Friday, April 22, 2022

Looking for history along Old Dixie Highway in Florida

Old road meanders through woods.
Forest edges in along this abandoned stretch of Old Dixie Highway.

 If you ride an old Royal Enfield, the first thing you want to find is a way to get where you're going that suits a vintage motorcycle. This will be a route that's slow, and packed with historical interest and places to visit that carry your thoughts back as much as does your old motorcycle. 

I've written about the Old Dixie Highway and how I enjoy discovering lengths of it still preserved along the original route blazed from Michigan to Florida in 1914. It's still a small, slow road in places where it has long been bypassed by bigger highways. 

Old Dixie Highway passes through my hometown, Fort Lauderdale, so it's a rare ride that my Royal Enfield Bullet and I don't experience it. 

One of my favorite stretches of Old Dixie is preserved as a bicycle trail inside Jonathan Dickinson State Park, in Jupiter, Fla. Closed to through traffic about 75 years ago, it's possible to believe there may even be original pavement here, although it has been patched so much that it would take an expert to find it.

Florida is ever changing and it's easy to forget that all roads are relatively new here. People travelled by water, originally, until railroads finally conquered the swamps, all the way to Key West.

Engine and passenger car of Celestial RR.
Nothing but a photo remains of Florida's "Celestial Railroad."

One of the oddest early railways was the so-called "Celestial Railroad." In 1889 it connected the Florida towns of Jupiter and Juno, passing through stations named Venus and Mars on the way. Only 7.5 miles long, and narrow gauge, the little railroad had no turn around at either end, so the train simply backed up to get home.

It was out of business by 1896, bypassed by Henry Flagler's full-sized railroad. Nothing but a photo of the Celestial Railroad (properly titled the Jupiter & Lake Worth Railroad) remains.

But another artifact of the steam era does exist in the area.

My wife and I recently stayed in a cabin at Jonathan Dickinson State Park, taking time during our visit to bicycle the fragment of Old Dixie Highway there. On our way out of the park we stopped at the visitor center, where I noticed a picture on the wall of an abandoned and heavily rusted "steam engine" somewhere in the park.

What?! I'd never heard of this. The little engine doesn't appear on any of the park maps. My mind leapt to the possibility of an old locomotive submerged in the swampland.

Illustration of a Frick agricultural engine.
1874 catalog illustration of a Frick agricultural steam engine.

But information posted with the image suggested the steam engine wasn't a locomotive, but an ancient Frick & Co. agricultural steam engine that had powered a mobile sawmill back in logging days. It also suggested that the abandoned engine might have been converted into a still by people who found it so  ideally forgotten and hidden in the woods. 

A park ranger was happy to describe its location and even showed us on a map how to hike to it. A rivulet named "Moonshine Creek" is marked in the area, suggesting some credence for the possibility of a still.

There wasn't time for us to try to reach the engine, this visit. But I'd like to try, next time we're in the park.

The position of the abandoned engine is 26°59'18.2"N80°09'38.5"W and you can find it on Google Maps. The ranger suggested hiking past the Kitching Creek Primitive Campsite and then just keep going on the trail.

He warned that the engine site is off the trail, unmarked, overgrown and hidden in brush. Expect to get your feet wet and muddy. Carry plenty of water. Under no circumstances would I attempt hiking this country in summer.

If you find the engine, take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footprints. It's history.

Photo of steam engine abandoned in woods.
Google Maps photo of the steam engine in Jonathan Dickinson State Park.

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