Article by WARREN RESEN
Photos by JEANNE O’CONNOR
“Way Down Upon The Suwannee River”
These words were written in a song by Stephen C. Foster, a Northerner, who allegedly never saw the river he made famous. It is also the official song of the State of Florida. The correct name of this song is “Old Folks at Home,” but “Suwannee River” is the name prominently emblazoned in the rotunda of the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee.
Memorializing a different time, it tells of a part of Florida most travelers usually drive through on their way to other places. This is the part of the state that locals call “The Real Florida.”
Starting in Georgia in the Okefenokee Swamp, the Suwannee River meanders southwest for about 266 miles eventually flowing into the Gulf of Mexico at the aptly named town of Suwannee.
From the Florida state-line south to Live Oak, the river is narrow with a section called Big Shoals just above White Springs being one of the very few stretches of whitewater rapids, and the only one with a Class III designation, in the state and Florida. Steep ravines and high limestone bluffs bracket the river in this section, features more typically associated with the Southern Appalachian Mountains.
White Springs is where outdoor activities and the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail begin. From here, the river still has a 170-mile run before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. Kayaking on the Suwannee River and kayaking or tubing on the crystal clear spring-fed Ichetucknee River are highlights of any visit to this part of Florida.
The banks of the Suwannee River around White Sulphur Springs have been a place of refuge and restoration for visitors and residents for centuries. White Sulphur Springs was considered to be a sacred healing ground to Native Americans. There is evidence of habitation going back at least 7,000 years. This was also a major entry point into Florida for members of the Creek Nation, later called Seminoles.
In the mid to late 1880s, White Springs was the first, and at one time, largest tourist destination in the new state because of the supposedly curative waters of the then mineral springs. The first hotel was built in 1835. At its heyday in the late 1800s, there were 14 luxury hotels and many boarding houses to accommodate the visitors who came by special excursion trains to enjoy the river, the springs, and the climate at White Springs. In 1903, a structure that included treatment rooms, a concession area, and an elevator, was built over the spring, the same year the Telford Hotel was built.
Early in the 1900s, a massive fire destroyed all but the venerable Telford Hotel. It was the only one made of brick, not wood. The Telford has been upgraded and today is still receiving guests. It’s advertised as a Bed & Breakfast, and it’s a delightful place to stay but the public is invited to dine there also. The dining room is a delight and their food is delicious and reasonably priced. I found menu prices for food in most area restaurants considerably cheaper than many other parts of the state.
White Springs, surrounded by thousands of acres of public and private lands, offers multiple recreational activities: canoeing, biking and hiking trails, and excellent hunting and fishing. The Historic District, with lovely homes, crafts, folk art and antique shops, offers visitors a relaxing chance to browse.
The most famous attraction in the area is Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, honoring one of this country’s most influential composers. The park is a leader in celebrating Florida’s cultural traditions. (floridastateparks.org/stephenfoster)
As a gateway to the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail and the Florida National Scenic Trail, the park offers riverside cabins, a beautiful campground, cultural events, educational programs and outdoor activities. The Museum and striking 200 foot Carillon Tower house exhibits and dioramas from some of Foster’s most popular songs.
The event for which the park is probably most noted is the annual “Florida Folk Festival Memorial Day Weekend.” Over 400 singers, dancers and storytellers entertain on 15 stages with the addition of hundreds of artists and crafters and much more.
A few miles south of White Springs near Lake City, is the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park. Privately owned, and with more than 800 acres, it offers many activities similar to Stephen Foster Park except that there are music events throughout the year. The facility was named “Best Live Music Venue in Florida” by Florida Monthly magazine. Their offerings are too extensive to list here. To learn more, go to their web site at musiclivershere.com.
Returning to the Suwannee River, the middle stretch from Suwannee River State Park to the town of Branford is spring country. The river widens, with numerous crystal clear springs adding to the river’s character and volume. Did you know that as a state, Florida has more springs than any country in the world?
The lower Suwannee River, past the town of Branford, runs wide and deep making it a favorite area for motor boats and paddlers. The sandy banks become lower, sloping gently towards the river. Anglers on the lower Suwannee have their choice of fishing for fresh or saltwater species. This part of the Suwannee River supports the largest population of Gulf sturgeon among the region’s coastal rivers.
All along the river, activities are available for almost anyone: kayaking, canoeing, motor boating, fishing, tubing, hiking, birding and equestrian. River camps are available for visitors who plan multi-day paddling trips. RV and tent camping sites are in abundance. Then there are the hotels, motels and B&Bs, most all of which are reasonably priced. This of course is a purely subjective observation. You should check them out for yourself.
On this trip, I only had time to do the upper section of the Suwannee River. Hopefully I will soon return and finish the journey.
Now go back to the top of this article and reread the title. How long do you think it will take before the song stops running through your head?