By: Dale Cox
Compass Lake – When the United States acquired Florida from Spain in 1821, few people had any idea of the dramatic size of the territory. More than 400 miles of wilderness separated Pensacola and St. Augustine, the only two cities in Florida and little more than a rugged footpath that took six weeks to travel connected the two places.
As settlers flooded into the new American territory, the complete lack of a transportation network proved astounding. A call went up to the U.S. Congress for help and on February 28, 1824, an act was passed approving the construction of a "Federal Road" linking Pensacola and St. Augustine.
The task for building this road fell on the shoulders of Captain Daniel Burch, an army officer that had participated in Andrew Jackson’s 1818 campaign. Anticipating the project, he started working in 1823 to consider possible routes and develop cost estimates.
Burch quickly found that the available maps of Florida were extremely inaccurate. In one report, for example, he noted that he had added the course of the "Choppoola" or Chipola River to his charts because the mapmaker had simply not known of its existence.
The more he explored, the more he also came to realize that the plan of Congress to build a 25-foot road all the way from Pensacola to St. Augustine was simply impossible with the means at hand. In fact, he soon became convinced that even removing tree stumps from the path would be unnecessary and impossible. "In opening a road of this kind," he wrote, "it is altogether unnecessary to dig or cut off the stumps level with the ground, unless occasionally when one happens to stand directly in the route, nor is it necessary to cut it through the open woods wider than for one wagon to pass with ease."
The actual survey of a proposed route for the road began in late October of 1824, when Burch and a detachment of 22 men from the 4th United States Infantry set out from Pensacola to mark the construction lines of the project. It took them 34 days to reach St. Augustine, but they settled on a route for the highway.
Captain Burch intentionally platted his road to lead through some of the least desirable lands in Florida because the open scrub woods would be easy to clear and speed the construction process. From Deer Point on Pensacola Bay at present-day Gulf Breeze, the proposed route led west to Choctawhatchee Bay then turned to the northeast and crossed the Choctawhatchee River at the "Cow Ford." So named because it was a place where cows could be driven across the river, the ford was near present-day Ebro in Washington County. From here the route led on to the natural bridge of Econfina Creek and then angled northeast again to a point near the southern shore of Compass Lake. Turning east and southeast, it led through southern Jackson County until it intersected with today’s State Highway 73 about 1.5 miles north of the Calhoun County line. Crossing the Chipola River into Calhoun County at this point, the road led on to Ocheesee Bluff on the Apalachicola River.
Construction on the road began near Pensacola on October 5, 1824 and the section through Jackson and Calhoun Counties was completed in June of 1825.
Although Burch believed his road would become the "great leading road of the country," he soon learned otherwise. Because his route led primarily through scrub lands, the road proved of little benefit to the actual settlers of Northwest Florida. By 1830, residents in Jackson County had already built a new road linking Marianna and Webbville with Chattahoochee to the east and Holmes Valley to the west. The Federal Road was bypassed and fell into disuse. For Jackson County, at least, it became little more than a wasted government appropriation.
A few miles of the original route can still be traced along dirt roads in the southern edge of Jackson County, but little else remains to remind residents that the Federal Road ever existed. It has been common over the years to mistake today’s "Old U.S. Road" with this original path, but the two were separate. The "Old U.S. Road" was built in 1836-1838 by the U.S. Army to connect Alabama with Apalachicola Bay by way of Marianna. It ran from north to south, while the original Federal Road ran from west to east.
Editor’s Note: A detailed account of the Federal Road is presented in a chapter of writer and historian Dale Cox’s new book, The History of Jackson County, Florida: Volume One. For more information on ordering your copy, please visit www.jacksoncountytimes.net.