ONLY a narrow strip along the coastal line of the lower Florida peninsula was known and explored when Dade County was created. Half a century later this vast back country called the Everglades was still an untamed waste. The United States Army had combed the Big Cypress and land between the Caloosahatchee River and the lower east coast during the Seminole Wars. In April 1856, from the sketches of these reconnaissances the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, issued a military map of the peninsula of Florida south of Tampa Bay. For years this map remained the only existing guide to the interior.
In 1892 the Flagler and Plant railroad interests combined to make a survey across the Everglades. The party set out from Fort Myers and, working their way eastward, discarded supplies and equipment as they left the waterways of the western swamp and entered the grass-covered Everglades. Half-starved, weakened, and unkempt, they finally reached Miami, making the i5o-mile journey in about three weeks. The railroads evinced no further interest in the Glades and they remained undisturbed for almost a quarter century. Meanwhile, Everglades drainage became an actuality. Thousands of acres near Lake Okeechobee were drained and were producing phenomenal crops. Men foresaw the same benefits accruing to land holders in the lower Everglades.
In addition, thousands of tourists attracted to the lower west coast were obliged to return by the same route they had used to reach their objectives. Civic leaders believed that a road across the Everglades would not only prove an attraction in itself but would draw west coast visitors to Miami.
Various groups have been credited with the origin of the Tamiami Trail, foremost among them being the late Captain James F. Jaudon, of Miami, who was associated with the project from its inception to its completion. A Writers Press Association release dated November 2, 1926, describes Jaudon as a pioneer in the development of Dade County and an expert on good roads.
The Tampa-Fort Myers road was already in existence. The idea for a road from Fort Myers to Miami originated in 1915 during a meeting of Jaudon and Francis W. Perry, president of the Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce, at Tallahassee. In that year road building was uppermost in the public mind. The Dixie Highway Association, meeting in Chattanooga May 20, to determine the route of a proposed road from Chicago to Miami, defeated a plan to have it run through the center of Florida. The defeated faction immediately formed the Central Florida Highway Association which met at Orlando the next month and pledged support to a program that included the Fort Myers-Miami Road.
At the request of the Miami Chamber of Commerce, the Dade County Commission furnished the services of an engineer in making the preliminary survey. Later the county created the Miami Marco Road and Canal Commission consisting of Captain Jaudon, L. T. Highleyman, and R. E. McDonald, who appeared before the trustees of the Internal Improvement Fund at Tallahassee to request the creation of a special road and bridge district in order to issue bonds for the construction of the proposed Trail.
The county advertised for bids early in 1916 but none were received. The county, thereupon, made another survey of the 37 l /2 miles of road extending to the Lee County line.
Meanwhile, newspapers in both Lee and Dade counties had en dorsed the project and given it wide publicity. On July 16, 1916, Dade County floated a $275,000 bond issue and awarded a contract for the road. A paving company began the work on a sub-contract, but encountered difficulties and could not complete its contract. Although the county amended the original contract several times and issued additional bonds to provide funds, the road to the Lee County line was no more than a rough trail. Beyond that, the road was even worse, for Lee County was 110 more successful than Dade. The first trouble arose from advancing labor costs brought on by the World War. The greatest problems, however, were of an engineering nature. Originally the contractors attempted to lay a rock fill directly over the Everglades muck to make the roadbed. This did not remain usable and gradually disappeared into the mud. It became apparent that the muck would have to be removed and a bed built up from the underlying rock formation. This re quired a dredge, a canal in which to float it, and plenty of rock. The latter lay in great quantities beneath the muck and could be had by blasting which, in turn, would create the needed canal. This expensive solution did not end the difficulties. About twelve miles out, and extending for many miles beyond, was an expansive stratum of flinty rock which required special equipment to work. Furthermore, during long dry seasons, water in the canal sank so low that the dredge was often stranded.
In 1919 it became evident that Lee County, having 121 miles to build, would be financially unable to complete the portion of the Trail within its borders. The Chevalier Corporation, a land company organized by Jaudon in 1917, and owner of extensive acreage in Monroe County, offered to build a link in the Trail to dedicate it for public use if Lee and Dade Counties would route the Trail through the company holdings. The proposal was accepted but actual construction did not begin until 1921.
