One day, nearly 14,000 years ago, a nomadic Paleo-Indian—perhaps a hunter or a hunter’s wife or maybe a child playing in a field near camp—discovered the freshwater pool we now call Ichetucknee. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. From that day forward, the waters of Ichetucknee and Florida’s other springs have played an important role in the lives of every person who lived here. They have quenched the thirst of an amazing cast of characters.
When those first Paleo-Indians arrived on the heels of the great Ice Age herds, Florida’s climate was much cooler and drier than now. Water sources were far less common. The limestone basins that are now the “head-springs” of flowing spring runs, were originally non-flowing pools. Thirsty animals came to them to drink their sweet water and humans came to hunt thirsty animals…and to drink the sweet water.
As the climate warmed and conditions got wetter, the water table rose. Eventually, the spring pools overflowed their banks and began to flow overland. Spring runs and rivers were born.
For the natives, these new water routes opened new and improved means of transporting themselves and their goods. At one site along the upper Ichetucknee, archaeologists have found a veritable trove of artifacts and debris on the riverbank, leading them to believe it was an important canoe “port.” Another important landing has been identified on Santa Fe River, about 20 miles upstream from its confluence with Ichetucknee.
Life for early Floridians centered on the springs and spring-fed rivers. We’ve lost the stories of those countless people who lived along Ichetucknee Springs for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. In the 500 years since de Leon, Ichetucknee has quenched the thirst of an amazing cast of characters. Timucua Indians from the village of Aquacaleyquen drank this water after every hard day’s work, as did Hernando De Soto after storming that village and kidnapping the chief and his daughter in 1539.
In the 1600’s, Franciscan missionaries established mission San Martin near Mission Springs. This last until the 1650’s when the Timucuan Rebellion—instigated by Chief Lucas Menedez of San Martin—resulted in the mission’s destruction. While San Martin was gone, other missions remained in the area and throughout north Florida until the beginning of the 18th century.
In 1704, Georgian soldiers destroyed all the missions of the North Florida interior. The remnant population of Florida’s once-mighty Timucuan tribe was reduced to a cluster of villages scattered around the countryside near St. Augustine. Seventy years later, with the overgrown ruins of San Martin in the last stages of decay, Davey Crockett passed near this area on his search for land to homestead in Florida.
In the mid 1700’s, Creek Indians from Northern Georgia and Alabama moved into Florida, beginning a wave of immigrants from various tribes that continued into the 19th century. Soon after the first ones clans arrived in the 1750’s and ‘60’s, they were being called Seminoles. One village was established near the mouth of Ichetucknee. It was they who named the river Ichetucknee, which meant “place of the beavers.”
After the Civil War, a thousand-acre plantation was established along the river. The first large-scale assault on the pristine Ichetucknee forests was now under way. From the head springs all the way to the Santa Fe River, large stands of long-leaf pine were cut to make way for cotton, corn, sugar cane, vegetables and orange groves. A stand of red cedar near Cedar Head Spring was also cut. Some stumps were still visible in 1970 when the park service took control of the land. (A moonshine still was also found nearby)
A saw mill built near Mill Pond Spring became the hub of activity on the plantation. Workers built homes nearby and, in 1878, the community of “Ichatucknee” was assigned a post office. By the early 1900, the community had grown to include a general store, blacksmith and grist mill.
Further impacts on the Ichetucknee landscape came as a result of Florida’s Phosphate boom. Around 1890, Dutton Phosphate Company began mining a large tract north of the Ichetucknee head spring. In 1920, Loncala Phosphate took over the operation and continued digging phosphate for the next half century. To this day, a few remnant pieces of mining equipment and scattered pits remain as testament to this significant part of the Ichetucknee story.
The 1960’s were a time of big changes in the Ichetucknee realm. With better highways and more dependable cars, the thirty mile drive from Gainesville became an easy proposition. Students from the University of Florida came in ever-increasing numbers to party and drink on the river. Nudity was common. When Governor Claude Kirk came into office in 1968, he is reported to have told State troopers to “clean up that den of iniquity.” From his stake-out location by the Hwy 27 Bridge, one officer named Robinson racked up an impressive tally of 30 arrests for drunkenness and nudity. Many older locals who enjoy a serene paddle on today’s protected river recall far different days on the Ichetucknee of their youth.
The 1960’s were also a time of growing environmental awareness. Local environmentalists began to voice concern for the Ichetucknee and the damage being done by mining. An advocacy group called, Save Ichetucknee Springs was organized in 1958. Some people, including train engineer D.K. Black and his son A. J. Black, a judge in Lake City, promoted the idea of having the State buy the land to safeguard it from future abuse and development.
In 1970, Loncala sold the land to the State. This would soon become Ichetucknee Springs State Park.
The popularity of tubing continued to grow after the park was established, although the days of floating beer-fest was over. Volunteers and park staff spent long days cleaning up years of party debris. Still, the damage from even this “passive” use was becoming intolerable. The damage now was from feet dragging through the vegetation and from people wading in shallow areas. To address this damage to the plants, the park set a limit to tubers at 3000 people per day for the entire river. This was done in 1978 and was based on a study by a UF grad student named Charles Du Toit. But these measures weren’t enough to stop the damage, compelling the park service to close two entrance points along the upper river.
In 1982, new facilities were built on the south end for the park and two new launches were established at Midpoint and Dampier’s Landing. The carrying capacity was split in half, with 1500 people being allowed to begin tubing from the upper launch and an additional 1500 could launch from Midpoint (giving a max of 3000 on the lower river).
In 1983, limits were lifted from the bottom stretch of the river, below Dampier’s Landing. Today, after years of fine-tuning, the park has established limits that appear to be a good, sustainable level. The river above Midpoint is closed in winter months and open from Midpoint on down. During “the season, “which goes from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend, 750 people per day are permitted to launch from the upper landing. Another 2500 per day can begin from Midpoint. It is unlimited in the lowest section below Dampier’s Landing.
Every year, park biologists do extensive surveys of the aquatic plants, before and after the season. These studies indicate that these current tuber limits are at a good, sustainable level. The vegetation rebounds nicely between each season.
You can click here to see an Historical Timeline for the Ichetucknee assembled by the Ichetucknee Alliance.