Sunday, March 16, 1997

Beeline Highway helped open Panhandle for tourists

Marlene Womack
Contributing Writer
   The dictionary defines ``beeline'' as ``a straight direct
course.'' That's what road builders must have had in mind when
they constructed the ``Beeline Highway'' from the Great Lakes to
the Gulf of Mexico in the 1920s. In Florida, the Beeline Highway
ran south from the Alabama-Florida line through Marianna to
Blountstown, Wewahitchka, Port St. Joe and Apalachicola.
   Talk of building roads and highways in Florida became a
paramount issue after World War I when tourists began making
their way southward into the state that claimed only a scant number
of roads. The Old Spanish Trail (U.S. 90 and 27) was under
construction from Pensacola to St. Augustine at that time. It
afforded motorists sections of clay road beginning about 1916. But
the highway was not completed across Florida until 1929.
   In the early 1900s, a few roads led inland from some coastal
towns. But for the most part those trying to reach larger cities such
as Pensacola, Tallahassee and Jacksonville by land in Northwest
Florida had to follow deep sand-rut roads that were little more than
wagon trails.
   The old Government Road or Stage Road, built in the 1830s
between Marianna, St. Andrew Bay, St. Joseph and Apalachicola,
was still discernible in many locations with its heartwood-pine mile
markers. At the turn of the century, these markers were still clearly
visible down the coast on property now covered by Tyndall Air
Force Base. But this roadway more often resembled a jungle path.
   Even though the Indians had been gone for decades, those driving
wagons over this fading highway had to be prepared to fight
hanging vines, wild animals and hordes of stinging flies and
mosquitoes.
   Since few people lived along the coast and packaged food was
scarce, traders prepared themselves with ample provisions that
included dried beans and fruit, flour and side meat. Parties were
forced to ford Depot Creek near its source where at times the water
reached the floorboards of the wagon. A trip between Apalachicola
and the lighthouse at Beacon Hill took at least 12 hours.
   In towns like Apalachicola and later Panama City, the river or
Gulf of Mexico and railroads served as the main source of
transportation in and out of town. For the few communities that did
have roads, able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 45 were
required to spend eight days per year maintaining these roads.
   Then, after World War I wages increased, automobiles grew in
popularity, tin-canned goods became available for camping and
people discovered the land of sunshine, warm weather and white
beaches.
   The National Beeline Highway began at Chicago then followed a
route south to Terre Haute and Evansville. It passed through
Kentucky to Nashville then ran down to Birmingham, Montgomery
and Dothan. At Marianna the highway crossed the Old Spanish
Trail, then dropped southward into Gulf and Franklin counties.
   The official Rand McNally ``Auto Trails Map of 1922'' showed
the Beeline Highway or National Trail No. 4 running west from
Apalachicola along St. Vincent Sound before it became State
Highway 6, veered north and continued nine miles into Port St. Joe.
From that city it zigged its way north over 18 miles to Dalkeith,
seven miles to Wewahitchka, nine miles to Kinard, seven miles to
Scotts Ferry, 15 miles to Blountstown, eight miles to Leonards,
four miles to Altha, then 15 miles to Marianna.
   The highway passed through some towns and communities that
no longer exist. The only sections bearing improvements with clay
or oyster shells with tarvia dressing lay six miles west of
Apalachicola and between Blountstown and Marianna.
   Although the catchy Beeline name represented speed, travel was
hazardous at best over some sections of this highway, especially in
Gulf County. Between Wewahitchka and White City, this roadway
(now State 71) followed the roadbed of the old St. Joseph and Iola
Railroad, which opened in 1839 and was dismantled several years
later for shipment to Georgia.
   When travelers wished to motor from Panama City to
Apalachicola in their Model-T's or Overlands, they had no choice
but to follow the dirt trail to Wewahitchka since the construction of
the DuPont Bridge remained several years away. Then they
maneuvered their vehicles into the ``old tram tracks'' as they were
called and followed the deep sand ruts of the Beeline Highway to
Port St. Joe.
   When two vehicles approached, each from the opposite direction,
one car had to yield and climb out of the tracks so the other could
pass. Sometimes this feat took 15 minutes to half an hour.
   In the 1920s, Eddie Nesmith, now a retired park ranger from Fort
Gadsden, traveled the Beeline Highway with his father, Thomas
Jefferson Nesmith. They went out from Apalachicola to Alliance, a
small farming community seven miles from Altha, where relatives
lived.
   Nesmith recalled that much of the area between Port St. Joe and
Wewahitchka was marshland and boggy. The road passed over
several streams, covered by flat surfaced logs that were bolted
together for tracks.
   ``There were a few farms in that area. If people got stuck, they'd
get someone with a mule or horse to pull them out of the bog holes.
Of course they'd expect a little tip like $1 or so. It was a bad place,''
he said.
   Nesmith also became quite familiar with other portions of the
road, where his father supervised convicts spreading oyster shells.
   ``The highway ran from Prado Street in Apalachicola to the city
limits. Then one-half mile to Brownville, a small settlement of
about six houses, a service station and a store. The county line was
at 14 miles, four more miles to McNeill's turpentine still, then north
to the Florida Constitution Monument in Port St. Joe,'' he said.
   Nesmith also remembered the ``three mile post'' from
Apalachicola where residents went for Sunday drives then turned
their vehicles around to head back to town. Apalachicola ranked as
the largest city between Tallahassee and Pensacola then, and
boasted a population of about 3,100.
   The Nesmith family lived west of Apalachicola at ``Eleven Mile''
between 1931 and 1932. Eleven Mile was a small fishing village
with a business known as ``Eleven Mile Oyster Company.''
   Sections of the Gulf Coast Highway, now U.S. 98, began opening
in 1928 along the coast. The Gulf Coast Highway was finally
completed in 1935 and intersected the Beeline Highway at Port St.
Joe.



© 1997 The News Herald