In the beginning all labor, supplies, and equipment had to be transported to the west coast and worked up the numerous creeks in that area to a location near the new route. It took so long for the engineers in charge to communicate with their home office at Miami that radio apparatus for sending and receiving messages was installed. About this time Barron G. Collier, best known for his street car advertising enterprise, began buying land in Lee County. In 1923, when the State legislature cut off the southern part of Lee County to create Collier County, Barron Collier owned most of its 1,267,200 acres.
Almost immediately, contention arose over the change that had been made in the route of the Trail. Sponsors of the new county clamored for the original route which would take the highway out of Monroe County and the holdings of the Chevalier Corporation, which had done considerable work on its part of the Trail.
Two years later the Tamiami Trail was made part of the State highway system and the State Road Department abandoned the Monroe County route. The Chevalier people, and Monroe and Dade Counties protested the change claiming that the corporation was faithfully performing its part of a formal contract. The State at last accepted the road as the "South Loop" and on an official road map of Florida, published 1936, it appears as State Highway No. 27. On other road maps, this section of the road is marked "closed." Under State control, work progressed rapidly. The first contract issued by the State was signed August 23, 1925, and the Trail was opened to the public on April 20, 1928. The total cost, from Fort Myers to Miami, was $7,000,000.
Completed, this 30-foot highway across the Everglades represents twelve years of man-killing labor. Men worked waist-deep in snake-infested sloughs for months building a crude cypress-log road way to support the heavy drilling machinery. More than once the treacherous mud oozed away and the iron monster disappeared into the depths of the mire.
Crews of grimy men toiled in the midst of an unbroken desolation. Every now and then the silence was broken by a roar of exploding dynamite and the sodden men rested for a moment while a geyser of black mud rose skyward, scattered, and dropped on the sawgrass that hemmed them in.
Over it all hung a peculiar blue haze and, in the summer, a gripping heat, characteristic of the inner Glades. Near each gang of men a sharp-eyed guard, armed with a shot gun, was posted to kill the poisonous snakes that infested the region. Farther west, in Collier County, other armed men in lookout towers, watched the convict labor used on part of the road.
One contractor declared that three M's built the Trail: men, money, and machinery. Another observer declared that the three M's might equally stand for muck, misery, and moccasins. Today the Trail is noted, not for its greatness nor its cost, but for the fact that it has opened the once "impregnable" and still mysterious Everglades, a vast area unlike any other in the United States.
From Miami westward, the swamps become increasingly dense and the habitations correspondingly fewer. Signs of human life gradually disappear until little is left except an occasional fisherman trying his luck in the canal that borders the north side of the Trail. Farther on, wild life comes into its own. Lethargic snakes slither across the road; fish leap, silver-bright, from the sluggish water, and huge turtles, some green, some brown, lazily sun themselves on rocks just above the water s edge. A duck, surrounded by her young, drifts slowly along, her wary eyes scanning bank and sky for enemies; rarely, an alligator barks in the distance.
The number of water plants increases as the trail proceeds westward. The spiked heads of cat-tails, blue and purple flags, and yellow dog lilies are abundant. The airy, white, three-petaled blos soms of the spider lilies resemble butterflies poised for flight. Every where the water hyacinths rear their small, dark blue blossoms midst stiff, upright leaves, polished like green arrowheads.
Westward the Trail passes through stretches of stunted cypress, diminutive trees with whitish bark and delicate, bright-green foliage. Beneath them great, grotesque roots rise like gnarled, conical pedestals from the rank swamp grass. The landscape is that of the African veldt.
As the Trail enters the Big Cypress country, the trees are larger and burdened with dark air-plants or Tillandsias. Airy and graceful in great live oak trees in the hammocks, these air-pines appear heavy and cumbersome when attached to the sparsely branched young cypress trees. Now and then, tropical birds swoop across the highway. Far in the distance heron or ibis swirl like white moths above the gray skeletons of dead forest trees.
Strung across the State, close to the Trail, are six or eight Indian villages, more or less pretentious, with oddly worded signs to catch the tourist eye. As indicated by such signs as "Chestnut Billy Indian Village" or "Corey Osceola Indian Village" these camps are usually named for the head man of the camp.