Florida is the cruise capital of the world today and the three largest cruise companies are headquartered in Southeast Florida. Even one hundred seventy years ago, taking a Florida cruise was a major part of Florida’s first tourist industry.
Only the cruise-ships were multi-decked riverboats and they never left Florida, but instead started in Jacksonville where visitors left their large ocean going steamboats or railroad cars for the riverboats of Florida.
1909 postcard of a fine DeBary Riverboat On the St. Johns River
The cruises went down the St Johns River (like the Nile a north flowing stream) and headed to quaint little tropical port cities. The extreme adventurer traded ships and took the Oklawaha River near San Mateo for a jungle cruise finally to the Silver River and famous Silver Springs now in Ocala National Forest.
You can’t duplicate this cruise today unless you rent a motorboat or houseboat on the St. Johns, but you can travel southward on US17 and see more of the Old Florida than taking I-95 closer to the Atlantic Ocean.
DIRECTIONS: Exit I-295 south of Jacksonville just before to cross the wide St. Johns River and head southward on US17/FL15 on the western shore of the river.
ADDED ATTRACTION: If you are a real history buff or love Victorian houses, you can cross I-295 on the St. Johns and exit immediately by Scott Mill Road and travel along the eastern riverbank to the small town of Mandarin. The village is filled with old houses. Unfortunately the home and church built by Harriet Beecher Stowe are just markers today, but the Mandarin Social Center is in the rebuilt church.
The 1872 Madarin School Is A Community Center Now
Imagine Mrs. Stowe hanging out her wash in her backyard when a riverboat floats cross-by so the visitors may wave at the author of Uncle Toms Cabin. On one of those cruises, Robert E. Lee was on the top deck waving at her.
Back on the west banks, going south on US17 you’ll pass Hiberia, an old plantation town with the 1878 St. Margarets Episcopal Church at Fleming Island. The waterfront park at Green Cove Springs no longer hosts riverboats but the 1880 River Park Inn (http:www.rioverparkinn.com) continues the history of the town.
RR History Next to the River Park Inn
Palatka is a large port town, where US17 crosses over to the east side of the river. Whenever I drive here I like to lunch at Florida’s oldest diner, Angel’s Dining Car, and visit Ravine Gardens State Park on the south-side. If you think all of Florida is flat, you’ll be shocked at the hilly terrain, the wooden bridges over ravines, and the vegetation. This is the home of the Florida Azalea Festival.
Ravine Gardens State Park in Palatka
In the days of the riverboats, small boats sailed westward on the Ocklawaha River to Silver River and what is now Silver Springs State Park in Ocala National Forest. The ill-fated attempt to build a Cross-Florida Barge Canal here ended to Rodman Dam.
The next key port town is De Leon Springs. Beautiful De Leon Springs, off CR 3, is worth a stop for nature lovers. It is a great place to see manatees in the cold months and even black bears in the mating season.
A few miles south is the large city of DeLand, home to the lovely campus of Stetson University, You won’t miss the campus off US17 or the DeLand Museum or the DeLand House, but if you want to see wonderful preservation drive around the downtown district.
DeLand Is Filled With Neat Structures
South of DeLand, US 17 gets busy as it reaches the tourist packed Interstate 4 at Exit 104. Before that take a short visit to the 1871 DeBary Mansion, the home to wine baron Frederick de Bary. He hosted U.S. Grant, the Vanderbilts, and even the Prince of Wales here in the days of the riverboats.
Beautiful DeBary Hall Hosts The Famous
Most people will go west to Walt Disney World or East to Daytona, but Sanford on Lake Monroe was the last riverboat stop for the big ships.