Hidden histories of Florida’s national parks
There are secrets lurking in Florida’s national parks. The state is home to four natural preserves with diverse ecosystems and environments ranging from a swampy river of grass to a park that is 95 percent covered by water. Aside from preserving Florida’s natural wildlife, our local national parks are filled with hidden, often illicit, stories.
We spoke with Biscayne National Park Ranger Gary Bremen about the myths and stranger-than-fiction truths alive in the parks. With the centennial of the National Park Service in 2016, now’s the perfect time to explore, so here are five stories we’ve uncovered right in our own backyard. “It’s a fascinating history that includes native people, shipwrecks, rumrunners, millionaires, presidents, pineapple farmers, the underground railroad… Lots of really cool stuff here,” Bremen said. “It’s an extraordinary history.”
Fort Jefferson housed a conspirator in Lincoln’s assassination
Fort Jefferson was created as a stalwart fort during the Civil War era, but now the deserted military fortress stands as the most remote outpost of the National Park System in Dry Tortugas National Park. Dr. Samuel Mudd spent four years inside a dark, damp cell after the Civil War for setting the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.
Here’s a clip about Dr. Mudd’s imprisonment that follows Ranger Jay Liggett and his wife Debbie, who were the sole inhabitants and caretakers of the great fort in 1987.
Pirates buried 20 tons of silver in Biscayne, and it could still be out there
Though it may be more legend than fact, the story goes that the fierce pirate Black Caesar was an escaped slave who was lured onto a slave ship from Africa. He later made a hideout in the waters of Biscayne, in what is known today as Caesar’s Creek. Legend has it he buried more than 20 tons of silver that’s never been recovered. Black Caesar’s ruthless nature meant he believed walking the plank was too sweet and simple a death. He preferred to tie up his prisoners near the waterline during low tide, and wait for the sun, wind and bugs to torture the prisoners as they watched the water slowly creep closer to their mouths and noses.
He would also tie up the mast of his ship, the Ebony Eagle, to a ring on what is today known as Caesar’s Rock, and pull it until it keeled onto its side. He would wait for wayfaring merchant ships in the distance to draw closer, snap the line to right his ship, and attack. We do know there were pirates in the area, but with so many accounts spanning more than 100 years, there could have been one, two or many pirates parading under the name Black Caesar.
“This is all apocryphal, we don’t know any of this,” Bremen said. “But they’re fun stories for sure. I take it with a grain of salt, but Biscayne’s got lots of salt because we’re 95 percent covered by salt water.”
Rumrunners smuggled booze through Biscayne during Prohibition
Littered with narrow canals, Biscayne National Park was the perfect clandestine hideaway for those who skirted the 1920s and 30s national prohibition on alcohol. Charlotte Niedhauk and her husband Russell lived on the north end of Elliott Key during the 1930s and she chronicled their adventures in the book “Charlotte’s Story.”
According to Bremen, Charlotte seemed like a naïve kind of person who agreed to keep what she believed to be “hams” underneath her bed for days. In reality, those hams were burlap-wrapped bottles of liquor smuggled in from the Caribbean. Humans were also being smuggled, and she wrote about the large number of Chinese being transported into the country through the area.
A black pioneer defied segregation to become the area’s largest landowner
Israel Lafayette Jones was born a slave in North Carolina in 1858. He moved to Florida in the late 1890s and worked for Ralph Munroe, a local salvager who’s Coconut Grove house The Barnacle is is a museum today. Jones met and married a Bahamian woman, Mozelle Albury, and they wanted their sons to have regal sounding names in the hopes of helping them garner respect throughout their lives, so they named their firstborn King Arthur Jones and their second Sir Lancelot Jones. The family bought a piece of land on Porgy Key, which is now in Biscayne National Park, and became farmers, growing pineapples and later Key limes. They did so well that the family was able to buy the whole island and much of the island next door, becoming the largest landowners in the area.
“So here is a black family owning more land than anybody else in today’s Biscayne National Park, about 25 miles away from downtown Miami, where anyone else who looked like them was being forced to drink out of separate drinking fountains,” Bremen said.
Here’s a 1984 video featuring Israel’s son, Lancelot Jones, who was the island’s sole resident for decades.
The last base from the Cuban Missile Crisis is hiding in the Everglades
In a stark contrast to the timeless, gentle beauty surrounding it, the HM69 Nike Missile Base stands as a large, concrete reminder of the fear of nuclear war in the 1960s. Because of Miami’s proximity to Cuba, the area was fortified with a number of Nike Missile Bases, but the only one that still exists is in the Everglades.
Check out this video from 1977 following the 31st air defense artillery brigade that was left to man one of the four Nike aircraft missiles bases in Miami-Dade County following the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Bonus: Marjory Stoneman Douglas riding through the River of Grass
Marjory Stoneman Douglas is known as the mother of the Everglades because she was a pioneer, environmentalist, author, and leading voice in designating the spot as a national park. Watch her taking a boat ride through the river of grass in a traditional Miccosukee dugout canoe in 1983.
This article originally appeared in The New Tropic July 16, 2015.