A view looking east from the top of Orange Hill near Chipley, Florida.

Orange Hill is neither the highest point in Washington and Jackson Counties nor one of the 10 tallest hills in Florida. To early travelers, though, there was something special about this broad elevation a few miles southeast of present-day Chipley.

Rt. Rev. Michael Portier, who became a Catholic bishop when he was only 22 years old, saw the hill in 1827 and wrote a remarkable description of it in the journal of his long walk across Florida:

…Passing out of the valley and onwards through a bare and broken country, I wended my way along a ridge which brought me to the immense Hickory Hill Mountain.
   Recalling the scenes of desolation through which he has recently passed, the traveler has good reason to be amazed on suddenly beholding, at an extraordinary height, this grand mountain-peak shaded by the finest trees in the world. On either side of the road running up the mountain grew the live oak, the laurel and the magnolia, indicating a soil of inexhaustible richness; and at the top was a delightful dwelling, where I stopped for the night. [I]

“Hikory Hill” (Orange Hill) and “Oakey Hill” are shown here on the 1846 Bruff-McClellan Map of Florida. The road that connects them before leading off to the southwest is the actual Old Spanish Trail. It passed well to the south of today’s US 90 in this part of Florida. Library of Congress.

The “grand mountain peak” seen by Bishop Portier is only around 300 feet tall, but when he saw it as he approached through the lower terrain to the west, he couldn’t help but compare it to the mountains of Europe. It was called “Hickory Hill” then, but is named Orange Hill today. Portier next described the log cabin atop the hill where he spent the night:

My country inn was rectangular in shape and built in the style of certain huts that one sees in the Jardin des Plantes at Paris. Pine logs of uniform size were laid one above the other and strongly bound together; openings for doors and windows were cut in this fence like enclosure, and were closed with a few planks hewn into shape with an axe. Just as I was beginning to recover from the exertions of the day under the influence of the evening breeze, another traveler arrived like myself to solicit a night’s lodging. He was kindly received and assigned to a share of my room. [II]

The Bishop did not identify the owner of the house nor did he record the name of the other traveler that he encountered there. He did, however, describe a conversation that he shared with his roommate for the night:

…We soon engaged in a conversation, for nothing so tends to make a man feel his helplessness and his need of companionship as those lonely journeys through new and unfrequented territory. I was glad to learn that he was bound for St. Augustine and had the courage to make the trip afoot. This intelligence, I confess, made me not a little ashamed as I thought of the lamentations and grumblings wrung from me under the slight trials I had been passing through. The sight of this young man, who for a mere pittance undertook the risk and hardships of so long a journey, revived my spirits. Reflecting on the labor and suffering endured by men for love of wealth, I asked myself what sentiments we should derive from the love of our brethren, the dominion of Jesus Christ. If we really have for the souls committed to our care the Shepherd’s heart, he heart of a bishop, there can be no complaining, no dread, not even human anxiety, when there is hastening to their aid of leading them back to the path of virtue. [III]

Bishop Michael Portier later in life. He visited Orange Hill and Holmes Valley in 1827.

It might seem strange to travelers of today, but it was commonplace in the the early 19th century for numerous strangers to share not only a room but even a bed when traveling. People often paid for floor space or even porch space at inns or “stands” where they could get food and escape the weather for the the night.

Bishop Portier did not realize it, of course, but Orange Hill is not as tall as three adjacent hills. Oak Hill, High Hill and Falling Waters Hill are the 2nd, 3rd and 4th highest hills in Florida, respectively. All three are located along the border dividing Jackson and Washington Counties, as is Orange Hill, the state’s 11th highest elevation.

His account is unique, though, and adds to the mystique of the “Florida mountains.” These hills, by the way, are “outliers.” This means that they are not foothills of the Appalachians or remnants of mountains, but instead formed when surrounding land eroded away over thousands of years. In other words, they did not grow higher over time. Everything else got lower!

To learn more about these special hills, stop by Falling Waters State Park at 1130 State Park Road, Chipley, Florida. You can take in some beautiful scenery and see Florida’s tallest waterfall. The Falling Waters Sinks area is a geological wonder and a great place to learn about Florida’s natural karst topography. The map at the bottom of this page will help you find it. Please click here for more information.

This short video offers a sneak peak of the waterfall at Falling Waters:

[I] Rt. Rev. Michael Portier, “V. Monseigneur Portier’s Account of his trip from Pensacola to St. Augustine,” Letters and Papers from the ANNALES DE LA PROPAGATION DE LA FOI, (No. XIX., Jan. 1830), translated by John E. Clahan, A.M., in Historical Records and Studies, United States Catholic Historical Society, Volume II, 1901.

[II] Ibid.

[III] Ibid.