By: Dale Cox
Tropical Storm Fay and Hurricane Gustav have had all eyes concentrating on the Gulf of Mexico lately. This always brings my mind back to the legend of Northwest Florida’s "Great Tide."
That was the name given by novelist Rubylea Hall to a legendary hurricane tidal surge that supposedly wiped the city of St. Joseph, Florida, from the map. St. Joseph stood on the present site of Port St. Joe and during the 1830s was the largest city in Florida. Little remains today other than tombstones and a museum to remind visitors that the city ever existed.
Hall’s story of a "city so wicked that God wiped it from the earth" is a Gone with the Wind like tale of life on the plantations of Jackson County, and our area’s close connections to the lost city. In the novel, as in real life, St. Joseph prospered only to be devastated by a deadly yellow fever epidemic. The survivors in Hall’s story were at last driven away by a hurricane driven surge that rose from the Gulf and swept St. Joseph into history.
The Great Tide mirrored real history in many ways, with some artistic license. Jackson County did indeed have many strong connections to St. Joseph. Robert Beveridge, the founder of Marianna, moved to St. Joseph less than ten years after he and his workers carved Marianna from the wilderness. He died at St. Joseph during the great yellow fever outbreak and lies buried in an unmarked grave in the old cemetery there.
Connected to St. Joseph by direct road, Marianna naturally developed many business and social ties to the coastal boomtown. Residents of Jackson County built "summer homes" in St. Joseph to escape the brutal heat and humidity of the interior. Many original promoters of Webbville also became involved in the new city on the coast, establishing businesses there. St. Joseph’s newspaper, for example, was published by a former Webbville entrepreneur.
By the time that St. Joseph hosted the Florida Constitutional Convention in 1838, the city had grown to become the largest city in Florida and its promoters envisioned the day when it would become a major coastal city to rival New Orleans.
It was not to be. A massive yellow fever outbreak hit the city, sending residents fleeing into the interior. Newspapers across the South reported the death toll from St. Joseph. How many people actually died from fever may never be known, but the list was certainly long and the sickness showed no respect for wealth or position. It inflicted a death blow from which St. Joseph never recovered. During the early 1840s a hurricane did hit the city, but the legends of a "Great Tide" that wiped St. Joseph from the earth grew significantly in the telling. By the time of the Civil War, however, St. Joseph had disappeared as the forest reclaimed the streets, cemetery and ruins of the city. Some of the fashionable homes of the city were loaded onto barges and floated down the coast to "healthier" communities in which to live. By the mid-1840s, many Jackson County families that had relocated to St. Joseph returned to their former homes in and around Marianna.
A visit to Port St. Joe today provides a fascinating glimpse back in time. Visitors can explore the history of the lost city at the Constitutional Convention State Museum located on the site of old St. Joseph. Exhibits there include artifacts from St. Joseph and a replica of Florida’s first railroad locomotive. The old St. Joseph Cemetery also survives as a somber reminder of the fever outbreak that doomed what once was Florida’s largest city.
Editor’s Note: Writer and historian Dale Cox is the author of several books on Northwest Florida history. You can read more of his writings on Jackson County by visiting our website at www.jacksoncountytimes.net and clicking the "Local History" button.