Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Florida Keys & Everglades
By Rick Ferren
[Fig. 14] The Tamiami Trail (US 41) connecting Tampa to Miami (Tam-Miami) was the first road built across the Everglades. Its completion in 1928 was an example of man's determination to perform a questionable and difficult engineering feat despite the possible consequences to the environment. Built upon an elevated base of limestone rock blasted from a parallel-running canal, the Tamiami Trail became the first major impediment to the historic sheet-flow of water across the river of grass.
Construction began in 1915, but with only the eastern portion in Dade County completed, it was abandoned in 1918. In 1923, a political deal was struck in the manner in which many deals were crafted to open the Florida wilderness. The Florida legislature agreed to create Collier County on the southwestern coast of Florida in return for a promise from Barron G. Collier, who owned three-quarters of the land in the new county, that he would finally complete construction of the highway.
The renewed effort was aided by a publicity stunt that same year in which 10 Model T Fords were driven, dragged, and pushed across the Everglades to prove it could be done. All that was needed was a road.
When Collier's endeavor bogged down, the state finally took over and completed the road. The opening of Tamiami Trail meant that the sheet flow of water through the Everglades was squeezed into culverts beneath the roadwhen it wasn't flowing over the top.
By the early 1960s, a system of canals and reservoirs throughout South Florida had gained control of almost all overland flow of the water outside of Everglades National Park. And in 1962, flood gates along the Tamiami Trail were closed, and the natural flow of water through the Everglades was changed forever.
You can see some of the huge flood gates on the north side of the road. Within the next few years they will become part of an even grander attempt to rebuild the plumbing of the South Florida water system. Although the park is now guaranteed the delivery of specified amounts of water during specified seasons, many conservationists argue that the delivery schedule still fails to follow a natural regimen. That same voice is also calling for the trail to be redesigned to again allow free-flowing water movement to the south.
As traffic has increased along the highway, the western portion of the road has also become a constant danger to wildlife such as otters, raccoons, bobcats, and the endangered Florida panther, which roam large areas of the Everglades when hunting and seeking mates. You'll note a 45 mph nighttime speed limit to help protect the animals.
Nevertheless, the trail's existence today furnishes the traveler with a scenic overview of Everglades habitats stretching from Miami to the Gulf of Mexico. The eastern half of the trail runs parallel to the northern border of Everglades National Park, and across the sawgrass prairie of the Shark River Slough. Beyond the slough to the west, the Tamiami Trail enters the western Everglades and passes through the Big Cypress National Preserve. The scenic backdrop changes from sawgrass prairie to cypress heads and dark swamps. Past Big Cypress, as the Trail begins to curve north toward Naples, it enters the saltwater mangrove estuaries of Southwestern Florida.
As you drive west from Miami and leave the urban sprawl behind, the road begins to cross the Shark River Slough, the heart of the river of grass. The borrow canal on the north side of the highway, just like any other area in the Everglades that holds water year-round, is regularly attended by a large selection of the area's wildlife.
Watch the clumps of cypress trees along the far edge of the canal for great blue herons, great egrets, snowy egrets, Anhingas, and osprey. At the water's edge look for green-backed herons, little blue herons, and sora rails. Swimming around the wide lily pads of the spatterdock plants you'll see American coots, common morehens, and purple gallinules. Alligators and soft-shelled turtles lurk in the waters below.
You may also notice the white papery bark and small dark green leaves of melaleuca (Melaleuca quinquenervia) trees. If you drove down from the north along the Florida turnpike, you probably saw thick, impenetrable stands of these trees in the area west of Miami. The native Australian melaleuca were intentionally introduced by land developers in hopes the plant's water-loving roots would help to dry up the Everglades. Seeds were actually scattered by airplane over parts of the Everglades. The absurd plan failed, but the melaleuca found a home with no competition. The prolific trees quickly spread throughout South Florida, displacing native habitats.
Today the resilient trees are the target of widespread eradication programs in many parts of the Everglades and Big Cypress National Preserve. The effort is being pursued by teams of determined volunteers from local sportsman/conservation organizations along with scientists from the National Park Service, who descend on one area at a time pulling up or girdling and poisoning every single tree they can find. Even one overlooked melaleuca can disperse thousands of seeds and quickly repopulate an area.
Another invasive plant you may notice along the trail because of its red berries and dark green foliage is the Brazilian pepper. One large clump can be seen just to the west of Gator Park on the south side of the road (about 6 miles from SR 997). Firmly entrenched in South Florida, the pepper is quick to take over disturbed land along canal banks or abandoned farms. Its bright red berries are eaten and transplanted by many songbird species, including large flocks of robins that pass through on their annual migrations.
