“The sun shone brightly over the wrecked ambitious work of man..."
“The sun shone brightly over the wrecked ambitious work of man. Death’s Angel, the hurricane, had completed the work begun by its brother, Pestilence (yellow fever), and buried beneath the sands of the sea, or swept to the four winds of Heaven, all that remained of the proud young city of St. Joseph.”
Thus writes George Mortimer West, Chicago newspaperman and founder of Panama City, in his story published in 1922 entitled, “Old St. Jo.”
I will quote him verbatim in much of my story, because truthfully, I don’t write as well as he could, so why reinvent the wheel. I’ve always believed the old-timers wrote much more eloquently and with more flair than we do today; the way they used words is beyond most writers of today.
I will not retell the history of St. Joseph, but I will give you a brief timeline so you’ll know why the city existed.
St. Joseph, in spite of what the tourist pamphlets tell you, was located under the streets and houses of Oak Grove and was begun in 1836. Its purpose was to divert the cotton trade from Apalachicola and her shallow bay to St. Joseph and her deep, ship-friendly bay.
To do so, the “Saints” constructed two railroads; the first, to Depot Creek, was the first steam railroad in the territory and the third in America. It ran from 1836-1839. To gain better access to the Apalachicola River, they built another to Iola, east of Wewahitchka; it ran for only two years.
St. Joseph never commanded the cotton trade, so businesses and banks began to fail. The city had hosted the Florida Constitution Convention, which placed her name in the history books, but nature didn’t treat her very well either.
In September of 1837, two gales wrecked the city and blew ships ashore. In 1839, another storm hit the city, demolishing buildings and blowing three ships ashore.
In the summer of 1841, yellow fever struck and decimated the city. Of the possible 5,000 people that lived in St. Joseph, most of them either died or left.
When the fever abated in September, only 500 remained in the city. Again, on Sept. 14, another hurricane hit and destroyed the large, expansive wharf. No ships were wrecked because there were none in the bay. Commerce was dead.
To add insult, that fall, nature sent a fire through the forest and city.
Speaking to forestry historians, before the forests were cut and Smokey the Bear appeared, the Florida forest would naturally burn every 5-6 years (due to lightning). It was a natural cycle that occurred for thousands of years. Now, because we have tampered with the system, fires are more intense and destructive. Nature knew what she was doing.
As a result, few people remained in St. Joseph as there was no way to make a living. People with mortgages lost their worthless land and homes, and if they had slaves, they were taken. Many took what possessions they had left and escaped to Texas.
The Florida Journal of Apalachicola wrote, “St. Joseph, with her artificial resources, and her beautiful bay, has sunk into an everlasting commercial sleep.”
In 1843, residents of Apalach began to buy the deserted houses. They were either torn down, re-erected or moved by barge and towed around the Cape. If you find the right tourist guide book you can stroll the streets of Apalach, and see about eight St. Joseph homes; several as they originally looked.
On May 1, 1844, the USS General Taylor, landed in the ghost town of St. Joseph. Edward Anderson, a crewman, recorded this in his diary: “Landed at St. Joseph and strolled through the town. ‘Twas really a melancholy saunter, for the place had been deserted by the inhabitants and had an air of gloom out of keeping with our age of prosperity. Fine dwellings, finished in the best styles, have been abandoned by their owners and left to rot piecemeal in the weather.
“Windows and doors are gaping open, swinging to-and-fro with every gust. The grass grows rankly in the streets and wolves and bears now prowl where only a few years ago all was bustle and excitement of business. All have gone, but a few families and when we arrived we found those few preparing to go away. Houses that cost $14,000 could be bought for $100, and so dreary was the prospect that gentleman wishing to sell out a comfortable dwelling was offered by a tailor a frock coat for it.
“The window sashes, doors and many of the houses have been taken away, thus rendering the desolation the more conspicuous. Three men with a cart and horse were so engaged as we passed along; one of them, a wild looking savage, came up and asked if we would purchase some bear meat from him. They were on the eve of departing for Texas.”
I will now return to Mr. West and let him tell the story of St. Joseph’s final death blow on Sept. 8, 1844.
“Summer was passing away. Already the days were growing short and the first cool breath from the far away north land heralded the approach of the impending struggle between the mighty wind forces of the North and South. A week of calm had passed when as the sun rose, through the pine forests to the northeast there came fitful gusts of wind, increasing in strength with the growth of the day. Nor did the wind go down with the dropping of the green sun into the darkened waters of the Gulf. All during the night it roared and shrieked through the abandoned city, gaining power with each succeeding hour.
“The few venturesome fishermen remaining there who feared death neither by pestilence nor storm, anchored their boats in Shipyard Cove, and watched the seething waters. For two days the northeast gale continued, steadily increasing in velocity. Then came a lull in the storm. The mountainous clouds which had been driving across the sky with terrific force seemed to stand still, but only for a brief time. The wind was shifting. Slowly it veered from northeast to north, from north to northwest; then to the west.
“There it stopped as though preparing for a last gigantic onset upon the quivering land. (The eye was upon them.) Soon it began again, now with all the titanic force and fury of the tropical hurricane. It broke the cables of the few boats in the cove, tossing them ashore like cockle shells. Roofs went flying through the air and brick walls crumbled at its onslaught. Chaos reigned supreme.
“Then from out of the west there came above the crash of falling walls and flying debris a sound that struck terror even to the hearts of those long accustomed to the angry moods of the Gulf. From Cape San Blas to St. Joseph’s Point there arose such thundering reverberations from the mighty ponderous waves crashing upon the beaches as had never been heard before. They were the equal of a tidal wave but with continuing power far more destructive. They rushed unobstructed over the narrow barrier opposite the city that separated the bay from the gulf, and came roaring in at the wide entrance to the bay.
“The waters quickly flooded the streets. Before one could note the advance, they were crashing through the doors and windows of the vacant building. The low plain on which the city was built was now a raging, furious, tempestuous sea; the few taller buildings seeming but islands in it. And there was no cessation of the hurricane. Hour after hour it forced the waters of the gulf in gigantic waves over the site of the twice doomed city; crumbling to atoms brick buildings, undermining streets and carrying far inland with the furious sweep of the storm, brick and timbers that so short a time before formed the most stable structures in the city.
“The light of another day had come. The desolation and destruction was complete. Heaps of sand dug out the depths of the sea, and driven forward by the irresistible waves, had buried even the foundations of the once stately buildings. Slowly the sea returned to its depths. The sun shone brightly over the wrecked ambitious works of man. Death’s angel, the hurricane, had completed the work begun by its brother pestilence, and buried beneath the sands of the sea, or swept to the four wind of Heaven, all that remained of the proud young city of St. Joseph.”
If you work-out Mr. West’s wind directions, the storm came from the central Gulf, and after sitting there a few days, passed over Cape San Blas and skimmed St. Joseph to the east. As it went inland, the winds would have hit hard from the west on the bottom portion of the storm. This is when the tidal surge hit. Old-timers called it a tidal wave, which still confuses many people even today, into thinking it was a tsunami. Not the same creature.
As usual, most port cities have a bad reputation. St. Joseph was no exception. With its easy access to shiploads of spirits, rowdy sailors, easy women, numerous saloons and even a racetrack to gamble away your wealth, St. Joseph was labeled a “sin city.”
After her demise, preachers and clergymen of all religions preached that the “Wrath of God” had destroyed St. Joseph. Interesting.