Exploring in the wilderness of Half Moon Wildlife Management Area you may not know but at one there was a small community out here in the late 1800’s known as Alto. The preserve is located in Sumter County and has many layers of history. Initially I learned about Alto Cemetery and that lead to me to learning about the old town it was a small community and had a one room school house. The town of Alto formed in the 1880’s when several families moved into the area. You can see it on some old maps. Many of the forest roads are named after these families who had homesteads nearby. Steamboats ran on the Withlacoochee River at that time and Alto Landing refers to a former ferry boat crossing.
Many settlers came here from the Carolinas after the Seminole wars and they established homesteads in the area using federal land grants as compensation for their voluntary service. In exchange for the land they were required to reside and cultivate crops for five years while bearing arms. The settlers raised horses and cattle and cultivated food crops such as peanuts, corn, sugarcane, oats, sweet potatoes and peas.
I am not sure how long the actual long the actual community lasted many of the people buried in the cemetery are those of infants and small children. A reminder of the harsh life experienced by these early Florida pioneers. One of the early homesteads was the McKinney cattle ranch it was inhabited from 1916 to around 1945. After World War II the McKinney family sold the land. Nearby in the swamps and uplands logging operations were taking place. A railroad was built by Cummer Sons Cypress Company and ran alongside the Withlacoochee River.
The land was used by the Carlton family in the 1960’s and 70’s for cattle ranching and during the 1980’s the land was leased to a hunt club. In 1989 the land was purchased by the state in an effort to help preserve the water quality of the Withlacoochee River and its tributaries. Today it is part of the Southwest Water Management District with many miles of trails and scenic areas to roam. But you can’t help but get a sense of the history when exploring the area and that is one of the reasons I enjoy it so much.
I did some exploring and hiking at Econfina Creek Wildlife Management Area which is in Washington County in northern Florida. This area of the state to me still has that “old Florida” feel to it and there is a lot of wilderness areas to experience and naturally with that I wanted to see what history I could discover along the way.
Well one of the areas I found was an old cemetery dating back to the 1800’s called Gainer Cemetery. The cemetery is in decent condition though some of the tombstones are damaged, overall it is a very peaceful and beautiful place in the woods there. I found it off a forest road and learned that there was a homestead nearby at one time as well. It belonged to the Gainer family who had settled here back in those days. There is a fence around the cemetery and it seems to be kept up from time to time. There were some newer tombstones as well which suggests it is still an active cemetery most likely used by descendants of the Gainer family. I truly enjoyed visiting the site and it inspired me to learn as much history as possible on the area.
Here is some interesting history on the area “William Gainer, a surveyor and mathematician, came to the Econfina area in 1824 or 1825 and established his homestead and a large ranch on the west side of Econfina Creek. Gainer had served as a scout and surveyor in the U.S. Army during Andrew Jackson’s 1818 invasion of Florida. It was during his time of service in the U.S. Army in West Florida that Gainer surveyed the Econfina area and determined that he would eventually bring his family back to the area to settle. The Gainer homestead reportedly served as a church and school until both were established within the Econfina community south of the Gainer home place. The Gainer place also served as the area “post office” until the U.S. post office was established in Econfina in 1855. William Gainer patented several tracts of land in the Econfina area beginning in 1837 and is reported to have lived at or near the original Gainer homestead until his death at age 84, in 1870. William Gainer’s son, Thomas Henry, also died in 1870, possibly from long-term complications resulting from wounds received during his service in the Confederate army at the battle of Jonesboro, Georgia, in 1864. The homestead was abandoned soon thereafter. The Gainer Family Cemetery is where William Gainer (1786-1870); his first wife Jane Watts Gainer (1792-1837); his sons William Augustus Gainer (1824-1912), Thomas H. Gainer (1834-1870), and Walter R. Gainer (1836-1920); and Eugenia O. Gainer (1848-1941) were laid to rest.”
This is a neat place to visit at Lake Harney Wilderness Area, where up until the mid-1900’s was the site of Osceola a former sawmill town. There is a historical marker at the parking area that describes the history of the area. I followed some of the trails around to see what I may be able to find and part of one takes you onto the old railroad grade, I followed that to the end where an old bridge once was. Along the way was a kiosk with photos and descriptions about the history of the area. Just down the way from the trailhead along the road is the old vault remains from a town building once there.
In 1916 the Osceola Cypress Company and built a huge sawmill and a complete town in Seminole County known as Osceola. It was near the St. Johns River where part of the Florida East Coast Railway went through and crossed the river. Osceola was around 350 acres with homes, a doctors office, commissary store, school, company office building, boarding house, post office, barber shop, railroad, sawmill and lumber yard. The railroad hauled cypress logs to the mill. In the late 1930’s the Osceola Cypress Company started moving its operations to Port Everglades. In 1940 the last residents of Osceola moved out. During the second Seminole war, in 1837, this was the site of King Philip’s town, a Seminole camp. After the Civil War the area was known as “Cooks Ferry” until the Florida East Coast Railroad Company bridged the river in 1911.
It is a nice preserve to explore where you can take in some of the history and scenic wilderness along the St. Johns River. One of the trails leads to a nice observation tower where you can experience stunning views of the St. Johns River Floodplain. Check out some of the photos, video and links for more information.
Located in Hernando County was once the boom town of Centralia during the early 1900’s. The town was mainly based around the logging industry and had one of the largest sawmills in the south at the time. Many towns were established from the logging and turpentine industries which were very big during this time. This area was surrounded by old and large Cypress trees that were very valuable to the logging industry so nearly all of them were cut down and that is when the town began to vanish. In fact many of these towns would disappear after these resources were used up.
The town had a population of around 2,000 people. There was a boarding house, a hotel, restaurant, drug store, church, school and even a movie house. A railroad line went into town for hauling lumber and delivering supplies. The town existed from around 1910 through 1922 and today only traces of the town remain. Nature is reclaiming the site and is now protected and part of the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area. Check out my videos, photos and links below for more historical information.
I explored some areas at Econfina Creek Water Management Area located in Washington County. There are many scenic places along with some interesting history as well. One of the areas I visited was a spring located off of Econfina Creek known as Williford Spring. The entrance is just off of a forest road there with a parking area and boardwalk trails that lead to the spring. You can also check out the creek and a trail that leads to nearby Pitt Spring.
Along the boardwalk are some nice interpretive signs describing about the spring and the history of the area ~ “During the 1800’s William Gainer and his family moved from Augusta, Georgia to this area near the spring. He first visited this spring in 1818 when he was a scout for Andrew Jackson who lead an army of 1,100 men through this area on their way to capture Pensacola from the Spanish. Gainer was a mathematician and surveyor and eventually moved here around 1824. His family used the spring as a source of drinking water and for cold storage for their food. William Gainer died in 1870 but left a lasting legacy here as he helped start the local public school system and served the county as a surveyor. The largest spring on the creek known as Gainer Spring is named after him.”
There is a place off the beaten path in Withlacoochee State Forest known to many locals as “Radar Hill” and when I first learned of that name I wanted to find out more about the history behind it. I have hiked around the area and this part of the forest reminds me of a scenic valley because of the rolling hills and karst formations. This section of the forest is located in Citrus County along the Brooksville Ridge. “The Brooksville Ridge is a linear, positive-relief topographic feature extending from northern Citrus County, through Hernando County, and into southern Pasco County.” These areas of the florida have a lot of hilly and karst terrain.
During the Cold War years starting around 1958 to 1970, there was a radar facility located atop the one of the hills in the area. It was known as the “Inverness Gap-Filler Annex,” the radar facility was operated by the U.S. Air Force as part of a nationwide network of air-defense early-warning surveillance radars. The intension of the base was to watch the skies for attacking Soviet bombers and thanks in part to this radar network all across the country no attack ever came. Due to the curvature of the earth, as well as hills, river valleys, and other obstacles, gaps existed at lower elevations where the long-range radars could not detect targets so these radar sites were a vital defense network.
The reason this site was chose is because “Radar Hill” itself was one of the highest points in the Withlacoochee State Forest, and offered a clear line of sight for many miles. Placing the radar on top of the limestone hills plugged the holes.
I am not sure of the exact timeframe but sometime after the site was used by the military it then became the location of a limestone mining operation. The land was mined and the hills were excavated. The radar and any evidence from the base were removed or destroyed during that time. The mining operations ceased eventually and the area became part of Withlacoochee State Forest. New trees were planted and slowly nature has been reclaiming the land here. The former mine now appears as open valleys through the forest which makes for a scenic experience. I myself have nicknamed the area “The Valley”. Check the link below on How Radar Hill got it’s name for more photos and information.
The site is public land now although there are no marked hiking trails here so it can be accessed from some of the old roads and paths around the area. Be cautious if you explore around and some areas within this section have been fenced off with no trespassing signs.
There are some nice trails and interesting history at Chinsegut Preserve located in Hernando County. One of the interesting layers of history in this area is that one of the hiking trails used to be a main route through this section of the county.
It was known as State Route 5 and dates back to at least the 1920’s. You may not even know it hiking on the trail as nature has reclaimed much of the old highway. It was a two lane road and part of it went over a small bridge which is located in the preserve. It crosses over a creek and has a sign posted on it indicating that it was the S.R. 5 Bridge in the 1920’s. It is made of concrete and people still cross over today just not in cars but on foot.
The highway was eventually replaced with the modern U.S. Highway/Route 41 that is adjacent to the property. As I hiked around the area I could get a sense of old Florida here and seeing this bridge a nice reminder of that. Hopefully for a long time to come more people will be able to see it and learn some of the history on this area.
There is a lot more history to be experienced in this area such as the Chinsegut Manor, an old cemetery and so much more! Check out the links to below to get more information and be sure to take a hike around the preserve and check out the bridge site. Also be on the look out for catface trees which were from the turpentine industry here at one time.