Ecofina River Florida panhandle by Cathy Salustri

Road Trip: Edward Ball, stone canoes and the Wakulla Volcano

Edward Ball is an asshole. Well, OK, he was. He’s dead now. But before he died, he’s the guy who mostly destroyed most of the longleaf pine forests along the coastal habitat of our panhandle, particularly in an area now known as the Wakulla Forest. Don’t care about longleaf pines? Consider this: the St. Joe Paper Company, founded by DuPont family member Edward Ball, bought land here for pennies on the dollar in the 1920s, opened a paper mill, and clear cut old-growth forests. The water the mill used — some 35 million gallons per day — opened up sinkholes and, because it used so much so fast, contaminated the aquifer. Not to be stopped there, Ball’s company replanted the longleaf pines with slash pine, which grew much faster but forever altered the ecosystem in the panhandle, making the area an officially Critically Endangered Ecosystem.

His reward? Florida paid his company $182 million for the land, designated it a park, and named it after Ball.

Henry the Pole Vaulting Fish at Wakulla Springs State Park. This actually happened. Photo by Cathy Salustri.
Henry the Pole Vaulting Fish at Wakulla Springs State Park. This actually happened. Photo by Cathy Salustri.

Sigh. I am glad about that — there’s no question that this stretch of the panhandle is one of the prettiest parts of the state, and yes, I’m grateful the state stepped in when it did. But when I see his name on the park’s entrance sign, it makes me a little rage-y.

And yet I travel there, and the surrounding areas, time and time again. The coastal forests and blackwater rivers here seduce in their lush wildness, and I cannot seem to get enough of this magical world, with its legends and lore.

The nearby Ecofina River. Photo by Cathy Salustri.
The nearby Ecofina River. Photo by Cathy Salustri.

Take the Wakulla Volcano, which most certainly, I’ll be the first to admit, wasn’t a volcano at all (and most likely wasn’t in Wakulla but nearby Jefferson County). Problem is, no one ever decided what it was or ever saw an actual volcano, only a plume of smoke — and sometimes lights — rising from deep within the Gum Swamp. Anecdotal history — that is, stories we can’t at all prove but love to tell — suggests this “volcano” existed before the Spanish came to La Florida. People tromped into the swamp in search of the volcano, but they either came back empty-handed or didn’t come back at all (snakes, gators and dehydration being what they are). Alternate theories suggest a moonshine still or a peat fire, but no one found it before it disappeared forever — possibly in the same 7.0 earthquake that rocked Charleston, South Carolina in 1886, which was, and is, somewhat peculiar geologic activity for the lowcountry. 

While there’s likely a glimmer of truth to that story — after all, it’s totally reasonable to think something was happening in the forest, even if it wasn’t a volcano — another one, mostly forgotten now, involves Wakulla Spring itself: water people. And no, not mermaids.

Old guidebooks to Florida recount a legend of water people who danced in the spring whenever the moon shone on it. Wait, it gets better: these mythical people who danced deep in the spring were four inches tall. Even better? For some unknown reason, a warrior in a stone canoe would paddle by — again, in the spring, not on it — and spoil the party. They’d scatter, ending their enchanted water dance.

Volcanoes and earthquakes? Stone canoes and tiny dancing mer-people? Coastal pine forests and blackwater river?

Welcome to Wakulla.

This article originally appeared in Creative Loafing.