Posted on Wed, Apr. 23, 2003
|Hit the Tamiami Trail for a drive into history
BY TRISH RILEY
There's not much remaining of the quaint fishing villages that once dotted Florida's coastlines, but some of the best of what's left is still within a few hours drive from Miami. It's along the Tamiami Trail.
Completed in April 1928, the Trail, also known as U.S. 41, will celebrate its 75th anniversary in Everglades City on Saturday. It's the perfect chance to experience the charm of Old Florida -- before its too late.
When the Tamiami Trail was first laid, it created a huge change to the Everglades. The road disrupted the slow flow of water that meanders down the state and, in turn, the land, water supply and creatures that depended upon it.
''Everything is connected in the life of the Everglades,'' wrote the Chokoloskee poet-poacher Totch Brown in his 1993 autobiography, Totch: A Life in the Everglades ($16.05, University Press of Florida).
An Everglades legend, Brown died in 1996 at the age of 76. Although his formal education ended in fourth grade, his years in the River of Grass left him with a keen understanding of its nature, which we're just now starting to restore.
The federal government is partnering with Florida in the largest wetland reconstruction project of its kind. Estimated to cost more than $8 billion, the project will take at least 30 years to complete.
Among the plans for the 100 square-mile project: The Tamiami Trail will be excavated and lifted to create huge culverts that will allow a much greater flow of water.
Although the change is slated for completion in 2005, there is no sign of construction on the road yet, which means it's still a good time for a leisurely drive.
The 75th Anniversary Celebration begins with a motorcade of antique cars in Naples that will progress slowly to Everglades City.
A parade, arts and crafts and children's activities are on the agenda. Old-time story telling is planned (this could be the very best part of the day) at 1 p.m. and, at 4:30 p.m., a re-enactment of the killing of Mr. Watson will take place at Smallwood's store in Chokoloskee, a few miles south of Everglades City.
The entrance to the Tamiami Trail is marked at Krome Avenue, or SR 997, six miles west of the Florida Turnpike on U.S. 41. You can't miss the Miccosukee Indian bingo palace on the corner. It's outfitted with an amphitheater that draws national acts, a huge casino and bingo hall and a hotel and restaurant that serves steak and lobster dinners for $5.99.
Nature preserves: As you cross the Trail, you'll pass by the Everglades National Park (Shark Valley) and and through the Big Cypress National Preserve, the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, Picayune Strand River Forest (just south of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge) and Collier-Seminole State Park.
Airboat rides: Coopertown Original Airboat Tours, five miles into the Trail, is just one of the places where such delicacies as gator tail and frog legs provide a taste treat after an invigorating airboat ride through the wetlands. A family business since 1945, Coopertown struggles to stay in business against expansion plans of Everglades National Park and Everglades reconstruction plans.
The Miccosukee Indian Village also offers airboats plus a museum, restaurant, souvenirs and alligator wrestling.
Skip the side trip on heavily-pocked Loop Road and before long you'll reach one of trail's cultural highlights: the Big Cypress Gallery, where photographer Clyde Butcher and his wife Niki exhibit the haunting large-format black and white photos of the Everglades that have made Butcher famous.
A few old-fashioned roadside attractions also dot the trail: A petting zoo, a picnic park, a scenic route through pineland prairie called Turner River Road and the nation's tiniest post office at Ochopee.
Turn south on State Road 29 to Everglades City, which was pruned back to its roots as a fishing village of 500 people by Hurricane Donna in 1960.
Just south of the city circle is an outpost of the Everglades National Park, where you can catch a boat tour of the Ten Thousand Islands or rent a canoe or kayak to forge your own trail through the maze of tiny islands.
Stone crabs: A three-mile causeway leads to Chokoloskee, a haven for the fishing crowd. During stone crab season, Oct. 15 through May 15, you can pick up a few dozen already steamed with garlic, butter and lemon.
The crab claws are the culinary treat of the region, but the real treasure is the local history. Start chatting with residents to discover a wealth of fascinating tales.
Local lore: One of the best places to begin is at JT's Island Grill and Gallery, which has its own legendary tales of Willie Nelson playing guitar on the front steps or Kris Kristofferson and Kate Moss dancing in the streets.
It's not all oral history. Now a museum, Ted Smallwood's store served the community for the first half of the 20th century. The store was the sight of the town's most infamous murder in 1910, the subject of the best-selling book, Killing Mr. Watson , by Peter Matthiessen.