Wednesday, November 3, 2021

1840s-1880s - Anchors Away and All Aboard! - First Stop: Umatilla

1840s - Any Port Will Do

   The early settlers of what would become Lake County, made their way here aboard steamships along the St. John's River from Jacksonville to Mellonville (now Sanford). They would then walk on small dirt paths, either West to Fort Mason (located 2 miles north of Lake Eustis), which was the first town in the area, or South to Orlando.

   In 1850, there were still only about 500 people living in Orange County.

   Before 1840, there was only one steamboat port along this area of the St. John's River: Fort Mellon at Lake Monroe in Mellonville (later Sanford).
   Although a port had already been established in the town of Mellonville, William Backhouse Astor bought 8,000 acres of land and created the city of Astor. The port of Fort Butler in Astor began competing with the one in Sanford as it now allowed passengers to reduce their travel time by about 30 miles. They could now depart the steamships along the St. John's much sooner, as they made their way to the areas that would later become Fort Mason, Umatilla, Tavares, and Eustis.

   The early settlers had to walk or take another steamboat along the Ocklawaha River from Astor to the Ocklawaha Hotel in Pendryville (Later known as Eustis).
   The Ocklawaha [Dark Crooked River] River was cleared, so steamboats could navigate to Lake Griffin.
   Before the railroads reached into central Florida, long distance travel and shipping relied on the steamboats, so the early settlements were concentrated along navigable waterways.
   Mr. Hart ran steamboats on the Ocklawaha River.


1850s-1860s - Umatilla

In 1856, Umatilla was founded by Nathan J. Trowell. The name was suggested by William A. Whitcomb. The name, Umatilla, was taken from an Oregon town of the same name and it is an Native American name meaning "laughing waters." In 1867, John A. MacDonald was the first to homestead in the area of Eustis. He soon began selling land to later homesteaders.

1870s - Alligators and Steamships and Serpents, Oh My!



   In the 1830s, Lake Eustis had been named after General Abraham Eustis who was a surveyor and map maker. General Eustis was also a prominent figure in the Seminole Wars, as he had skirmished with the Natives on the south shore of Lake Eustis, near present-day Tavares. Steamboats along the St. Johns River now connected the areas of Lake Eustis to Jacksonville. However, in 1871 a newspaper report of alligators attacking a steamship and a serpent in the river discouraged many of the less hearty of the homesteaders. Before railroads came in the 1880s, Eustis was a busy port for steamers plying Lakes Harris, Eustis, Dora, and Griffin. Although the U.S. opened up the area for homesteading in the 1850s, settlement was delayed by the Civil War. Surveying was finally completed in 1875 and settlement began in earnest. The area of Eustis took its time finding the right name for itsself. First it was Highlands when settlement first began around 1875, then Pendryville. In 1876, A.S. Pendry homesteaded in the area and set out a citrus grove. In 1877 he opened the Ocklawaha Hotel. The city finally received the name of Lake Eustis (Later shortened to Eustis in 1883) when it was named after General Abraham Eustis. In Eustis, a boat landing on the lake at the foot of Macdonald Avenue was the primary shipping point, and established that street as a commercial corridor. A big year was 1878 when the first telegraph line connected Eustis, Leesburg, and Sanford. Starting in 1875, Major Alexander St. Clair-Abrams began establishing the city of Tavares and paid the surveyors who began carving out Lake County from parts of Sumter and Orange Counties. The city of Tavares was started as a railroad hub. St. Clair-Abrams had come to the area after he "retired" from running his newspaper in the North, but he started another soon after arriving in Tavares. He had started in the newspaper business after writing about his experiences serving in the Confederacy and at Vicksburg. Knowing that he had a passion for the newspaper business, his friends joked that he left for Florida to edit orange groves. St. Clair-Abrams homesteaded on the shore of Lake Joanna (3 miles from Lake Eustis), which he named after his wife. He also sold land to fellow homesteaders. In 1878, the railroad reaches Umatilla from Astor. The plan was to continue it on to Fort Mason, but they ran out of money. In 1880, Andrew C. Lane finished the railroad to Fort Mason and continues it on towards Eustis, in 1883, then to Tavares.

1880s - All Aboard! The Railroad comes to Lake County

With the arrival of the St. Johns and Lake Eustis Railway in 1880, steamboats were replaced as the primary mode of transportation and shipping. The railroad arrived in 1880, the first train coming from Astor, through Umatilla, to Fort Mason, where passengers and freight made lake steamer connections to Leesburg, Helena, Yalaha, Bloomfield, Lane Park, and Tavares. The early frontier settlements begin to grow. Residents voted to incorporate Eustis in 1886. Like much of Florida, citrus was a major industry in Eustis. The Big Freeze of 1894-95 and 1898-99 devastated the citrus crop in Eustis and the surrounding areas. Says Eustis historian Louise Carter, "Even though the freeze [of 1895] brought the town's economy to a standstill, Mr. Clifford kept his lakefront general store open and extended credit until people could recover." Despite this setback and subsequent freezes, the citrus industry continued to flourish and Eustis became known as the “Orange Capital of the World.” The United States Department of Agriculture had even established a research station and laboratory in Eustis, where they studied plant diseases and hybridization. The efficiency of the railroad over steamboat and horse and carriage made travel more desirable and the number of people traveling to Eustis increased. Tourists coming to Eustis by train would arrive at the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Depot which formerly stood at the southwest corner of Magnolia Avenue and Bay Street. Later, in the 1910s, the Dixie Highway and paved roads brought automotive tourists to Eustis.

1887 - The Formation of Lake County and the Midnight Raid of Bloomfield

In May of 1887, Lake County is formed from parts of Sumter and Orange Counties. The county seat was originally established at the homestead of William D. Mendenhall in the area known as Bloomfield, until the voters could decide where it would ultimately be located. Bloomfield was located between Yalaha and Okahumpka. The first County Courthouse was the unoccupied home of one of Mendenhall's neighbors. On October 25, 1887, the first voting ended with Tavares having the most votes, but not the 51% required to establish it as the County Seat. A second voting occurred on March 10, 1888, but again Tavares did not receive the 51% majority. Again on July 17, Tavares fell short by only nine votes. Finally having enough, on the night of July 21, St. Clair-Abrams "raided" the Bloomfiel Courthouse and took the court records. Under the cover of night, he rowed his boat across the lake back to Tavares. On July 28, a meeting was held and an order was made to return all court records back to Bloomfield. On August 10, 1888, 440 days after the formation of Lake County, Judge John Dozier Broome finally ruled in favor of Tavares as the county seat.

[Contributors: Jason Brown]

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