Florida’s forgotten city

Call it the forgotten city on the Forgotten Coast with a forgotten destiny.

If you have never been to Port St. Joe you really ought to treat yourself. It is a picture postcard Gulf Coast community possessed of a walkable, old Florida-style downtown and blessed with spectacular views of Cape San Blas, just across the shallow waters of an shimmering aquamarine bay. With just over 3,500 residents it exudes small town charm.

Port St. Joe lacks the cache of its “oyster capital” neighbor to the east, Apalachicola. But neither does it suffer the beach-blocking high-rises and sprawl of Panama City to the west.

It is, in short, a small, compact and lovely little Forgotten Coast town that time seems to have forgotten.

All of which constitutes both the charm and the enigma of Port St. Joe.

Because this small resort community has all but risen from the ashes of a much larger city that once harbored grand ambitions.

Before Florida entered the union, in 1845, St. Joseph was an up-and-coming port city that aspired to be the next Savannah or Charleston. Already one of the largest and most prosperous settlements in then-territorial Florida, St. Joseph wanted to be bigger and more prosperous still.

Indeed, it is the town that birthed modern Florida government. The first state constitutional convention was held there in 1838, a precursor to Florida’s admission into the union.

And while playing host to delegates from around the peninsula’s widely scattered settlements, city fathers harbored no less an ambition than to become the very seat of governance for America’s newest state.

“There were some very wealthy and influential people in city of St Joseph, so there was a big push” to position it as the capital when the state was finally admitted into the union. It was such a booming town that it kind of helped in that situation. By some estimates there were as many as 12,000 people living there.”

This from Joanna Lindsey, ranger in charge of the State Constitutional Convention Museum, in Port St. Joe.

Ah, but such is the serendipitous nature of history. Far from becoming a coastal version of Tallahassee, St. Joseph in relatively short order went from boom town to ghost town. Only to be later reborn as a miniature version of itself.

All this due to untimely visitations of fever, fire, wind and financial ruin.

“by 1844 it was just a ghost town, it peaked and just died,” Lindsey said.

Perhaps the best account of the rise and fall of old St. Joseph was written in 1967 by Henry A. Drake, former postmaster at Port St. Joe. In 1838 Florida’s Territorial Council “selected St. Joseph over such older and larger cities in the territory, as Pensacola, St. Augustine, and Tallahassee, as a site for the drafting of a state constitution,” he wrote.

Why? Perhaps because community leaders like newspaper editor Peter W. Gautier, Jr. and businessmen E.J. Wood, William P. Duval and Richard C. Allen were adept at playing “shrewd politics” in their determination to promote St. Joseph.

At the time of the convention, St. Joseph boasted a railroad, at least seven hotels, a newly built convention hall and a race track.

That latter amenity, Drake noted, “attracted the sporting element of distant places, and with the excellent public accommodations, including some gaming houses where liquors were imbibed in some quantities…St. Joseph soon became known as a fast town!”

St. Joseph’s capital city ambitions were nearly foiled at the outset by the skeptical voters of Florida. The constitution that finally emerged from the convention barely survived its 1839 referendum – winning by just 113 votes out of only about 4,000 cast. “I don’t know that (voters) objected so much to the contents of the constitution as to the ultimate goal of joining the union,” Lindsey said.

It’s what happened subsequently, however, that sealed St. Joseph’s fate. Call it a series of unfortunate events.

In 1839 a storm destroyed several buildings and blew a number of ships ashore.

That was followed by a yellow fever epidemic in 1841 that killed many residents and convinced many more still to leave town. Only an estimated 500 people remained in the wake of “Yellow Jack’s” visit.

Later that year a hurricane came ashore and did great damage. And then wildfires incinerated much of what remained.

All of this occurred simultaneously with a drop in cotton prices that caused the St. Joseph and Iola Railroad to close.

“The city might have overcome and survived the fever epidemic, except for the railway loss which had provided transportation in world commerce through the port of St. Joseph,’ Drake wrote. “But the city could not sustain itself under these adverse circumstances. Its plight was downward until its complete abandonment about 1854.”

As if to add insult to injury, some of the city’s grandest homes were subsequently bought up and shipped by barge to the hated rival city of Apalachicola.

“Many of the brick from the ruins of the old cotton warehouse and other buildings at St. Joseph were used in the paving of Palifox Street in Pensacola,” Drake recorded. “By the end of 1843 there were perhaps not more than 50 inhabitants at St. Joseph.”

It wouldn’t be until after the turn of the century that Port St. Joe began to take root about two miles away from old St. Joseph. For a time, Port St. Joe would also take on the trappings of a boom town, as saw mills and pulp paper companies began to move in. But these days it is mostly tourism that sustains the town. The white beaches of nearby St. Joseph Peninsula St. Park attracts thousands of visitors a year.

And while Port St. Joe largely avoided the major damage that all but destroyed its neighbor, Mexico Beach, when Hurricane Michael came ashore last year, that tempest arrived as a latest reminder of the fragility of life on a narrow, sandy spit of land that juts so precariously out into the Gulf of Mexico.

Ultimately it was a former Chicago newspaperman who wrote St. Joseph’s obituary. In his 1922 essay titled “Old St. Jo.” George Mortimer West eulogized:

“The sun shone brightly over the wrecked ambitious work of man.Death’s Angel, the hurricane, had completed the work begun by its brother, Pestilence (yellow fever), and buried beneath the sands of the sea, or swept to the four winds of Heaven, all that remained of the proud young city of St. Joseph.”

Author: floridavelocipede

A sometime journalist who used to string words together for a living before I retired to run a non-profit cycle touring organization that will henceforth go unnamed, as I have subsequently retired from that career as well. I write a bi-monthly column, theater reviews and an occasional magazine piece for my old newspaper. If I still had a business card it would read: Ron Cunningham: Trained Observer Of The Human Condition. Because like The Donald, you know, ego.

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