THE HISTORIC TOWN ON FLORIDA’S FORGOTTEN COAST IS ONCE AGAIN BEING FORCED TO REINVENT ITSELF
ESSAY BY ROBERT SANCHEZ¦PHOTOS BY SCOTT K. SHOLL
How fitting that Apalachicola’s most notable historic figure is a doctor who was also an inventor. It’s uncannily appropriate because this little river town on the coast of Florida’s Panhandle has been reinventing itself throughout much of its history.
All of Florida owes a debt of gratitude to Apalachicola’s inventive physician. What Dr. John Gorrie invented was refrigeration and, thus, air conditioning. His invention, together with mosquito control to stamp out malaria and yellow fever, made Florida’s subtropical climate more tolerable for persnickety human beings from points farther north. These advances also played a crucial role in the state’s growth from a sparsely populated backwater to the nation’s third most populous state.
In Apalachicola there’s a small park and museum dedicated to Dr. Gorrie. Moreover, in recognition of his achievements, he’s one of the two Floridians honored by statues in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall, where each state, regardless of size, gets only two slots.
Incidentally, Florida’s other statue depicts Edmund Kirby Smith, a minor Confederate General who actually spent very little time in Florida after his childhood in St. Augustine. There is currently an effort to replace him with what his critics deem would be a better representative of the state. The name of the noted environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas has been mentioned as a worthy candidate.
Replacing a statue is not impossible; seven states have already done so. The Florida Legislature would have to approve any switch. If lawmakers really wanted an environmentalist or naturalist to unhorse the Civil War general, they could do worse than honor another longtime Apalachicola resident, Alvin Wentworth Chapman. This world-famous scholar was, like Gorrie, a physician. He lived in Apalachicola from 1847 until his death in 1899 at the age of 90, and he compiled a highly regarded book cataloging the flora of the southeastern United States.
Dr. John Gorrie Monument, located in Gorrie Square, with Trinity Episcopal Church in the background — Apalachicola, Florida
As for Apalachicola’s knack of reinventing itself, sometimes it wasn’t exactly a matter of choice. Early in the 19th Century, for instance, Apalachicola’s harbor just off the Gulf of Mexico was the nation’s primary outlet for exporting cotton. Steamships brought the cotton down the Apalachicola River and its tributaries, including the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers. Large warehouses sprang up, and the little town enjoyed a boom. Unfortunately for Apalachicola, however, its cotton trade dried up when farmers found a much better way to get their cotton to port after a rail line to Savannah opened up access to the Atlantic.
Later in the 19th Century, Apalachicola briefly became an important center of sponge fishing, an industry that thrived in the northern Gulf of Mexico for most of two decades. Unfortunately for Apalachicola, the focus of the sponge industry eventually shifted to the Greek settlement of Tarpon Springs, much farther south on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
Before long, however, Apalachicola found what appeared to be its true calling: seafood production. The northern reaches of the Gulf teem with fish, and Apalachicola Bay’s delicate mix of briny and fresh water made it an ideal habitat for shellfish, particularly oysters. Each November the city stages its annual “Seafood Festival,” a two-day event that draws upwards of 30,000 visitors and burnishes the city’s image as synonymous with seafood.
Gibson Inn — Apalachicola, Florida
Unfortunately for Apalachicola, however, the seafood industry — particularly oyster production — is now under siege. Not only is it threatened by occasional pollution, but, worse, it is suffering from the constant manipulation of the water levels flowing into Apalachicola Bay. Too much rain upstream brings an excess of fresh water rushing into the bay, altering its balance of salty and fresh water. Conversely, not enough rain upstream means that the thirsty and growing city of Atlanta hogs a disproportionate share of the river water while the areas downstream are left to struggle as the delicate brine-fresh balance in Apalachicola Bay is once again thrown off kilter.
The state governments of Florida, Georgia, and Alabama have been engaged in a protracted legal battle in federal court in an effort to resolve the intractable problem of water, whether too much or too little. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has always been more concerned with flood control and navigability, recently laid out its latest plan for the river system — and pretty much ignored the concerns of Apalachicola residents and environmentalists.
The litigation has dragged on inconclusively for several years, while the threats to Apalachicola’s seafood industry have grown. Those threats not only include the continuing degradation of the river and the bay, plus the lingering after effects of the disastrous BP oil spill, but the domestic seafood industry nationwide is also facing stiff competition from cheap imports, particularly shrimp and various species of fish imported from China and Southeast Asia.
View of Apalachicola Bay at Lafayette Park — Apalachicola, Florida
Water Street along Apalachicola’s Riverfront Park
Apalachicola has not given up on seafood, but already there are signs that the old town may be reinventing itself once again. A degree of gentrification is already evident. The city’s quaintness quotient owes a lot to the fact that it is off the beaten track. Indeed, the nearest Interstate highway interchange, with its cluster of motels and fast-food joints, is nearly 50 miles away. No four-lane highway links the city to the outside world. And Apalachicola’s waterfront is on a bay, not a beach, so it doesn’t have the stereotypical row of high-rise condos and hotels that dominates so many of Florida’s beaches.
Apalachicola’s relative isolation has also meant slower growth, especially compared with the rate of growth in the rest of Florida. That, in turn, has meant that many of the town’s historic buildings — former cotton warehouses, planters’ stately homes, the 102-year-old Dixie Theatre, the Art Deco-style school named for the botanist Chapman — still stand. Some have been converted into trendy shops, boutiques, and eateries patronized by visitors and by the wealthy residents of nearby St. George Island, a long and narrow barrier island remarkable for its state park and its towering dunes of sugar-white sand.
If Apalachicola does indeed reinvent itself, this time it could be as a destination for “ecotourists,” history buffs, and visitors who appreciate the slower pace of a Key West without the sky-high prices — or the charm of a Charleston or a Savannah without the bustle, pretense, and tourist traps characteristic of larger cities of greater renown.
Even Apalachicola’s historic city cemetery has its charms, with the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers side by side with those of prominent cotton merchants, immigrants, widows of fishermen, and beloved family servants. Yet Apalachicola’s greatest asset is arguably its close proximity to the water — to the river, to the bay, and, nearby, to one of the nation’s best beaches.
Maybe that explains why one of the more important streets in Apalachicola’s small and pedestrian-friendly downtown is named Water Street. While there are cities of a similar size, longevity, and historicity scattered across America from the deep South to New England and points west, not many can claim Apalachicola’s rare combination of assets: charm, serenity, history, seafood, and proximity to a river, a bay, and the sea.
Historic Dixie Theatre in downtown Apalachicola, Florida
Lafayette Park — Apalachicola, Florida
Historic Grady Building on Water Street — Apalachicola, Florida
First United Methodist Church — Apalachicola, Florida
Chestnut Street Cemetery “Old City Graveyard” — Apalachicola, Florida
Three Soldiers Statue — Apalachicola, Florida
Veterans Memorial Plaza and Orman House Historic State Park — Apalachicola, Florida
Raney House — Apalachicola, Florida
Buddy Ward & Sons Seafood — Apalachicola, Florida
Papa Joe’s Oyster Bar & Grill — Apalachicola, Florida
Scipio Creek Marina — Apalachicola, Florida
Leavins Seafood — Apalachicola, Florida
Carrabelle Beach, off Highway 98, near Apalachicola — Carrabelle, Florida
Dunes at St. George Island State Park — St. George Island, Florida
View of Gulf of Mexico at Carrabelle Beach — Carrabelle, Florida