(To my history buff and exploring friends, if I have any of the facts wrong please let me know)
I have been hearing about a ghost town that is in Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area ever since I moved to Hernando County. It has been said by several people I know that its location is straight back into Chassahowitzka from Centralia Road on the other side of U.S. 19. I have made a few stabs at finding it based on those directions. All to no avail. There is a sign in the wildlife management area that gives a little bit of information about the town. Poking around near that sign, I couldn’t find anything. I pored over the clues I found online. I sat with a notebook to take notes and had multiple computer screens open at once as well as google earth. I was only able to narrow it down to within several square miles.
Fast forward several months when Tyler and I were sitting around the house playing on our computers when Tyler looks up and says, “I’m bored. Let’s go find Centralia”. That was enough motivation to get up and drive out there for another look. We loaded up our water bottles and water packs. I double checked our supply of bug repellent and off we went. After reading and researching, I had an idea where to start looking, but I also knew it was going to take a lot of time on the ground. We drove up to the entrance to the forest on North U.S. 19 and made our way back into the wilderness to the area of my best guestimate for another try.
After finding a place to park we sprayed ourselves down with bug spray and I threw on my back pack with water. Tyler immediately noticed that he forgot his water, but he was happy, he still had his candy. The temperatures were in the low 90’s with high humidity. It wasn’t the best day for this, but Tyler is a tough kid. The plan was to start a zig zag pattern while keeping about fifty yards between us. We split up and started looking for clues. We constantly yelled back and forth to keep our spacing just right.
To me it seemed obvious they had to be man made. I haven’t any idea what they were for, but I hoped they were clues that we were close. In the end, they were and they weren’t. We were close in terms of the whole forest. We weren’t in that we were still a long way off. We kept our zig zag pattern running for a few more hours before we were finally successful. As we made our way through the woods, all the while dodging banana spiders and their webs, we found piles of old brick. We also found pottery shards from turpentine collecting. Here and there would also be pieces of rusted metal or rusty buckets. We began to use those as our clues to keep going. The more we found, we figured, the closer we would be to the town. We were specifically looking for the sawmill foundation though.
Here are two links to websites that describe the town and its history as well as some original photos:
The reader’s digest version is that Centralia was founded in 1910 as a sawmill operation to harvest the old growth cypress trees in the surrounding swamps. They built tramway railroads throughout the swamp (which still exist today) to haul out the cypress trunks. They would transport them to a float pond near the sawmill where the raw wood would be dropped off, moved across the man made float pond, and then hauled up out of the water to be milled. The finished lumber would then be sent by rail out of the town. Due to different gauge tracks, the lumber had to be transferred to yet another train to disperse the finished product across the state and beyond. It became a very prosperous operation. Until they ran out of cypress trees to log that is. It took them twelve years to decimate the old growth cypress forest. Trees that took thousands of years to grow were gone in a matter of years. The land was barren, the profits were gone, and soon thereafter, so was the town.
Today, all that is left are the sawmill foundations, a few brick walls, the foundation to the water tower, and some artifacts strewn about. Those objects were our mission to find that day.
The largest structure I expected to find was the float pond itself. As we wound our way through the dense foliage we eventually came across a tramway. Knowing its purpose, it was a matter of following it to the sawmill. Along the way we found more artifacts. A lucky turn from the direction we were headed and we found we had stumbled right up to our destination. It also turns out that the tramway is one of the man made walls for the float pond.
Link to a youtube video of our Centralia discovery: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rAL40ICHbAM
There is satisfaction in knowing that it is possible to accomplish something with enough preparation, some hard work, and a little bit of luck thrown in. We spent some time looking around and taking photos. Quite frankly there are items out there that I have no clue what they would have been used for. Tyler and I enjoyed taking guesses as to what the objects we found might have been. The area is a stark contrast to what is depicted in the original photographs. At the time Centralia existed, the surrounding area was cleared. Today, it is thick forest. The mosquitoes and ticks were unbearable in spite of being bathed in Deep Woods Off. I have no idea what the early loggers did to survive the mosquitoes. Ultimately, between a lack of enough water and the over abundance of insects we called it a day and headed out. The hike out was long, but still much shorter than the meandering route in. When the cooler weather arrives, I want to go back to explore a wider radius around the sawmill.
