Friday, March 25, 2022

Old Spanish Trail, a historic road you probably don't know

Empty brick road stretches to horizon.
The Old Spanish Trail runs across the U.S. from St. Augustine to San Diego.

 I love to ride my old Royal Enfield motorcycle on a genuinely old road. Sure, Google will find me a route that avoids highways and toll roads; but I long for something even better.

 The adventure I'm looking for is riding down an actual historical road on the very path the earliest motorcycles and cars would have used. So I was thrilled when I found just such an old road that was new to me: the Old Spanish Trail.

 How could I have missed it? It's supposed to be a coast-to-coast road, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, connecting St. Augustine, Florida to San Diego, California.

 Well, for 100 years the Old Spanish Trail has been first a fanciful fiction, then a dream, later an actual if often re-routed road, eventually just a fading memory and now a subject of hoped-for revitalization. 

There is a website for the Old Spanish Trail and an active Facebook page.

Bicyclist on Old Spanish Trail near Milton, Fla.
We began our ride at the corner of Milton Trail and Old Spanish Trail in Milton, Fla.

My wife and I stumbled across part of the remaining road while on a kayaking and bicycling visit to Milton, a town in Florida's Panhandle, near Pensacola.

"These bricks were laid in the 1700s," a man who lives in a house along Old Spanish Trail in Milton told us, as we unloaded our bicycles.

Ummm... no.

The Spanish founded St. Augustine in 1565 and were present around what became Pensacola even earlier. It's documented that the Spanish blazed a route connecting the two settlements and the missions along the way.

But a 1798 map shows this actual Spanish route was not where 20th Century Floridians paved the "Old Spanish Trail." Also, the real Spanish path would have been mud, and much of the route would have been traveled by boat.

Map of the coast-to-coast Old Spanish Trail.
A 1929 motorcade opened the Old Spanish Trail. Only 15 cars made it.

The path of Florida's portion of the Old Spanish Trail was mostly set about 1921, 100 years after Spain ceded Florida to the United States in 1821. It was meant to appeal to tourists and their new fangled cars and motorcycles.

The idea for the Old Spanish Trail wasn't even born until 1915, when organizers met in Mobile, Alabama to shape a route that would connect tourist destinations all the way across the Southern U.S.

There were conferences again in 1916 in Pensacola and 1917 in Tallahassee. Floridians were obviously anxious to start laying bricks to bring the tourists.

Abandoned building on Old Spanish Trail.
Abandoned business along Old Spanish Trail once had a Spanish Colonial look.

There was a problem. Florida taxpayers paid for the road (convict labor akin to slavery contributed to that). But to get farther west the Old Spanish Trail would need to cross the rivers, bays and bayous of Alabama and Mississippi.

The Old Spanish Trail Association had money for lobbying, not bridges. Members knew that tourists would balk at having to pay for ferry boats or toll bridges. These wouldn't do, long term.

This meant getting federal funds for expensive highway bridges and roads.

Leadership of the Old Spanish Trail Association shifted west when promoter Harral B. Ayres of San Antonio, Texas got involved. He spent seven months in Washington, D.C. in 1922, publicizing the road. It would aid the national defense by connecting many military bases, it was argued.

He did a good job. The federal money started coming and kept coming. Today, if you drive U.S. Highway 90 you're basically following the route of the Old Spanish Trail. In fact, you could cruise the big, roaring Interstate 10 and say you were on the buried path of the Old Spanish Trail.

But for me, there is nothing like old bricks to establish a claim to history.

Ours would have to be a bicycle ride, however, as, except for a few residential blocks, motor vehicles aren't welcome on the Old Spanish Trail around Milton anymore.

Sign marks route of Old Spanish Trail.
Old Spanish Trail takes on many names and numbers as it crosses U.S.

A weathered sign proclaimed the part of the Old Spanish Trail we biked to be Historical Florida State Route 1, the Old Brick Road, opened 1921. The bricks of State Route 1 are even older than the Old Spanish Trail. Florida had a lead on creating roads for tourists, and the Old Spanish Trail simply followed that newly laid road.

The brick roadway, though, is rarely more than nine feet wide. Pretty narrow, even for a Model T Ford.

Concrete shoulders along each side eventually made it a useable road. U.S. Highway 90 utilized the bricks of this Old Spanish Trail pathway from 1926 until 1936-'37 improvements gave the highway its own space off to the side.

With U.S. 90 on one side and an arrow-straight railroad track behind a tree line on the other, our ride on the Old Spanish Trail was a bit boring. The slightly uneven bricks and deteriorated concrete edges gave our bicycle wheels a pounding. With other places to get to we turned around after a few miles and headed back to our car.

Disappointed? No. I wish the folks who dream of a revitalized Old Spanish Trail good luck. There's an incredibly detailed, almost turn-by-turn account of a 2009 road trip, from St. Augustine, Florida to San Diego California on what remains of the Old Spanish Trail. What a remarkable journey it must have been.

Original bricks meet new on Old Spanish Trail.
Old Spanish Trail was paved here with local bricks making it only nine feet wide.

The bit of the Old Spanish Trail we biked shows signs of repair, revitalization, and the need for ongoing repair any road requires. Change happens. Bridges get removed and rebuilt elsewhere, roads re-routed, dead ends accumulate. The Mile Zero marker in St. Augustine has been moved four times!

People move on, too.

After 10 years of hard work, promoter Harral B. Ayres closed the offices of the Old Spanish Trail in San Antonio in 1929, let the staff go, cut off the telephone line and left his home phone number out of the phone book, all in an effort to resign. They got another year's work out of him before he picked up and moved back north.

There he wrote a book entitled "The Great Trail of New England," published in 1940.

Postcard view of Old Spanish Trail.
Old postcard shows Old Spanish Trail entering Milton, Fla.
(Florida Memory Photo)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the looksee at "The Spanish Trail" and all those fascinating links, Uncle Dave! Being a huge fan of "The Lincoln Highway" and the old "National Pike" here up north and other "paleo-motoring" relics from the early epic age of travel, I'm surprised I'd never heard of The Trail.


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