Florida has a history of European settlement like no other state, conquered and claimed and possessed or given up as the spoils of war or treaty by five nations six times: Spain; Great Britain and France; Spain (again); Confederate States of America; and the United States of America.
One reason for all the who-the-heck-are-we-this-time was that Florida, with its 1350 miles of coast versus a mere 375 miles of land attaching it to the continent, is the definition of a peninsula. It was easy to sail right up to and explore and/or conquer from all sides.
In the 1990’s, state officials looking to boost tourism created a “concept trail” to showcase Florida’s historic dependence on the sea by enticing tourists to the state’s coastal edges.
This appreciation of how and why these places and events helped form the state is what constitutes the Florida Maritime Heritage Trail. There are no highway markers or “de Soto Slept Here” signs; if you visit one of these six types of places, you are there.
- Forts Castillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine. Early explorers learned to make a kind of rock (coquina) from sea shells and strengthened this wooden fort with the mixture.
From the beginning of European exploration, forts protected Florida from sea and land attacks—not news. Different cannon types were placed strategically depending on the nature of the threat and that threat’s technology. Surprise: Who knew a stronghold could be built out of seashells? Twenty-four forts are open to the public today.
- PortsCantino Map, 1502, believed to show southern Florida on the left, indicates the many natural harbors gracing the new land
The world was a watery place for travelers back in the day, and Florida was blessed with many natural harbors. The rivers then as now were not especially deep far inland; this kept the strongest commercial towns and cities tied to the coasts. Unlike other historic elements along the trail, today most of Florida’s twenty ports remain busy contributors to the state, national, and international economy. If you take a cruise that embarks from Fort Lauderdale, you’re sustaining Florida’s port history.
- Lighthouses The Alligator Reef Lighthouse located east of Indian Key was finished in 1873 and automated in 1963 (photo by Scott LaRosa, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)
The first lighthouse in the world was a fire on top of a 450-foot tower at Alexandria, Egypt. How did they do that? How did they build the tower? Light that fire? And keep it lit during storms? Today, lighthouse hounds revel in exploring the thirty structures in Florida that remain out of the sixty-five total built and used. Some you can climb, some you can’t. Twenty-two are still active. Every one of them is romantic.
- Environments These tidal creeks at Waccasassa Bay near Cedar Key exemplify the complex interaction between land and sea all along Florida’s coast (photo courtesy Florida State Parks)
Florida’s coastal environments range from deep water harbors to shallow river inlets to tidal flats to marshy mangrove forests to sandy beaches. Wildlife of all kinds—wet and dry and some that is both—is abundant throughout. Everything you see sustained native and settlement populations. Imagine Spanish conquistadors in heavy metal armor trying to hack through palmetto groves in the relentless heat, humidity, and gnat swarms.
- CommunitiesSponge divers from Greece helped create the west coast community of Tarpon Springs and fueled a thriving international trade—and now tourism (photo by Leonard J. DeFrancisci)
Seashores create unique communities worldwide, and each one in Florida has its own character. One thing you might not realize is the strong Greek influence. Hearty seafarers and sponge fishermen settled several east and west coast cities including New Smyrna Beach/St. Augustine (east) and Tarpon Springs (west), the city with the highest percentage of Greek Americans in the country. The maritime communities theme is chronologically organized by Native, European Settlement, Colonial Settlement, and Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries categories; you can, like me, be a time traveler.
- Shipwrecks The 1898 wreck site of the Norwegian ship Lofthus carrying lumber bound for Buenos Aires (all hands survived) is easily dived just off the sand at Boynton Beach/Manalapan (photo by Ebyabe)
Florida’s waters are a diver’s paradise. You can search for lost treasure, go for the reef-life that develops around the wrecks or, from the shore side, get caught up in the human drama and tragedy and history-changing impacts of these watery graves. There’s a whole other world and time under the waves worth visiting.
Should you find yourself headed to the Sunshine State, consider following the Florida Maritime Heritage Trail. Your visit will be enriched.