Come hell or high water: Happy 96th Anniversary

by Lois Bolin, Ph.D., Old Naples Historian

April is a special month. It hosts such days as April Fool’s Day, National Hug Your Dog Day, World Autism Awareness Day, National Arbor Day (last Friday), and the NCAA Men’s Basketball semifinals. For Naples, Collier County, April is a special month indeed.

On April 25, 1928, Gov. John W. Martin launched a motorcade on a one-day journey from Tampa to Everglades City in celebration of the opening of the Tamiami Trail. The Everglades’ greatest day was also a fulfillment of the governor’s 1925 campaign promise to have the highway completed during his administration — “come hell or high water.”

Trailblazers Never Quit.
There was barely a mile of the Tamiami Trail in existence when Collier County was formed in 1923 and the State of Florida had some rather unrealistic ideas on how roads were to be built. Each town was to sell bonds to finance their section of the road’s construction, which was fine — if you lived in Dade County and had the population to support such bonds. But in spots like Collier County, that wasn’t likely to happen.

In 1923, to ‘unstall’ the talks again, a group of 23 men dubbed the “Tamiami Trailblazers”, along with two Seminole guides took on a public relations campaign to draw attention to the need for a road. They decided to cross the Everglades in cars to prove it was possible to build through the swamp. Their journey was to take four days. Instead, it took 23.

To say their Model Ts got struck is a blind flash of the obvious, but these men did not know the word “quit.” It took 17 hand-built bridges, and eight miles of paths through dense cypress forest with their food and gas dropped to them by bomber aircraft. (Uber Eats’ first delivery.)

The building of one of the greatest feats in Florida hit a snag again in August 1926. That’s when Gov. Martin stepped in to lend a hand with his “come hell or high water” battle cry. With 31 miles to go and one million dollars of Barron Collier’s money spent, crews discovered the next section of the planned road was solid rock, unlike the sand they’d been working on until then.

The Day of Celebration
I can only imagine the reminiscing of these stories and more on the motorcade during that celebratory drive 96 years ago.

Leading the parade were the two men most responsible for the Trail: Mr. Collier and the chairman of the state road department, Dr. Fons A. Hathaway. They were followed by some of the original Tamiami Trailblazers, who must have been mighty happy to have their meals served in a hotel instead of air dropped in the swamp.

When they reached Everglades City around noon, the motorcade had grown to almost 500 automobiles. After a lunch, a parade, and a visit to the County Fair complete with its Tamiami Exposition, the journey commenced again at 2 p.m. and headed for Miami, thus completing its 232 miles journey and Mr. Collier’s gift to the county that bears his name.

What if…?
Col. Frank F. Tenney, Jr., U.S.A.F. retired, and director of photography for the then Collier County Historical Society, reflected on what if the Tamiami Trail had not been completed when it had.

The recession of 1926 intensified into a full depression that lasted well into the 1930s, followed by World War II. It was Mr. Tenny’s belief that if the Trail had been put off until after the war, a boom like that on the east coast would have never occurred and made Collier into what it never wanted to be — a Dade-like County.

At the End of the Road
At a cost of $8 million, or about $25,000 a mile, the Tamiami Trail formally opened to traffic on April 26, 1928,  marking the first time in history that motor vehicles could move over land across the southern tip of Florida.

The entire Trail was once listed on the National Scenic Byways Program, which recognizes highways that are outstanding examples of our nation’s beauty, history, culture, and recreational experience. In September 2008, a 50-mile portion of this magnificent highway was undesignated by the Collier County Metropolitan Planning Organization (and for good reason, but that’s another story.)

Regardless, this achievement, which has been likened to the building of a scaled down Panama Canal, celebrates its 96th birthday on April 26. And come hell or high water, the whole route is deserving of a tribute.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.