Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Port St. Joe & the Ghosts of Old St. Joseph

Apalachicola wasn't the only panhandle Florida town that I wanted to revisit. Though not as picturesque in that classic Southern style, Port St. Joe was also worth a second look. US 98, which runs from Washington, Miss., to Palm Beach, Fla., follows the coast closely while passing through Port St. Joe, which is a former paper mill town. The paper mill is gone, though a resin factory still endures near the highway.

Eventually, the town will be considerably larger than it is now (about 3,500 people, a little larger than Apalachicola), with the addition of new residential properties along the coast northwest of town, a good-looking development that I visited in 2007. But growth is stalled for the moment, of course.

St. Joseph Peninsula, a nearby barrier formation that includes Cape San Blas and a state park at the tip of the peninsula renowned for its beaches, probably would have been worth several hours of my time, but I wanted to go on to Apalachicola and then inland to Tallahassee, so I shorted my visit to Port St. Joe. Still, I spent enough time there to see an obscure strip of a park, just off US 98: Constitution Convention Museum State Park.

It was a pleasant, green park occupied by not another soul when I was there. The monument off in the distance of the photo above lauds the achievements of the first territorial constitutional convention, held at that spot in late 1838 and early 1839, back when the settlement was called St. Joseph. Somewhere, there's an official record of the meeting, but I suspect that besides official work, the event was also a chance for landowners from various remote parts of the territory to get together and drink heavily and otherwise entertain themselves during "winter," when the heat and mosquitoes wouldn't have been so irritating. A building at one end of the park, which I assumed housed early Florida artifacts, was closed.

The Florida State Parks web site has this to say about the old town of St. Joseph: "More than 150 years ago, St. Joseph was selected over Tallahassee (the territorial capital) as the site of the state's Constitution Convention because of antagonism between East Florida and Middle Florida and because of the efforts of boomtown promoters. St. Joseph, created in 1835, was a boomtown [competing] with the town of Apalachicola as a trading port...."

Shortly after the convention, however, things started to go badly for the town. Really bad. "In the summer of 1841, yellow fever reached epidemic proportions in the entire territory, and St. Joseph was especially hard hit," the Florida Parks web site continues. "The population declined from already fewer than 6,000 to 400 in less than one year. Many of the deserted houses were dismantled and shipped to Apalachicola for reconstruction."

Yellow fever wasn't quite the end of the town, but then, true to the one-damn-thing-after-another school of history, "the hurricane of September 1844 completely destroyed what remained of the town. The only thing left was the town's cemetery -- a grim reminder of a small town's struggle to compete."

Naturally, I had to visit that cemetery, too, before I left the modern town of Port St. Joe. It wasn't far from the park, but nothing is far from anything else in a place that size. This is the gate.

A plaque near the gate said: "The fenced portion of Old St. Joseph Cemetery constitutes only a small part of the original burial ground of the city of Old St. Joseph (1835-1841). Mass burial sites of yellow fever victims lie in unmarked graves..."

Also near the entrance is a list of people thought to be buried at the site, sometimes including their occupation as well as names, and it seems that yellow fever struck down the prominent as well as the humble. A brick walkway runs a horseshoe-shaped course through the property, and I followed it around. There are a few headstones, but mostly the cemetery is open space, except for a modern gazebo and handful of unmarked brick structures that must have been above-ground crypts. The Old St. Joseph Cemetery wasn't as picturesque as Apalachicola's Chestnut Street Cemetery, but it was more poignant.

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