tells the story of pioneers and colorful settlers from this area.
Everglades City also has a colorful history. The Museum of the Everglades displays local history and stories of more adventurers who came to Florida’s “Last Frontier”. One of the most important settlers was Barron Gift Collier, a wealthy Tennessee advertising mogul, who now has a river and the county named after him. At that time, the only access to the area was by boat. The Tamiami Trail, begun in 1915 to join Tampa to Miami, was financed and built by the counties. Collier promised that if his million-acre land holding in Everglade were granted county status, he would complete the section of road between Naples and the Dade County line.
Collier’s 76 miles went through swamp, which was found to have solid limestone under it, and had to be blasted by millions of tons of dynamite. Dwellings were built for the workers, but remained, like almost everything else, part of Collier Corporation. Between 1923 (the establishment of the county) and 1928 (the opening of the Tamiami Trail), Collier and David Graham Copeland, whom he hired as his chief engineer and manager, built the town, completed the road and linked a full-gauge railroad to the Atlantic Coast network.
In 1947 the Everglades National Park took over the waters traditionally used by local commercial fishermen. In 1959, the railroad stopped delivering goods and passengers. The town of Everglades became a City in 1953 when the Collier Corporation diversified and encouraged local independence.
During the 70’s and 80’s, South Florida was a haven for marijuana smuggling, and the nickname “square grouper” was given to bales of marijuana thrown overboard or out of airplanes. Many of the local fishermen-turned smugglers in Everglades City had taken advantage of the hundreds of narrow creeks and backwater routes in the area to evade police. In 1984, a convoy of police cars and federal agents erected a roadblock in the only highway in and out Everglades City. At that time, this was one of the largest crackdowns on marijuana smuggling. By mid-day there were over 200 officers and agents in the area. The investigation into this close community of about 346 individuals took two years and resulted in the arrest of more than two-thirds of the adult male population for trafficking in marijuana.
Today, fishing and tourism are the main industries in Everglades City and the stone crabs at the famous Joe’s Stone Crabs in Miami and other restaurants in Florida are harvested here by stone crabbers. Hector and I celebrated the city one last time with a luscious stone crab dinner, overlooking Barron’s River in Collier County.