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At 75, FL’s ’Greatest’ Construction Job Tells State’s Story

Wed October 01, 2003 - Southeast Edition

TAMPA, FL (AP) It stretches 274 mi. through the vast open spaces of Florida, skirting the Gulf Coast just close enough for drivers to notice the sky is a little bluer there and then turning to forge through the River of Grass.

Tampa to Miami — Tamiami. Seventy-five years after the trail was built, the remarkable road that carried dreamers, land speculators and tourists to the Sunshine State still tells the tale of Florida.

When there was no other way to traverse Florida, the Tamiami Trail opened the state’s west coast to those seeking a refuge, whether as a permanent home or just a week’s vacation. At the same time, it took the wilderness refuge of the Miccosukee Indians and opened it up to the rest of the world.

“It was one of the greatest construction projects, certainly in Florida, if not in American history,” said Gary Mormino, co-director of the Florida studies program at the University of South Florida (USF). “Much of the story of Florida is conquering distance, the tyranny of distance.”

Construction of the Tamiami Trail started in 1916 and continued at a rate of 1.3 mi. a month. The last 45 mi. through the heart of the Everglades took four years to build.

It cost $8 million to build the 30-ft.-wide road, a remarkable amount of money at the time. Today, that would only be enough to build approximately 4 mi. of rural highway, according to the Florida Department of Transportation.

James Franklin Jaudon, a major Miami-Dade County landholder who twice walked across the Everglades, is remembered as the father of the trail. One historical account puts the genesis of the trail at a meeting in Tallahassee between Jaudon and Francis W. Perry, the chairman of the Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce, according to a history published in 1928 by the trail commissioners.

But once construction was under way, it became clear that Lee County would not be able to meet its financial obligations. Up stepped Barron Collier, who had made his fortune in streetcar advertising and owned half the land in Lee County. He offered a deal: he’d finance the remaining construction if the state would name a county after him.

“Collier was a real roll-up your sleeves, can-do kind of guy,” said David Southall, curator of education for the Collier County Museum. “A big part of completing the trail was psychological. A lot of people didn’t think you could build a road through the Everglades. Everyone thought you’d sink into quick sand.”

Fanfare on the Tamiami

On April 25, 1928, a motorcade left Tampa in a celebratory journey along the trail. They spent the night in Fort Myers, where they were entertained by bands on the public square, and arrived in Miami a day later in a huge celebration led by then-Gov. John W. Martin.

The following year, the stock market crashed and Florida’s land boom fizzled. It took years for the Tamiami Trail to achieve its full potential. But when it came back, it did it with style.

The trail flourished with roadside zoos, riverside campgrounds and mom-and-pop eateries where some still remember meringue pies 5-in. high. Motels, with neon signs touting air-conditioned rooms, beckoned the road weary.

Lifelong memories were built around the trail.

Mormino remembers one presentation he made at the Everglades City Rod & Gun Club, where an elderly gentleman raised his hand to share a story.

“He said his father had brought his family across the trail right after it opened,” Mormino said. “There was just a fierce thunderstorm so they pulled off the road. Lightning bolts were so bright you could see everything for a few seconds.

“He looked up in the pine trees and saw several dozen panthers up there hiding. Just think about that, he saw in one lightning flash in 1928 more Florida panthers than anyone other than a few hunters has ever seen.”


From the Past

These days, the trail is a shadow of its former self now that Interstate 75 is the preferred means of travel. Some stretches of the trail are crowded with strip shopping malls, fast-food restaurants and chain stores that make it indistinguishable from any other congested road in modern America.

But here and there, the old trail still appears in the people who live and work alongside it.

Anyone who has traveled the trail from beginning to end must pass by the Giants Camp restaurant, which is located just south of Tampa in Gibsonton, the winter home of traveling carnival folk.

Giants Camp was built by Al and Jeanie Tomaini. At more than 8 ft. tall, he was deemed the world’s tallest man. She was born without legs and dubbed “The Half Girl.”

Margaret Ingram has been cooking at Giants Camp for 32 years, from 4 a.m. to 4 p.m., seven days a week. She remembers when the trail was the preferred route for tourists, and how hard feeding those hungry drivers could be.

“It’s been a long, hard life,” said Ingram, as she chopped vegetables in preparation for the dinner crowd. “But I’ve always liked to work.”

So did the Ruskins just down the road, where the followers of Victorian thinker John Ruskin envisioned a Utopia at the turn of the century. Their community flourished with its own college, its own currency and its own laws that gave women the right to vote more than a decade before the 19th Amendment was enacted.

