Old St. Joseph: Lost City of the Florida Gulf Coast

Monument to the signing of Florida’s first constitution in Port St. Joe, Florida.

The Legend of the ‘Great Tide’

The legend of the lost city of St. Joseph is remarkable story from the early days of Florida history.

St. Joseph stood on the site of today’s Port St. Joe. A Gulf Coast seaport, it was for a time the largest city in the Florida Territory. Legend holds that it was a place so wicked that God destroyed it with a “great tide” that swept in from the Gulf and washed its sins – and sinful people – away.

So what was the real story of this Florida Panhandle version of Sodom and Gomorrah?

It began not long after the 1821 transfer of Florida from Spain to the United States. The focus was the Apalachicola River and its tributaries, the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers.

Old St. Joseph Cemetery is the historic burial ground of the lost city on St. Joseph Bay, Florida.

These rivers  drain a massive watershed that stretches from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico. The Treaty of Fort Jackson had had stolen more than 22 million acres in Alabama and Georgia from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and white settlers were flooding into the region to develop farms and plantations. The Apalachicola provided them with a natural outlet to the Gulf by which their crops and other commodities could be moved to market. With the addition of Florida to the United States, more land became available for settlement.

It did not take long for Apalachicola – originally called West Point – to grow at the mouth of the Apalachicola River. Keelboats, flatboats and barges brought shipments of cotton down to the new port, which provided a place where cargo could be warehouses until it could be loaded onto ocean-going vessels for transport to manufacturing centers as far away as Europe. The keelboats and flatboats of the early frontier were soon replaced by paddlewheel steamboats and commerce exploded.

The broad expanse of St. Joseph Bay, Florida.

There was just one problem. The old trading firm of John Forbes & Company soon claimed that it owned the land where Apalachicola had been established. Lawsuits followed and the matter would eventually be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. Until then, no one knew if their businesses and the land on which they stood would be claimed by the Forbes partners.

A group of politically connected and wealthy developers decided to sidestep the matter by building a different port just 20 miles to the west on St. Joseph Bay. The city of St. Joseph was founded there in 1835. There was no controversy over the ownership of the site and business thrived.

The founders of St. Joseph were called the “Saints” by admirers and detractors alike. They included some of the wealthiest people in Florida. The new city was a well-planned and beautiful community on the protected shores of a natural, deep water bay. It attracted some 12,000 residents within three years and became the largest city in Florida.

Wheels from Florida’s first railroad on display outside the Constitution Convention Museum State Park in Port St. Joe, Florida.

The only problem facing the community was the fact that St. Joseph Bay had no water connection to the Apalachicola River. No major river or creek flowed into the bay and that meant that paddlewheel steamboats could not reach the new community. The developers decided to overcome this problem with new technology – they would build Florida’s first railroad.

Tracks were laid from a wharf on the bay to a similar facility on Lake Wimico, a large shallow lake that connected to the Apalachicola. Steamboats coming down the river could shorten their trip by turning into the lake and unloading their cargoes and passengers at the new railroad station. A puffing train would then pull the people, bales of cotton and other commodities to the waiting ships at the St. Joseph wharf.

The railroad, it was thought, would allow St. Joseph to replace Apalachicola as the major port for the plantations and farms that lined the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers in Florida, Georgia and Alabama. Millions of dollars – even in 19th century values – stood to be made if the plan was a success.

Replica of the locomotive that operated on the tracks from Lake Wimico to St. Joseph. It is among the exhibits at the Constitution Convention Museum.

St. Joseph and Apalachicola soon engaged in a fierce and bitter battle for commercial superiority. Apalachicola boasted of its location on a major navigable waterway, while St.Joseph promoted the railroad, fine living and a healthy location.

So successful was St. Joseph’s effort that Florida’s Constitutional Convention met there instead of Tallahassee in 1838. The delegates worked for 34 days to draft Florida’s first convention. They completed their work on January 11, 1839 and six year’s later Florida was admitted to the Union as the 27th state.

Everything appeared to be going well for the Saints and their new city. St. Joseph boasted ocean-going commerce, a railroad, a horse track, hotels, a pleasure beach and much more. The railroad was soon extended all the way to Iola, a community on the Apalachicola River near present-day Wewahitchka.

Artifacts from Old St. Joseph on display at the Constitution Convention Museum.

Despite such success, however, St. Joseph simply could not compete commercially with Apalachicola. It was cheaper for shippers if the steamboats just carried their cargoes on to the warehouses in Apalachicola instead of transferring them from the boats to the train at Iola for the trip to St. Joseph.

It was a disaster for the new city. Its population dropped from 12,000 to 6,000 almost as quickly as it had grown. Undeterred, the Saints decided to rebrand St. Joseph as a health resort. That dream, however, was dashed when yellow fever reared its head in 1841. The deadly illness was carried by female mosquitoes and was deadly.

News accounts from the time indicated that the fever came to the city after a ship bearing infected crew members arrived in the bay. Its captain, in fact, was one of the first to die.

Ancient crypts at the historic Old St. Joseph Cemetery in Port St. Joe.

Yellow fever had no respect for age, wealth or political power. Residents and visitors alike fell ill and untold numbers died. Even the wife of the governor fell to the disease. By 1842, only 400 inhabitants remained in the city that had once boasted 12,000.

The final blow came in September 1844 when a hurricane struck St. Joseph. Many of the buildings were destroyed and all but a handful of the remaining residents left for more promising locales. St. Joseph had risen to become the largest city in Florida and then collapsed into a ghost town in just nine years. Surviving homes were moved to Apalachicola by barge and others crumbled into the dust. Only the cemetery remains today to testify that the lost city of the Gulf Coast ever existed.

Modern Port St. Joe was founded near the site during the 20th century and grew to cover the original limits of St. Joseph. It is a commercial and tourism center that serves as the gateway to the resort areas of St. Joseph Peninsula, Cape San Blas and Mexico Beach.

Legend holds that a “great tide” from St. Joseph Bay destroyed the city.

The legend of St. Joseph became a major part of Florida’s early folklore. Stories grew of a city so wicked that God swept it from the earth just as He had Sodom and Gomorrah of old. The legendary tale formed the basis for a regionally popular novel, The Great Tide. Written by author Rubylea Hall, the book tells a romanticized story of the rise and fall of St. Joseph. The title comes from the tidal wave that legend blames for the destruction of the city.

Click here to purchase the book: The Great Tide.

The best place to learn about the history of old St. Joseph is at the Constitution Convention Museum State Park, which is located on the site of the lost city. It features exhibits, artifacts, a monument and more and tells the story of St. Joseph and the Constitutional Convention of 1838-1839. The museum is located at 200 Allen Memorial Way, Port St. Joe, Florida. The museum features displays, artifacts and a live-sized reproduction of the convention in session.  that tell the real story of the lost city.

Admission is $2 per person (under 5 free) and the museum is open Thursday-Monday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Please click here for more information. Please click here for more information.

Follow the museum with a visit to the Old St. Joseph Cemetery at 2482 Garrison Avenue, Port St. Joe, Florida. Here you will find the surviving headstones, monuments and crypts of the lost city.

Learn more about Port St. Joe and Gulf County at www.visitgulf.com.

This video will tell you more about T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park which can be found straight across the bay from Port St. Joe and the map below it will help you on your visit!