A look at what it took to construct 76-mile Tamiami Trail as we celebrate 85th anniversary of its opening

Scott McIntyre/Staff 
 The construction of the Tamiami Trail began in 1923 but was stalled until Barron Collier stepped in to speed up the construction.

Photo by SCOTT MCINTYRE // Buy this photo

Scott McIntyre/Staff The construction of the Tamiami Trail began in 1923 but was stalled until Barron Collier stepped in to speed up the construction.

By the numbers alone, the completion of the Tamiami Trail was a mind-boggling event.

Across 76 swampy miles, more than 2,000 workers toiled for the better part of five years. If you laid all the dynamite used end to end, it would have reached all the way to San Francisco.

The project, which spanned from 1923 until 1928, cost a mind-boggling $8 million, which breaks down to about $25,000 per mile. Adjusted for inflation, that $8 million would have been equivalent to nearly $109 million in today’s economy.

While the building of the Tamiami Trail was big in terms of numbers, its impact was far more impressive than pure tonnage of dynamite consumed or man-hours spent. The Tamiami Trail quite literally paved the way for Southwest Florida to be the booming mini-metropolis it is today.

Cedar logs were hand-cut and laid out to bring the drills into place for piercing the rock below the muck. 
  
 Courtesy of Collier County Museum

Cedar logs were hand-cut and laid out to bring the drills into place for piercing the rock below the muck. Courtesy of Collier County Museum

A car is seen driving along the Tamiami Trail, while it was still being constructed.

A car is seen driving along the Tamiami Trail, while it was still being constructed.

Florida Gov. Carey A. Hardee (seated) signs the bill that established Collier County on May 8, 1923. In return, Barron Gift Collier, standing third from left, revived the Tamiami Trail project.

Florida Gov. Carey A. Hardee (seated) signs the bill that established Collier County on May 8, 1923. In return, Barron Gift Collier, standing third from left, revived the Tamiami Trail project.

Women traveled with the Tamiami Trail laborers to do the washing and cooking. 
  
 Courtesy of Collier County Museum

Women traveled with the Tamiami Trail laborers to do the washing and cooking. Courtesy of Collier County Museum

Opening day ceremonies for the Tamiami Trail at Everglades City (then known as Everglade) on April 27, 1928. 
  
 Courtesy of Collier County Museum

Opening day ceremonies for the Tamiami Trail at Everglades City (then known as Everglade) on April 27, 1928. Courtesy of Collier County Museum

But the Tamiami Trail wasn’t always a sure thing. While today we hop on and off U.S. 41 with ease, there was a time when the future of the road looked uncertain. In fact, how the road came to be is actually a pretty interesting story. And with April 26, 2013, marking the 85th anniversary of the opening of the Tamiami Trail, we thought this was a perfect time to take a drive down memory lane.

The story starts in the early years of the 20th century. Personal automobiles were becoming more prevalent, and as Museum of the Everglades manager David England says, “If you had the money for a car you had the money for a vacation.” Northern visitors wanted to come to Florida, but the roads were few and far between.

In fact, most visitors arrived by boat. At the time, going by land from Fort Myers to Everglades City (which was just called Everglade) would take almost a week. The trip from Naples to Miami was a much longer adventure, since drivers had to drive north to Tampa, cross over to Daytona and then drive south to Miami.

“The state said, ‘Look, we need to build infrastructure,’” says England, adding, “And the state offered to put up half the money for the east-west portion if Dade County would provide the other half.”

But many taxpayers in other parts of the state cried foul, suggesting that it would be a huge waste of money, if the road were even possible.

“No one really even knew what was out there,” says England.

But Dade County land developer Captain James Franklin Jaudin wanted to find out. On April 4, 1923, Jaudin led a group of mostly city slickers brazenly calling themselves the “Tamiami Trailblazers” into the swamp.

“It took them a lot longer than they’d thought. They even had to send up a plane to spot them and drop supplies,” says England.

Russell Kay, the former author of the syndicated column “Too Late to Classify,” wrote about his experience as a Tamiami Trailblazer in his memoir by the same name. According to his report, he says that almost immediately upon entering the swamp, several vehicles broke down. At least one may — to this day — still be buried in the murky waters.

Twenty-three days after departing, the bedraggled crew emerged from the swamp. Clearly, the trail was going to be more difficult to build than had been imagined.

Nonetheless, construction on the east-west portion of the trail began. Because Jaudin was financing much of it, he had mandated that the trail run through Monroe County, where he owned vast parcels of property. But almost from the day they broke ground there were problems. The limestone was deeper than imagined and the project soon ran out of money. Leaders looked to business tycoon Barron Gift Collier for help.

“There was more and more pressure on Barron Collier to get involved, but he kept telling them, ‘There’s no way to recoup my cost here,’” says England. The shrewd businessman he was, Collier made a deal. He would help finance the road if Lee County would relinquish the land that he owned for the formation of a new county. In addition, the road had to go through this new county. In October 1923, work on the trail began in earnest.

“Collier always picked really good people for the job,” says Ron Jamro, director of the Collier County Museum. “From his personal chef to David Graham Copeland, who he hired as the head engineer, he always hired the best people.”

Seemingly overnight, 2,000 workers flooded into the town of Everglade, totally transforming it. Crews worked 12-hour shifts and Collier turned the work into a competition, offering up prizes for the teams that worked the fastest. From Everglade, the road made its way north, then east and west. The crews gobbled up any bit of landscape that dared stand in their way.

“Amazingly, we didn’t lose a single person during the construction of the trail, and it was by far the most dangerous part,” boasts England.

Of course, it wasn’t the only part. While the east-west portion of the trail was definitely the biggest engineering feat, Lee County’s sections had its own problems.

“There was a war between the Board of Trade, which favored the Dixie Route — which went through Fort Meade with crossings at Fort Thompson, now present day LaBelle — and those who favored a coastal route,” says Jim Powers of the Southwest Florida History Museum. “Those who favored the coastal route actually left the Board of Trade and formed the Chamber of Commerce,” he adds.

Had the route gone the inland route, the growth of towns like Bonita Springs and Estero certainly would have been stunted.

But 85 years later, Bonita, Estero, Naples and virtually all of Southwest Florida are thriving. Undoubtedly, much of the thanks is due to the accessibility that came with the completion of the Tamiami Trail.

Interestingly, however, the Tamiami Trail is still making headlines. In fact, while the Trail was such an integral part of our history, it may need to be modified in order to remain part of our future.

What Barron Collier and David Copeland didn’t understand at the time was that they were essentially damming (and ultimately damning) the Everglades. Dr. Tom Van Lent, a senior scientist with the Everglades Foundation, says that, “It was a project of profound and unintended consequences.”

In March, a ribbon cutting ceremony marked the opening of the first one-mile-long bridge section of the Trail. Eventually, several bridge sections will allow water to once again flow from Lake Okeechobee out to the Florida Bay.

With this new initiative underway, the future of the Everglades — and Southwest Florida — looks as bright as the past. Which actually makes sense. Because as anyone who has driven on the east-west portion of the Tamiami Trail knows, the view from your rearview mirror is just as lovely as that from your windshield.

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