The Tamiami Trail sliced the town in half, and gave Ruskin its other claim to fame when refrigerated trucking allowed its famous tomatoes to be shipped north.

Just off the trail in Sarasota is a neighborhood known as Pinecraft, where in the 1920s Amish from the Midwest settled. Drawn by abundant farmland and warmer weather, the descendants of those families have kept traditions alive.

The trail is still two lanes through the grand expanse of the Everglades, with the canal Collier’s crew built bordering the northern side. Those who look carefully can spot alligators gathering near the bridges where fishermen cast their lines.

Just off the road, drivers can spot traditional Miccosukee villages, tour boat operators and souvenir shops. Tourists can buy gourds used by the Indians as noisemakers in traditional dances.

The last 25 blocks of Tamiami Trail in Miami are a world apart from other parts of the highway. The stretch is Southwest 8th Street — widely known as Calle Ocho — in the historic neighborhood called Little Havana, where thousands of Cuban exiles made their home during the mass exodus of the 1960s.

Cafeterias sell Cuban coffee and croquettes at walk-up windows, while old men slam dominoes on tables at Maximo Gomez Park, just a few steps from Celia Cruz’s star on Calle Ocho’s version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

At El Credito cigar shop and factory, which claims to be the oldest operating cigar company in the United States, workers listen to a slow traditional Cuban song as they roll the tobacco leaves into pungent cigars.

Michael Giannini, brand ambassador for the cigar company, smiles when he realizes that this historic section of Miami is actually part of the trail.

“This is where a lot of Cuban immigrant expatriates came to live,” he said. “If you told someone this was part of Tamiami Trail, they wouldn’t know what you’re talking about.”

With His Own Bare Hands …

Roan “Doc” Johnson was an early century adventurer of sorts. With a machete or ax in hand, he helped hack a path through an undeveloped wilderness that would become a well-traveled highway connecting the coasts of Florida, straight through the heart of the Everglades.

Johnson, who worked on a section of the Tamiami Trail for two years, now lives with his wife of 64 years, Marie, and their son, Roan, in a small home less than a mile from the road he helped build. Now 95, his memories are quickly recalled even if some names and details have started to fade.

The portion of U.S. Highway 41 that is known as the Tamiami Trail took a dozen years to build, after several stops and starts.

“If they wanted to build it now, it would only take about six months,” Johnson said.

Johnson started out on a bridge crew in 1926 when he was 18, two years before the project was completed. Living in Quitman, GA, at the time, he was convinced to come to South Florida by his cousin, who was already working on the trail and told him of the good money — $78 a month — and free room and board.

Once on the trail, Johnson was quickly recruited to be a surveyor — brave souls who waded through uncharted territory to mark the route for the dynamite crews who followed behind. More than 2.5 million sticks of dynamite were used during the construction of the trail.

Johnson’s crew moved east from Ochopee, approximately 35 mi. southeast of Naples, to the Miami-Dade County line. He covered a total of approximately 30 mi.

“I remember the water was everywhere … clear, clear water, just everywhere,” he said.

“At camp, we all wore boots. As it were, you’d have to stop and pull them off and empty them out.”

At night the men would sleep under mosquito netting on bunks barely raised up out of the water.

“You’d pull your boots off and wash your feet right off the edge of your bed,” he said.

Johnson said he never worried too much about the alligators, which workers would see every now and then. “You knew they were there, but they didn’t bother you,” he said.

The teams would carry sticks for protection, but used them mostly to beat off the horseflies.

On the day before the trail officially opened to the public, Johnson and some of his buddies caught an alligator that had wandered into the road, tied him up and put him on the back of a Roadster.

“I held on like a crazy fool,” he said, laughing. “That was one of the craziest things I ever did.”

They put the gator behind a fence at Everglades City, so that people driving across the new road would be greeted by an ambassador of the Everglades.

But the gator, docile while being tied to the Roadster, was less interested about being kept behind a fence and broke out overnight, Johnson said. “He was just gone.”

After he was done working on the trail, Johnson went to work for the state transportation department before starting his own business with a truck crane to do construction work for the city of Naples. He retired in 1975.

The Johnsons would drive across the trail about twice a month to visit relatives, but have only made two or three trips in the past few years.

Johnson took part in ceremonies celebrating the 75th anniversary in April, and said he was surprised that he was the only crew worker who showed up.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s been 75 years,” he said. “I think [the road’s] held up pretty good. It really is something.”