A few weeks after the first visit to Centralia with Tyler, I went back out to Chassahowitzka WMA to ride the forest roads with my riding partner from St. Pete, Larry, on our dual sport motorcycles. We found an interesting tramway that we took to the end. There were trees down across the tramway that we had to get very creative to get past. It was an exceptionally long tramway compared to most of the others, then it simply came to a dead end at a narrow point. The tramways are long thin strips of land that were made to be just a few feet above the surrounding swamp in order to support a crude railroad track. This one was no different. Where it dead ended, the swamp water surrounded it. We got off the bikes to figure out how to turn around and also to stretch our legs. It was just then that I noticed a very faint trail heading into the swamp. It looked like an old survey line had been cut through the swamp. My curiosity got the better of me. I started walking into the swamp. I am thankful that Larry is a patient man and indulged my curiosity. He waited with the bikes at the end of the tramway while I explored. I eventually got knee deep in water and lost the trail I was attempting to follow. On the way back something caught my eye. There were some small orange ribbons tied to branches. I detoured from the path back to Larry to follow them. What I came across was a cypress tree the loggers from the beginning of the last century had missed. Deep into the far reaches of the swamps of Chassahowitzka stands a lone survivor of the logger’s efforts to strip the area of old growth cypress. I estimated the trunk to be between seven and eight feet in diameter. This tree is huge! It is funny to think that I initially walked by something so massive without noticing it, but the foliage is extremely thick in the swamp. Unfortunately for this story, my camera had broken the week before. The only proof I have that it exists are some poor quality cell phone shots. Without something to contrast it with, it is difficult to demonstrate the size of this tree. The surrounding trees would be considered large “normal” trees.
In the above picture, this tree fell across the road blocking our way out. That would have been a bad day if it had come down an hour before while we were riding under it. I encouraged Larry to just ride down off the road around it. That ended up being a lot more work as we pushed and pulled his bike out of the bog mud. Larry wisely suggested we just lift my bike up and over the obstacle.
Chassahowitzka has some very unique features that are due to the history of the ghost town that thrived there one hundred years ago. I will be back to explore more. Depending on what I find, I may add more here or start a new post.
If you are using this blog post to find the ghost town, I will not give its exact location. Places like it need to be protected. If you do find it, I would remind you that taking artifacts is both illegal and is simply not right. The town should remain as it is found. Enjoy the discovery, photograph it, explore it, but leave it as is for others to discover and enjoy. The only clue I will give is both helpful and frustrating. It is not located on any path or trail. Some run close by, but none lead directly to it. You will have to do some old fashioned bushwhacking to get there. A word of warning too, Centralia holds my personal record for the most ticks clinging to me after a hike. Prepare accordingly. Also, bring your compass and GPS. It is very easy to get turned around out there. Cell reception is not reliable in some areas.
Stay hydrated my friends!
I also took Larry to see Buford Sink and Eagle’s Nest. Both are advanced dive sites. I dove Buford Sink three years ago. Absolutely awesome dive. In the wet season you go to the end of the tramway, wade through the dark tannic swamp water until the water becomes clear. Put on your dive gear and then drop down 165 feet to the bottom of the second largest cavern in Florida. It is possible to hit 185 feet by entering a siphon. The story goes that in the 1970’s a logger from Centralia told a cave diver about the spring. The diver convinced the logger to show him where it is. Buford Sink is not widely publicized. That was another exploration that took three or four visits to find. It wasn’t easy. Here is a link to a really good professional video of a Buford Sink dive:
On the south end of Chassahowitzka WMA is Eagle’s Nest. This is an extremely advanced dive that is often compared to climbing Mt. Everest. Needless to say, plenty of people die here every year. Watch the videos and see why. Here are two links to dives done at Eagle’s Nest: