On the Western banks of the Suwannee River stands the collapsing skeleton of a community that used to be. The town records date to just before the Civil War period, with a Confederate Fort that once stood nearby to protect the railroad bridge. By the 1870’s, this emerging dot on Florida’s map was thriving with nearly 1,000 citizens. One of the most important being George Drew, who would become the first Governor of Florida (1877-1881) after Reconstruction. Drew built a mansion in the area in the 1860’s and named the town after his long-time African American servant, Ella.
Drew opened a steam-operated sawmill with Louis Bucki of New York in 1865, which at one point was the largest of its kind in Florida, employing 500 people. The towns advantageous location at the mergence of the Suwannee and Withlacoochee Rivers provided an easy way to transport logs down the river early on, until the Florida Railway was constructed through town and opened special service to the mill. The town had a train station, steamboat dock, masonic lodge, two churches, two schools and a commissary. After his term as Governor was completed, Drew sold his shares in the mill to Bucki and pursued other lumber ventures near Jacksonville Florida.
Like the fate of most agricultural economies, the successes and defeats of next hundred years would depend heavily on environmental and economic factors. In 1898, the original mill burned and although it was rebuilt, the industry would quickly exhaust the yellow pine it harvested and would close for good. The early 1900’s brought flooding and of course Wars and a depression.
Throughout these incredibly trying times, I suppose Ellaville held on to it’s relevance because of its location on the Florida Railway Mainline between Jacksonville and Tallahassee. And in present day, the bridges into Ellaville are the only epitaphs of what once was. They hold faithfully to the past even though the rest of the town has burned or crumbled to the ground. The railroad bridge has seen many reincarnations and was once reportedly deconstructed during Governor Drew’s election as carpetbaggers approached by train trying to derail his gubernatorial bid. The main traffic bridge in to town is known as the Hillman Bridge has known many forms as well.
The Hillman bridge which we can still see today is a through truss bridge and was built from a Federal Aid Project from 1925-26 and designed by RHH Blackwell Company of East Aurora, New York.
The trying period of the early 1900’s dealt a big blow to the economy of Ellaville. By 1942, the Post Office would be closed. In 1970, the remaining owner of the abandoned Drew Mansion burned it to the ground after years of vandalism and scrapping had taken their toll. In 1986, the Hillman Bridge was bypassed by a new highway and is no longer in use.
Thanks to the State Archive of Florida for generous use of all original photos seen in this post.
I have spent the past few weeks researching and photographing one very special road in Alachua County. Nearing 200 years old, this stretch of (sometimes dirt) road holds incredible tales I could only imagine. Its first path was actually laid by Native Americans who utilized a natural land bridge to cross the Santa Fe River going back hundreds of years. The arrival of Spanish settlers and expansion of missionaries from the Atlantic Coast inland toward (present-day) Tallahassee brought increased traffic of wagons that continued to bore out a more defined trail into the limestone, becoming known as the Old Mission Trail. Much of the mission traffic ended in the early 1700’s as the British led Indians into this area. The British and their Indian allies continued to use this route through the American Revolution.
[Rolling green hills make up the surrounding landscape along most of the drive]
Fast-forward to 1821 and the Spanish have just ceded Florida to the United States. In 1824, the first session of the 18th U.S. Congress decided that a road needed to be developed to connect the capitols of East and West Florida, St. Augustine and Pensacola respectively. It would become Florida’s first federal highway. Congress ordered that this new road would follow the Old Mission Road as closely as possible. The western part of the road was constructed by the U.S. Army and the larger eastern portion was contracted to a plantation owner from Monticello, FL by the name of John Bellamy and was largely built by his own slaves in under 2 years.
[A few Florida Cracker Homesteads like this one still stand along the road- c. 1900]
Early Florida settlers who came from Georgia and the Carolinas in the mid-1800’s developed small communities along the road, some of which still bare markers you can see today.
[Florida Cracker Homestead c.1895]
The growing communities of Newnansville and Traxler built homes, churches, schools and commissaries, until the railroad came through Gainesville many years later, encouraging settlers to move. These are literal ghost towns now, with Newnansville only holding on to it’s cemetery. Traxler on the other hand still shows some of its relics in the form of old Florida Cracker houses that are (barely) still standing.
As time ticked on, the western portions of the road fell in to disuse as settlers moved to other areas, however the eastern portion remained valuable to early settlers and is still functional today. The fantastic rolling hills and varying landscape almost make you forget you’re in Florida, but the wonderful drooping Spanish Moss trees will remind you again. This was designated a Florida Scenic Highway in 1980.