Going back in time at Silver Springs
In the old days, before Disney’s mouse changed the face of tourism, people came to Florida to see its natural wonders. They came to see the terrible alligators, the ominous swamps, the dark mysterious rivers, the gorgeous birds and the broad beaches. And high on the list of places people came to visit was Silver Springs just outside of Ocala in Marion County.
With its crystal clear water streaming up through 30 different springs and flowing into the aptly named Silver River it was a wonder. Water pours out 600 to 1000 cubic feet a second, adding up to 550 million gallons a day. It is one of the largest artesian spring systems in the US and the world. The largest spring, or boil as they are called in Florida, is Mammoth Spring, 30 feet deep at the main vent. The vent is an opening into an extensive cave system and the water coming up has spent 20 years beginning as rainfall that seeps down through the limestone and into the Florida aquifer before getting pushed back to the surface.
Native Americans camped and lived near the springs for thousands of years. Certainly they were long established when Hernando de Soto arrived in 1539. At that time the Ocale (or Ocali) group that were part of the Timucuan lived there. But after conflict with the new explorers and disease took their toll, the Timucuan were mostly wiped out by 1700. After that, members of the Creek Nation moved into the area, later becoming the Seminole tribe. They, too, were shunted further south following the Seminole Wars. It was then, around 1842, that white settlers began a more widespread homestead in the area.
As early as 1852 some enterprising folks started promoting the Springs as something not to be missed. Before long, paddlewheel boats made their way up the St. Johns to the Ocklawaha, onward to the Silver River and ended up at the Springs. In 1870 someone came up with the idea of putting glass in the bottom of boat so visitors could really see everything in the springs. The glass bottom boats are still a big part of the springs though now it’s thick Plexiglas, not regular glass that one looks down through.
Over the years the Springs have been held by a succession of private owners before being purchased by the state in 1993. Over the course of the 160-plus years of visitation, the Springs have seen various attractions come and go nearby including a deer ranch, Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute, Six Gun Territory, a Seminole Village, a water park and more.
Silver Springs was declared a national landmark in 1972 and in 2013 the Springs were finally named as an official Florida State Park and joined with the nearby Silver River State Park.
In addition to all the tourists, generations of Florida kids grew up visiting the Springs as a special treat, for family reunions and school trips.
When I was a little girl we went to Silver Springs and more often, put our boat in somewhere on the Silver River and ran up to the springs and back down to the black water of the Ocklawaha. We fished and picnicked. My father drove the boat fast around the tight curves, throwing up rooster tails of water behind us, delighting us kids and making the mom’s a little nervous. He knew where all the submerged logs were and he could spot the little monkeys high in the trees and the bull gators pulled up on the edges keeping a quiet eye on things.
In May I took my mom back to see the springs. She said she hadn’t been since her own mother, now long departed, was still with us and my baby sister, now only about a decade from retirement, was a tiny girl. It was a big deal then to go to the Springs for the day. It was always crowded and full of people having a ball. But now, the parking lot is nearly empty, only a couple of the boats are running tours but if you like a lot of room to spread out and enjoy your nature visit, this is the spot for you.
We took the glass bottom boat tour, of course. Twenty feet down below us, long cigar-shaped garfish floated in the current and bass and trout swam in and out of the waving grasses. One small vent we passed over throws up so many small shells and pieces of limestone that it looks like a miniature snowstorm underwater.
Near one spring a Native American dugout rests on the bottom and further down the run, a rowboat that the tour guides assures us came with the Spanish explorers rests quietly with only schools of fish for company.
Cormorants nest in the trees and egrets and herons are common sights. As if on cue a big gator pushes off one bank with a splash and surfaces near our boat. We were warned to keep our hands inside and some people could be seen moving away from the open sides of the boat.
The tour ended by saving the biggest for last, Mammoth Springs. While the captain/guide tosses out facts to float across our minds, he points out the odd statues down in the bottom, the remains of a scene from a James Bond movie filmed here.
Thanks to its broad area and clear water, lots of movies have been at least partially filmed here included a couple with Tarzan, parts of “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “Distant Drums” that was mostly filmed in the Everglades. TV series like Sea Hunt made the bottom of springs as familiar as our own living rooms.
On this quiet weekday there are no movies being made and few people even here to enjoy the manicured grounds and beautiful waters.
Captain Virginia, an African American woman of some years, wears a white shirt with epaulets and she is on the dock to keep people organized while they wait for the next glass bottom boat to pull away on the dreamy cruise down the Silver River to visit several of the crystal clear springs.
“Back in the day,” Virginia says, “we had ten or twelve thousand people coming through here every day.” She looks around at the nearly deserted park and only about 60 people are anywhere in view. “That was before Disney. But now it’s all different.”
In busyness, perhaps but in charm and laid-back loveliness, it’s still the same. That crooked palm tree you can see in 1950s tourist brochures continues to grow, curled up, ready for a photo op with you. Silver Springs is still a little bit of magic in a mundane world. You can rent a kayak or a canoe, take some nice hiking trails or just grab a sandwich or an ice cream cone and sit in the shade and wait for the next glass bottom boat. And don’t forget to go to the nearby Silver River part of the park with it’s great little museum and rustic cabins for rent in the woods. Take a break and come back for an old Florida visit. It’s worth it.
© Copyright 2016: text Sue Harrison; photos Sue Harrison for MyOldFlorida.com.