89 years of access: Happy Birthday, Tamiami Trail

Lance Shearer, Correspondent

It is hard to overstate the impact of the Tamiami Trail on Everglades City. Prior to the completion of the road in 1928, the only access to the town was by water, through Chokoloskee Bay and the 10,000 Islands.

So on Saturday, the Friends of the Museum of the Everglades threw a party for the Trail, to mark the 89th anniversary of its completion and dedication. Visitors enjoyed live period music, antique cars, historical lectures, chili dogs and birthday cake.

Eighty-nine years ago, the party was even bigger. Luminaries including Thomas Edison participated in 1928, along with Florida Governor John W. Martin, and Barron Collier, the million-acre landowner and county namesake whose determination made the project a reality. They were part of a three-day caravan from Tampa to Miami that celebrated the culmination of an engineering feat that had been deemed impossible until it was accomplished.

Collier-Seminole Park Ranger Henry Gonzalez explains the walking dredge. The Museum of the Everglades hosted a celebration of the 89th anniversary of the opening of the Tamiami Trail Saturday in Everglades City.

The party on Saturday also celebrated an anniversary for the museum itself, marking 19 years since it opened in the building that once housed the laundry for all the workers laboring to complete work on the Tamiami Trail. That laundry must have comprised a lot of “big dirty loads,” from the countless workers – literally, no records remain of how many were employed in the task – struggling to advance the road through the Everglades muck.

One indication, Collier-Seminole Park Ranger Henry Gonzalez told a roomful of visitors, is that two and a half million sticks of dynamite were used to blast through rock for the road’s construction, in addition to the massive walking and floating dredges. Collier-Seminole State Park, along the Trail between Everglades City and Marco Island, is the final resting place for the Bay City walking dredge, one of 12 or 13 used in the project.

As part of the celebration, several “old-timers,” storytellers who lived through the early years of E-City, swapped reminisces in front of an audience, plus microphones and video cameras. Ron Echols, whose family ran the laundry, and lived in it, starting in 1930, spoke along with Arita Parker and Jimmy Brewer.

“My dad worked for the Collier Corporation, a vice president, and I was scared to death of the laundry,” said Parker, seated comfortably inside the building that used to petrify her. “All that steam – all I could think of was dragons.” She remembered when the state had an inspection station in Carnestown, checking for citrus which might carry fruit flies heading across the state.

“If we found any fruit, we’d confiscate it,” she said. The lectures took place in the rear of the old museum, where the heavy machinery used to be, said Echols, and similar equipment stands there now, with carpet over the original concrete floor. The balance of the museum space has floors of gleaming Dade County pine, and open rafters designed for maximum ventilation, although these days the roof vents are closed off to preserve the air conditioning.

The Happy Jazz Band, with Marco Islander and Strummers bandleader Wes English on banjo, played tunes including at least a couple written in 1928, “Basin Street” and “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love.” Jim Gover played tuba in the brass-heavy ensemble, with Marty Krebs on trumpet, Art Blatt on trombone, and Dick Steinberg giving the reed on his clarinet a workout.

Todd and Brenda Pulis showed up in a Model A Ford, a car that went on sale only days before 1928, although theirs is a newer, 1931 model. Additional period vehicles included a Packard, along with T-Birds, Studebakers, and Marco Islander Mal Newbourne’s antique Mercedes-Benz. A contingent of two dozen or more Volkswagen buses and Beetles, along with a Thing or two, cruised by on a road trip.

In the museum, you can learn a great deal about the surrounding area, as well as Everglades City itself, and it makes a great anchor for a visit to E-City, along with a stop at one of the town’s eateries, more than eager to welcome you now the tourists have gone.

The Museum of the Everglades is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday. For more information, go online to colliermuseums.com, or call 239-695-0008. It is located at 105 West Broadway, down the street from City Hall, and this is one Broadway attraction you can see without a ticket. Admission is free.