A number of commercial operations along the Tamiami Trail between SR 997 and the Big Cypress National Preserve offer airboat and swamp buggy rides along with wildlife exhibits and shows. Many also maintain an alligator farm, and for a small fee you can see hundreds of huge gators sunning or lying half submerged in the stagnant water.
Many of the concessions also have gift shops and restaurants specializing in gator tail, frog legs, and catfish. At some stops you can even pick up a couple pounds of alligator meat or frog legs.
Airboat rides usually consist of a excursion into the sawgrass, a look at a tree hammock or cypress head, and an even closer look at wading birds and an alligator or two in the wild. There's also the inevitable fancy maneuvering and wide-sliding turns these craft are known for. Most rides are moderately priced and generally worth the experience.
Airboats, and to a lesser extent, swamp buggies are a traditional part of the Everglades experience. Developed shortly after World War II as a means to access the swamp, airboats are an admittedly loud boat powered by a big high-revving engine that drives an airplane propeller. The prop is mounted in a cage behind the driver who sits up high directly in front of the engine. Swamp buggies, high-framed wheeled-vehicles that can operate in deep mud and water, were developed to provide a way for people to get into and out of the Everglades with some degree of comfort. Another vehicle, used only in some parts of the eastern Everglades and called a half-track, uses a drive track similar to that on an army tank to move along on top of the muck and grass.
Private use of all of these vehicles is prohibited within Everglades National Park, and regulated in public lands outside of the park.
[Fig. 14(1)] The small settlement of Coopertown, with a population of eight, has offered airboat tours since 1945. The tour covers about eight miles. This is the original airboat tour business on the Tamiami Trail and has been rated "Florida's best" by the Miami Herald newspaper.
[Fig. 14(2)] A friendly staff operates "the longest airboat ride in the Everglades." Gator Park has wildlife shows and offers chances to hold a small alligator and other wildlife for photo opportunities. The show includes rehabilitated animals that have been injured and can no longer be released into the wild. A picnic area is also available. Note the "fully dressed" alligator sitting in the rocking chair on the front porch.
[Fig. 14(3)] This multifaceted operation has a fleet of large airboats on which large groups take 40-minute rides into the Everglades. It also holds wildlife nature shows, alligator wrestling demonstrations, tours of an alligator farm, and walks on a nature trail through a hardwood hammock. The large gift shop has a complete collection of handmade Indian jewelry, Indian dolls, and other craft items.
[Fig. 14(4)] The Shark Valley entrance to Everglades National Park is 18 miles west of SR 997. One of the most highly visited sites in the park, it features a 15-mile, paved loop trail into the river of grass and some of the best wildlife concentrations in the park. No motorized vehicles are allowed on the trail except open-air trams operated by a park concessionaire.
If you only have a couple hours to spend in the park, this is the place to go. The tram ride furnishes a solid overview of the Everglades. A park naturalist narrates the trip, stopping to point out alligators, deer, and wading birds like great blue herons, wood storks, and white ibis. Shark Valley is also the best place in the park for spotting an endangered snail kite.
Of course there is no valley at Shark Valley, at least not in the traditional sense. The Shark River Slough is the part of the Everglades known as the river of grass. It is a great, wide drainage basin that carries water, however slowly, southwest to the Shark River and on to the Gulf of Mexico.
When the system worked naturally, water in the slough came from rain falling as far north as Orlando. Working its way south, the water entered Lake Okeechobee. Then, as the lake rose it spilled over the lower rim, filling the river of grass. Falling only 20 feet in elevation from the lake to the coast, the water would take months to reach the tide.
Today, dikes and pumping stations north of Everglades National Park decide where the water will go and how much will be allowed to flow into the park. Only then, after the water has been allowed to pass the Tamiami Trail, the natural system takes over again.
Nowhere is this more evident than when standing atop the 50-foot observation tower. Although you can't see it, you can know, when looking southwest, that the next 50 miles of this wilderness belong to the plants and animals. Not one man-made structure stands between the tower and the southwestern coast.
The tram ride takes about two hours, and stops midway at the observation tower. A ramp leads to the top. The tower provides a panoramic view of the river of grass. This is one of the best spots to get a true feel for the vastness, the "ever" part of the Everglades. A borrow pond behind the tower usually attracts a number of large alligators and wading birds. An even better way to experience the Everglades is to bicycle the loop road. Bicycles are available for rent from the concessionaire. You'll see more wildlife traveling at your own pace. You'll also be able to stop more often, and for as long as you want, provided you get back before the parking lot closes at 6 p.m. Be sure to carry water, and a rainsuit in the warmer months for the afternoon thunderstorms.
The canal and bank along the west side of the trail offer a close-up view of the wildlife. Watch for marsh rabbits, green-backed herons, Anhingas, water snakes, sora rails, and maybe the colorful southeastern lubber grasshopper (Romalea guttata). That deep grunting you hear is most likely a pig frog.
