Florida Waterfront Communities' Commercial Fishing Heritage
St. Marks is a very old and historic Gulf port on the St. Marks and Wakulla Rivers. The town of St. Marks today is a commercial port with the St. Marks River supporting an electric power generation facility, barge transportation and commercial fishing operations. It has a rich history. Fortifications built here by the Spanish in the 1600s, and rebuilt several times, provided the venue for force of arms repeatedly up through the American Civil War. This location, just 20 miles from Tallahassee, was also the meeting place for representatives from St. Augustine and Pensacola in 1823 when they chose the red hills of Tallahassee as the site for the state capital.
More than 300 years earlier, Spanish explorer Panfilo de Narvaez entered the Indian village of Aute on the Wakulla River and was forced to escape the hostile Indians by building five make-shift sailing vessels. Ten years later, Hernando de Soto searched for gold and explored the St. Marks area and found evidence of the Narvaez camp. By 1679 the first fort at the convergence of the Wakulla and St. Marks Rivers was built to protect the Spanish missions in the area, including San Luis Mission in Tallahassee. San Luis was the western capital of the Spanish Mission system in La Florida, and Spaniards and Apalachee Indians lived together under the jurisdiction of San Luis. The Apalachee provided food for San Luis and for export. The Spanish raised cattle and grew wheat and citrus. Tons of materials were transported down the St. Marks River to ships sailing to St. Augustine and Havana.
During part of the 18th century, the British controlled the St. Marks area near the Indian village of Aute. By 1792, the Patton, Leslie and Company established the first trading post in the area where they exchanged goods between the Creeks and European shippers.
During the antebellum years, the area of St. Marks was the primary port for Taylor, Leon, Lafayette and Madison counties and southern Georgia. Much of the commerce was the shipping of cotton and the importing of products from the U.S. east coast. The Tallahassee-St. Marks Railroad was operational by 1837 and soon St. Marks was thought of as “Tallahassee’s Port City.” The railroad brought dignitaries, ordinary citizens and lots of cotton to the port.
St. Marks has been an important seaport for three distinct historic periods. First the shipping of cotton in the 1880s, then commercial and recreational fishing, followed by importing, storage, refining and handling of petroleum products. Today the petroleum industries have declined but recreational and commercial fishing continue. The railroad bed has become a very active state park for cyclists and the original protective fort has become a state museum.
In the mid-20th century, recreational and commercial fishing were a very important economic part of the small town. At one time there was a plant for processing blue crabs, and plentiful mullet were salted for preservation. Along the Wakulla River the Shell Island Fish Camp still remains for present-day fishermen and as a reminder of the style of those early camps when some guests brought their own “kickers” (motors) and rented boats. Today you can rent cabins or rooms and arrange for storage of your boat. Along the docks of the St. Marks River in the 1950s hundreds of people would gather in the late afternoons to watch the party boats return, anxious to see the great catches hanging along the gunnels.
Today, you can still see the many piles of traps waiting for the crab seasons. Both blue crabs and stone crabs are still caught in the Gulf waters. At the beginning of the stone crab season each October, the city hosts the St. Marks River Festival and local seafood restaurants still serve those delicious stone crab claws.
Prepared by Elinor Elfnor, Chairman of the Historic Committee of the St. Marks Waterfronts Florida Partnership.
Facts have been obtained from the State of Florida and numerous publication and historical documents.
- Museum of Florida History