Port St. Joe & the Legend of the Great Tide
The lost city of St. Joseph is the focus of many Florida legends. It was home to thousands of people at a time when few Florida communities numbered even into the hundreds. Some also say that was a Sodom and Gomorrah so wicked that God destroyed it with a “great tide” that came in from the Gulf and washed its sins – and its sinful people – away.
So what was the real story of St. Joseph? And how did Florida’s largest city disappear from the map?
The tale began not long after the 1821 transfer of Florida from Spain to the United States. The Apalachicola River and its tributaries, the Chattahoochee and Flint, drained a massive watershed that stretched from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico. More than 22 million acres in today’s Alabama and Georgia had been stolen from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation by the Treaty of Fort Jackson and white settlers were flooding in to establish farms and plantations.
The river provided them with a natural outlet to the Gulf and a transportation route by which their crops and other commodities could go to market. The opening of Florida for American settlement increased the demand for a seaport with warehouses, a custom’s office and other facilities where river cargoes could be transferred to ocean-going vessels.
Promoters of West Point – now called Apalachicola – were quick to respond to the need. They established a port at the mouth of the river as a growing fleet of keelboats, flatboats and barges brought cotton, timber and other cargoes down for shipment to places as far away as New England and Europe. Paddlewheel steamboats soon replaced keelboats and flatboats as commerce exploded.
There was just one problem. The old trading firm of John Forbes & Company claimed to own the land where Apalachicola stood. Lawsuits followed and the matter was eventually decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. The fate of the community was in limbo and none of its early settlers and merchants knew if they really owned the land beneath their feet.
A group of politically connected and wealthy developers decided to sidestep the issue by building a different port just 20 miles to the west on St. Joseph Bay. They founded the city of St. Joseph in 1835 and with no controversy over the ownership of the site, business thrived.
The founders of the new city were called “Saints” by admirers and detractors alike. Among them were some of the wealthiest people in Florida and their new city was a well-planned and beautiful community on the protected shores of a natural deep water bay. More 12,000 people arrived to live there within three years and St. Joseph became the largest city in Florida.
The only major problem facing the city 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 port. Cargoes had to be hauled overland by ox carts and other conveyances, an expensive and slow process.
The “Saints” applied technology to the issue and decided to 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 river north of Apalachicola. Steamboats could shorten their trips by turning into the lake and unloading their cargoes and passengers at the new railroad station instead of continuing down to Apalachicola Bay. The trains would finish the job of moving people, bales of cotton and other cargoes to and from the waiting ships at the St. Joseph wharf.
St. Joseph expected to replace Apalachicola as the major port for farms and planters of the interior. Millions of dollars – even in 19th century values – would be made if the plan succeeded. The gauntlet was thrown down and 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 with St. Joseph promoting its railroad, fine living and a healthy location.
The “Saints” were so successful that Florida’s Constitutional Convention of 1838-1839 met in St. Joseph instead of Tallahassee. Delegates worked 34 days to draft Florida’s first constitution, completing their work on January 11, 1839. Florida was admitted to the Union as the 27th state six years later in 1845. By then, however, St. Joseph was all but gone.
The end came quickly. All seemed to be going well for the “Saints” and their new city. St. Joseph boomed with ocean-going commerce, a railroad, horse track, hotels, pleasure beach and much more. The railroad was soon extended all the way to Iola, a community on the Apalachicola River near today’s Wewahitchka, shortening even further the distance that riverboats needed to travel with their cargoes.
Despite such efforts, however, St. Joseph simply could not compete commercially with Apalachicola. It was cheaper for shippers if the boats carried their cargoes on to the warehouses in Apalachicola instead of transferring them to the trains at Iola for rail transport to the new city. Economics ruled the day and the population of St. Joseph declined from 12,000 to 6,000 almost as fast as it had grown.
The city’s promoters refused to surrender and decided to turn St. Joseph Bay into Florida’s first great vacation destination. They encouraged well-heeled citizens of the interior to come down and escape the heat, promoting fresh Gulf breezes, fine hotels, fresh seafood and luxuries of every description.
The dream collapsed in 1841 when yellow fever reared its head in the city.
The deadly illness was carried by female mosquitoes but no one knew this at the time. The fever arrived in the city when a ship bearing infected crew members sailed into St. Joseph Bay. The captain of the vessel, newspapers reported, was one of the first to die. Yellow fever had no respect for age, wealth or political power. Residents and visitors alike fell ill and many died. Those who could escape did so, reducing the city’s population to a mere 400 people by 1842. It was a stunning fall for a city that had boasted 12,000 residents just four years earlier.
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 only to virtually disappear from the map in less than nine years. Some of the surviving homes were moved to Apalachicola by barge. Others crumbled to dust. By the time of the Civil War, only chimneys, a cemetery and a handful of residents remained to tell travelers on the road from Marianna to Apalachicola 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 the St. Joseph Peninsula, Cape San Blas and Mexico Beach.
The legend of St. Joseph is a major part of Florida’s early folklore. Stories of a city so wicked that God swept it from the earth are still told and the legend formed the basis for Rubylea Hall’s regionally popular novel, The Great Tide. The title refers to the storm surge that legend blames for the destruction of the city.
Constitution Convention Museum State Park is the best place to learn the history of old St. Joseph. It features exhibits, artifacts, a monument and more. The museum is at 200 Allen Memorial Way, Port St. Joe, Florida. The museum features displays, artifacts and a live-sized diorama of the Constitution Convention in session.
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.
The Old St. Joseph Cemetery at 2482 Garrison Avenue, Port St. Joe, Florida. It preserves 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. The map at the bottom of this page will help you plan your visit.