The Forgotten Coast

Published Sunday, March 2, thebradentontimes.com 2014 12:05 am
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A fishing boat is pulled up to the dock in downtown Apalachicola.

Arriving in Apalachicola is like stepping back in time. As part of Florida’s so-called “Forgotten Coast”, the town with a population of 2,300 still focuses on fishing, shrimping and oysters as its main source of industry, much like it has for nearly 200 years.

Of course, today the town has a nice tourist slant, one that draws people to discover a true version of the fabled “Old Florida.”

However, old Florida isn’t just a buzz word in Apalachicola, it’s not something used by realtors or a chamber of commerce to sell an era that doesn’t really exist anymore.

Apalachicola is old Florida, a quaint, southern town where, in a restaurant, you’re eating what just came off the boats as they pull in from the Apalachicola River and bay.

The town started as a trading post along the Gulf Coast called “Cottonton,” but was incorporated as West Point in 1827. Four years later, the town was named Apalachicola.

Before the advent of the railroad, Apalachicola was the third busiest port in the Gulf of Mexico, behind  New Orleans and Mobile, Ala. It thrived because of its location of course, but also because of the abundance of oysters and shrimp, an industry for which the town is still known today (In fact, 90 percent of all Florida’s oysters come from Apalachicola Bay).

But as the years ticked on, Apalachicola would find itself in the center of history in the making; one of the America’s most noted botanists, Dr. Alavan Wenthworth Chapman, settled in the town in 1847, where he practiced medicine and wrote his seminal work, “Flora of the Southern United States”, which was the first book dedicated solely to the plant life of the south. Chapman spent years researching the book in Georgia and other parts of Florida, and chose Apalachicola as the place to compile his work.

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Boats of all kinds line the docks of a canal.

In 1849, another Apalachicola physician named Dr. John Gorrie created the first refrigeration process, and patented the first ice machine in 1850. At the time, Gorrie applied the technology in a medical setting, as a way to cool down patients that were experiencing extremely high fevers.

Of course, the same ideas would later be applied to modern refrigeration and air conditioning and Gorrie was an unknowing pioneer in those fields. Now, Gorrie’s work and legacy is enshrined in a state park in Apalachicola at the John Gorrie Museum, where a replica of his ice-making machine is on display along with exhibits chronicling the colorful history of Apalachicola.

Apalachicola came into the spotlight during the Civil War when the gunboat USS Sagamore and 186-foot steamer USS Mercedita captured the port, a massive victory for the union forces that were trying to gain a foothold in southern ports. Both ships were important members of the fleet, with the Sagamore sailing the Suwannee in 1864, while the Mercedita helped to capture Charleston Bay in 1863, but in 1862 both ships were crucial in helping to secure the port.

Today, Apalachiocola is a crucial hub of the so called “Forgotten Coast,” a relatively raw and undeveloped section of coastline along Highway 98, which stretches from Mexico Beach to Apalachee Bay.

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Just minutes from Apalachicola, the Nature Coast continues to unfold, flowing east to St. George Island, where beach communities and state parks offer an abundance of recreational activity, and then west to Port St. Joe, where the old Florida commercial fishing industry also thrives.

Apalachicola remains the commercial hub of the western panhandle, a place where commerce and history collide.

Of course, its role in the fishing and shipping industries has changed, but in the era where history is manufactured, Apalachicola has reinvented itself by simply staying true to its roots.

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