Never feed or approach the alligators. An unfortunate accident occurred here a few years ago when a child on a bicycle fell into a canal and was injured by a large alligator. Also watch out for fire ant nests that look like a pile of sand by the trail.
If you're looking for something to do while waiting for a tram, the Bobcat Hammock Boardwalk is a 0.3-mile loop that starts behind the visitor center. It passes through a mature growth of 8-foot-tall sawgrass, and then wanders beneath the canopy of a beautiful little bayhead with thick clumps of leather fern, cocoplum, red bay, wax myrtle, willows, and dahoon holly (Ilex cassine). The bayhead is only a few inches higher than the surrounding land, so these are all trees and plants that can stand in water part of the year.
The trams run all day, departing every hour in season and less often in the offseason, with reservations taken during the season (December through April) for the early and late trips. Reservations can be made up to a month in advance. Trips during the middle of the day operate on a first-come first-served basis, 30 minutes before tram departure time. For information on tram tours and bicycle rentals call (305) 221-8455.
[Fig. 14(5)] Across the road from the entrance to the Shark Valley, and just west of the border of the Miccosukee Indian Reservation, this nicely decorated Miccosukee restaurant offers a chance to taste traditional Indian fare. Amid a display of murals depicting Indian life you can sample frog legs, fried catfish, and alligator bites. Indian fry bread and fried pumpkin bread are also popular treats. In cool weather you can eat on the patio and watch for alligators in the canal or see snail kites flying over the Everglades. The food is inexpensive.
The information center connected to the restaurant has a few displays of Indian artifacts along with a selection of information on area attractions. An airboat concessionaire will take you on a 30-minute ride out and back to a small Indian camp where you can observe traditional crafts such as cooking and sewing.
[Fig. 14(5)] If you've ever see an old Florida tourist brochure, it probably featured a photo of alligator wrestling from the Miccosukee Indian Village on the Tamiami Trail. A long-time tourist attraction, it's become a part of the fabric of Florida.
About 18.5 miles west of SR 997 on the Tamiami Trail, the village features a number of aspects of Indian life. A tantalizing gift shop stocked with Indian crafts including patchwork jackets, skirts, blouses, and beadwork precedes entrance into the main grounds. Inside you'll find a Miccosukee Indian village, arts and crafts demonstrators, guided tours, a museum, live alligators, and of course alligator shows. Craft-making on display varies from season to season but includes wood carving, beadwork, jewelry making, doll making, and basket weaving.
Take a moment to stop by the pit holding Tiny, a 14-foot alligator, one of the largest in captivity. You won't see Tiny in the wrestling show.
Alligator wrestling was not invented to pull in tourist dollars. Instead the ability to capture and control a live alligator is one of the skills the Indians had to learn when they were initially forced into this inhospitable land.
One of the main staples for food and other items, such as shoes and battle shields, was the alligator. However, since alligator meat spoils quickly, a way had to be devised to capture the animals alive and hold them until they were needed. When early European settlers saw Indians capturing an alligator, they apparently thought it looked like a man wrestling an alligator, and the term stuck.
The wrestling arena at the Miccosukee Village is a circular sandy area with a narrow moat running around the inside with half a dozen 8-foot alligators inside. The wrestler gets in with the alligators, eventually picks one out, and grabbing its tail, drags it onto the sand. The alligator immediately heads back for the water. Five or six times in a row, the alligator pulls the man towards the water, and the man pulls the alligator back into the arena.
When the tug of war is finally over, the wrestler moves around with a long stick and taps the creature on the nose a couple times so it will open its mouth wide and hiss. That's when the crowd takes a couple steps back.
After a few minutes, the man grabs the alligator by its long snout, holding it closed while the animal thrashes back and forth for a few seconds. Although alligators have 3,000 pounds per inch of crushing pressure, the muscles that open their mouths are much weaker. Positioning himself on the alligator's back, the wrestler first opens the alligators mouth so everyone can see the 80 sharp teeth. He then wedges the alligator's jaws under his own chin and holds the animal tightly with no hands. In the wild this is when an Indian would use his hands to tie the powerful jaws closed.
A museum on the property tells the story of the Miccosukee tribe. A branch of the Creek tribe of Alabama and Georgia that spoke the Hitchiti language, the Miccosukees migrated into Florida in the early 1700s. They were followed later by the Seminoles, who spoke the Muskogee language.
Both groups first migrated south into the Florida panhandle ahead of European settlers, then later into South Florida to avoid the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Despite United States military action and three Seminole wars in the 1800s, the tribes dwindled in number, but never surrendered. Their knowledge of survival in the treacherous land contributed to the success of their resistance.
Today the Miccosukee who choose to live on reservation land live mostly along the Tamiami Trail. Many Seminoles live on the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation and on five other reservations in South Florida. Both tribes have their own law, police, and judges.