The Ten Thou­sand Is­lands are still un­tamed and beau­ti­ful

RSWLiving - - Contents - Capt. Brian Ho­l­away is a Florida master nat­u­ral­ist and has been a South­west Florida shelling and eco-tour guide since 1995. His char­ters visit the is­lands of Pine Is­land Sound, in­clud­ing Cayo Costa State Park, Cab­bage Key, Pine Is­land and North Cap­tiva.

The Ten Thou­sand Is­lands are still un­tamed and beau­ti­ful

When I want to get away, I go to the Ten Thou­sand Is­lands, off the coast of South­west Florida. There are a lot of things that pull me in that di­rec­tion, but it is the his­tory of the area that pulls the hard­est: The his­tory of the plants, the peo­ple and the way of life in the man­grove and shell is­lands keeps me go­ing back to a place full of watery soli­tude like no other in the United States.

The south­ern part of the Ten Thou­sand Is­lands is in Ever­glades Na­tional Park, which was es­tab­lished on Dec. 6, 1947. Some 1.5 mil­lion acres were des­ig­nated a pre­serve. The park is the largest sub­trop­i­cal wilder­ness in the U.S. and was de­clared a World Her­itage Site by the United Na­tions Ed­u­ca­tional, Sci­en­tific and Cul­tural Or­ga­ni­za­tion, or UN­ESCO.

The wa­ter­way south of Chokolos­kee Is­land is known to­day as the Wilder­ness Wa­ter­way. It is a maze of man­groves that can all look the same to the un­trained eye, and its wa­ter av­er­ages 2 to 3 feet in depth. If you travel down the Lopez River you can still see rem­nants of an old cis­tern from fron­tier days.

Far­ther south in the back­coun­try is a lit­tle key that used to be called Pos­seum Key. It is now named Dar­win’s Key, after Arthur Les­lie Dar­win, a fifth-gen­er­a­tion de­scen­dent of the fa­mous English sci­en­tist Charles Dar­win. Arthur Les­lie Dar­win died in 1977 and was the last pri­vate res­i­dent to legally live in the park.

Not far from Dar­win’s place on the Chatham River is the Wat­son place. No story about the Ten Thou­sand Is­lands would be com­plete with­out men­tion­ing Edgar J. Wat­son. He ar­rived in South­west Florida in the 1890s and pur­chased a 40-acre pre-Columbian shell mound at the bend on the Chatham River.

Wat­son be­came known as a suc­cess­ful farmer, grow­ing sug­ar­cane for his “Is­land Pride Syrup,” and also toma­toes, pota­toes and other pro­duce for mar­kets in Key West and New York City. The pro­duce and syrup were taken to Key West in his schooner that was called Gla­di­a­tor.

But there’s an­other side to the Wat­son saga: He sup­pos­edly killed the al­leged out­law and ex-spy Belle Star. Some of the lo­cals claimed he had a tem­per; oth­ers just stayed away. He was in­volved in a fight with Adol­phus San­tini of Chokolos­kee while in Key West. Wat­son had slit his neck but San­tini lived to tell the tale. The “scrape” cost old Ed Wat­son $900 be­fore he could re­turn to his place at Chatham Bend. Wat­son em­ployed a hand­ful of peo­ple on his 40 acres to help with the cane har­vest and other crops. Some were drifters, some were picked up in Key West and taken to Wat­son’s place. Lo­cals re­call that cer­tain em­ploy­ees would end up miss­ing on pay­day or never be seen again. This was known in the Ten Thou­sand Is­lands as “Wat­son’s Pay­day.”

The Ten Thou­sand Is­lands to­day are still very iso­lated, buggy and tricky to nav­i­gate, even with GPS. It is still an un­tamed and beau­ti­ful place to en­joy soli­tude, na­ture and times for­got­ten.

The south­ern part of the T en Thou­sands Is­lands is in Ever­glades Na­tional Park, which is the largest sub­trop­i­cal wilder­ness in the U nited States.

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