A century ago, Florida was a different place.
Mosquitoes and alligators ruled. Air conditioning was science fiction. Cars were scarce, and paved roads were the perks of city living.
One hundred years ago, a rivalry began that would shape the state, one that would drive tourism and traffic along the southwest coast of Florida where seaside towns like Naples and Venice grew and prospered, and away from the interior, where towns like Sparkman and Bermont withered and died.
The Tamiami Trail versus the Cross State Highway.
The battle is little-remembered but changed Florida forever.
“The ultimate selection of the Tamiami Trail route over the Cross State Highway would determine Southwest Florida’s economic, political and social landscape, not just its topography,” wrote Theresa Hamilton Proverbs, an architect and professor at the Florida SouthWestern State College in Fort Myers in an academic paper titled “We Built That: The Lost Fight for Florida’s Cross State Highway.”
“To think of what would have been is speculation,” she said in an interview this week. “It would be great to try to create a future. I think it would have made a difference to the small towns (along the central spine of the state) that would have had access to a major highway. There would be more population and business and industry would be attracted there. There would have been an alternate ending had the Cross State Highway gone through.”
Hamilton Proverbs should know. She lives in LaBelle, in Hendry County, which would have been along the Cross State Highway had it materialized. LaBelle now has a population of about 4,500, but a number of towns at the time along the proposed Cross State Highway “no longer exist,” she said.
One hundred years ago, there wasn’t a single direct east-west paved road in the state, she said, only patchworks of dirt roads that connected the beaches along the Atlantic to main streets in interior towns to the beaches on the Gulf of Mexico.
So in 1915, a group of Fort Myers area businessmen began working on a project to connect Tampa to Miami.
There were two possible routes; one from Tampa to Arcadia, which was a hub of the state at the time, then southeast directly to Miami. The other route meandered along the the scenic Gulf Coast to Naples, where it hooked to the east, cutting through the Everglades to the East Coast.
“The rivalry was where the highway was going to go,” Hamilton Proverbs said. “This was 1915. There were few paved roads anywhere.”
In many ways the direct route made more sense, cutting across the state through Arcadia, LaBelle and Immokalee, skirting the northern part of the Everglades, to Miami. But that route didn’t have the backing or the savvy of the moneyed businessmen around Fort Myers, eager to bring tourists and their money to the sparkling shores of Southwest Florida.
At that time, fewer than a million cars were toting people around the nation, but the driving future was clear and a lot hung in the balance.
“To all appearances, the long-forgotten competition between these two highways appears to have been a fight between local groups over a seemingly local issue,” Hamilton Proverbs wrote in her paper, published in the Journal of Planning History in October. “But this rivalry would have statewide implications.”
The battle between the backers of the two highways was fierce, she wrote. She quoted Lee County historian Karl Grismer: “The two groups fought openly and secretly, with every weapon at their command, waging no quarter warfare. The battling became venomous.”
Hamilton Proverbs details the political maneuverings of the time and the influx of private funding that eventually tipped the balance in favor of the current route.
Private investment was the key, she said, particularly the money and influence of one man: New York mogul Barron Collier, for whom Collier County is named.
“An understanding of the Tamiami Trail and its ultimate triumph over the rival Cross State Highway,” she wrote, “begins with the question of how a single individual, Barron Collier, was able to exert disproportionate influence over the selection of highway routes, county creation, and ultimately the future planning of the state.”
History records the Tamiami Trail as the accomplishment of dedicated pioneers and dedicated men, led by Collier, she said, but it was mostly the force of his will that pushed the project through. Collier, who made millions in advertising and real estate, lived in the Fort Myers area and contributed about $1 million to the project, a fortune at the time.
In exchange, he got the state Legislature to name the county after him. Collier County was incorporated while the trail was under construction.
“The residents of Southwest Florida needed state policy, powers and infrastructure for highways and subsequent economic growth, (and) the state of Florida was in need of private capital to pay for it,” Hamilton Proverbs wrote. “Barron Gift Collier’s influence over planning for The Trail and its victory over the Cross State Highway stands at the nexus of this issue.”
Importantly, Collier knew how to market the project.
“The Tamiami Trail became this romantic, idyllic highway for travelers to drive on, but it also represented conquering the Everglades and progress,” she wrote. “Development would concentrate on Florida’s coastal cities and tourism and real estate would direct the economy.”
Once the route was finalized, construction began. It helped when Hillsborough, Manatee, Sarasota and other coastal counties anted up to build the connecting roads. The largest hurdle was stretching a paved road through 90 miles of the formidable and wild Everglades.
“It was an extremely difficult feat of engineering to accomplish,” Hamilton Proverbs said. More than a few people died along the way.
In 1921, construction stalled and rumors flew that the lower section of the trail would never be finished, that the Everglades had, as many predicted, defeated progress.
A history of the Tamiami Trail posted on the National Park Service website tells the rest of story:
“By 1923, with vast sums expended, several workmen dead from drowning or dynamite explosions, and little progress made, south Florida residents seemed ready to give up,” the website said. “Then in the spring of 1923, a group of public-spirited citizens calling themselves ‘The Tamiami Trailblazers’ set out to rekindle the Tamiami fire.
“In a dramatic attempt to revive interest, a trail blazing expedition of ten cars filled with twenty-three white men and two Indian guides made a perilous three-week trip across the Everglades swampland. They proved that the route of the proposed Tamiami Trail was feasible, opened the way for land development, captured the imagination of the public with their exploit, and reaffirmed the need for ‘Florida’s Greatest Road Building Achievement.’ “
The following year the Florida State Road Department officially recognized the project, and the Legislature incorporated the Tamiami Trail as part of the state highway system and assumed responsibility for completing it.
Now the real work began. Surveyors and land clearers went to work, often in chest-deep water and muck, the National Park Service website said. Drillers and dynamite men dug and blasted their way through nearly 100 miles of hard rock under the muck.
“Ox carts were used to haul dynamite,” the website said. “When bogged down, men would shoulder the explosives and flounder through the water. Giant dredges followed, throwing up the loose rock to provide a base for the segment of road that took thirteen years and approximately $13 million to pave across ‘America’s Last Frontier.’ “
Besides the monumental task of building a road across a massive swamp, the builders did have to try to at least minimize the environmental impact of building a road that essentially created a dam on the River of Grass.
In “Everglades: The Ecosystem and Its Restoration” by Steve Davis and John C. Ogden, published in 1994, Ogden writes that the Tamiami Trail does not appear to have adversely affected the flow of water, though there is still debate over the issue.
“The presence of the road is clearly a departure from pre-existing conditions,” the book says. “On the other hand, designers realized that the flow could not be stopped, so numerous culverts and bridges were (and still are) installed.”
In 1928, the Tamiami Trail opened. To celebrate, backers led a motorcade from Tampa to Miami.
The trip took three days.
Eventually, the road would become U.S. 41, though street signs south of Sarasota still call the highway the Tamiami Trail. It’s now the second choice behind Interstate 75 and the high-speed Alligator Alley, which cuts through the Everglades parallel to the Tamiami Trail, a few miles to the north.
Still, for those interested in seeing a bit of the old Florida, Hamilton Proverbs, who has driven from city to city, recommends the Tamiami Trail.
“It is only a couple of hours from Miami and Naples, but in experience a world away,” she said. “It is a narrow dirt road, cut right through the Everglades, and if you allow yourself a little imagination you can picture conquistadors and Seminoles, pirates and pioneers and the crazy, determined people who built a highway through the muck and mosquitoes.”