Roughly midway between Live Oak in Suwannee County and Lee in Madison County, north Florida’s Highway 90 crosses the Suwannee River, just south of its confluence with the Withlacoochee River. The crossing is fairly nondescript; there’s a convenience store and a State of Florida Agricultural Inspection Station on the eastern side of the bridge, and even less to its west. Both sides of the river are heavily wooded. A small road sign labels the area as Ellaville, but what exists of the modern community passes in the blink of an eye.
Most people driving across the bridge would never guess that this was once the site of a large, bustling community, home to a massive commercial enterprise and the residence of a former governor of the state of Florida. But fire, neglect, and the power of Mother Nature have a way of eliminating all traces of human existence if given enough time.
The mid-to-late 1800’s was a time when Florida’s timber industry boomed. Newly-constructed railroads enabled lumber to be shipped across the country at a reasonable fee, and sawmills sprang up around the state. The area surrounding the confluence of the Suwannee and the Withlacoochee was covered in thick forests of yellow pine, just waiting to be harvested. Not only did the two major rivers offer an effective transportation route for lumber, but the rail line of the Pensacola and Georgia Railroad connecting Tallahassee to Jacksonville, which crossed the Suwannee just south of its intersection with the Withlacoochee, was built in 1855. Between the virgin timber, navigable waterways, and access to rail travel, the spot was the prime location for a sawmill.
In the 1865’s, lumber magnate George F. Drew (who later became the twelfth governor of Florida, serving from 1877 to 1881) moved to Madison County, Florida, and established what was at the time the largest sawmill in the state of Florida. He named the community which sprang up around the mill Ellaville. According to legend, this was to honor Ella, his long-time African-American servant of that name.
Ed and John Drew, George’s brothers, oversaw construction of an opulent mansion at the site, which was completed in 1868 and became George Drew’s home. The combination of the busy sawmill and the opulent residence of the state’s governor led Ellaville to grow and thrive. At one point, in addition to the sawmill and the governor’s mansion and the homes of the town’s several hundred residents, Ellaville boasted a post office, train station, two schools, churches, a cemetery, stores, a telegraph unit, and more.
However, while trees are a renewable resource, they were not planted and farmed in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s as they are today. Once the supply of trees fueling the mill diminished, the community of Ellaville did as well. This, combined with massive flooding, the Great Depression, and two successive world wars slowly killed off the community. In 1942 the Ellaville post office closed its doors for good, as there weren’t enough local residents to justify its presence. Two of the few remaining landmarks of Ellaville were the distinctive Suwannee River Store built in 1927 and the decaying remains of the long-abandoned Drew mansion. However, the Drew mansion succumbed to arson in 1970, and repeated flooding and the rerouting of Highway 90 across a more modern bridge to the west of Ellaville in 1986 led to the store being abandoned as well.
Today the modern “community” of Ellaville is located just to the south of the Suwannee River, in Suwannee County. There you will find the convenience store, a smattering of homes, and the agricultural inspection station. The Madison County side of the river, however, is the location of the true Ghost Town of Ellaville.
Old Highway 90, now called Drew Way, dead ends at the closed Hillman Bridge across the Suwannee. To the east of the road’s terminus is a small park with picnic tables and a historical marker, noting that this is indeed the former site of the town of Ellaville. Across Drew Way from the park sit two private residences and the slowly crumbling remains of the Suwannee River Store. The park is bordered by thick woods and the Suwannee River. Lack of detailed signage might lead one to assume that the picnic tables near the river are all there is to this once bustling community, but if you know where to look, you can indeed find some ghostly remains.
Two trails lead into the woods from the park’s small parking lot: one heads north, while the other heads east. The trail to the north will take one to the (alleged) remains of Governor Drew’s mansion, as well as to what remains of the town’s cemetery. The trail winds northward through the woods, parallel to Drew Way, and eventually crosses both the nearby railroad tracks and a dirt road. Once the trail makes this crossing, it is a short walk to both the supposed remains of Drew Mansion and the cemetery.
A few resources available on Ellaville clearly map the location of the Drew Mansion, and various hikers, photographers, and bloggers who have found the ruins of something at that location have assumed it to be the mansion’s foundation. However, a comparison between photographs of the mansion – a structure built almost entirely of wood and supported above the ground by brick pilings – with the thick brick walls and subterranean nature of the ruins leads one to wonder if the ruins have, perhaps, been misidentified. These may instead be the remains of one of the many mill facilities in the area.
Continuing the hike northward a short distance from the ruins takes you to the remains of the town cemetery. Sadly, it has suffered from vandalism over the years. The remains of ten headstones survive, although only two gravestones contain legible text: John Clay Thomas, a shoemaker, who died in 1890; and Mary Amelia Brush, granddaughter of Governor Drew.
The trail heading east from the small parking lot leads under the railroad trestle and towards the Withlacoochee River. Just north of the confluence of the Withlacoochee with the Suwannee on the Withlacoochee’s western shore are the broken down remains of a springhouse surrounding Suwanacoochee Spring. The information about this structure is scant and varies depending on whom one asks. It was either part of a grist mill, part of the Ellaville sawmill, or a bathhouse for swimming and relaxation. Today it merely surrounds a summer swimming hole popular with the locals.
A segment of the Florida Trail (a network of over a thousand miles of Florida hiking trails) known as the Big Oak Trail also runs through this area and can be followed northward along the Withlacoochee. Hiking the Big Oak Trail in the fall or winter months can enable one to glimpse further remnants of Ellaville: a cistern, a boiler, various foundations, bricks, and shards of pottery. In the summer months, however, Mother Nature takes over, burying what remains of Ellaville in brambles and brush.
SEE MORE “GHOST TOWN OF ELLAVILLE” PHOTOS HERE