The 1843 Hurricane at Port Leon, Florida
Port Leon was an thriving town when the Hurricane of 1843 roared into the marshes of today’s St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. In less than 12 hours the community was destroyed and even the railroad bridge that connected it to St. Marks and Tallahassee was swept away.
The site is barely distinguishable from the marshes that surround it today. A long trail connects it to the headquarters and visitor center of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. All that remains is the memory of what once stood there.
Port Leon was founded in 1837 by businessmen from Magnolia, a community up the St. Marks River, that was generally not accessible to the ocean-going sloops, schooners and steamers that came and went from St. Marks. They picked a site three miles downstream from the ruins of San Marcos de Apalache (Fort St. Marks) where the river was wide and deep enough for ships load or unload and then turn back downstream to resume their journeys.
The Tallahassee – St. Marks Railroad was completed to St. Marks in 1837 and extended to Port Leon two years later. A strong wooden bridge was built across the St. Marks River to carry the trains over so they could reach the new terminal at the Port Leon docks. The railroad brought commerce to the community and shipments of 30,000 to 40,000 bales of cotton per year left the St. Marks River.
Prosperity at Port Leon meant warehouses, stores, a newspaper, post office, two taverns and a hotel. New citizens arrived to build substantial homes on the grid of streets that was surveyed at the site. The town’s days, however, were numbered.
The story was told by its newspaper, the Commercial Gazette, in a special edition on September 15, 1843:
Our city is in Ruins! We have been visited by one of the most horrible storms that it ever before devolved upon us to chronicle. On Wednesday about 11 o’clock A.M. the wind commenced blowing fresh from the South East, bringing up a high tide, but nothing alarming, 5 P.M. the wind lulled and tide fell, the weather still continuing lowery. At 11 at night, the wind freshened, and tide commenced flowing, and by 12 o’clock it blew a perfect hurricane, and the whole town inundated. – The gale continued with unabated violence until 2 o’clock, the water making a perfect breach ten feet deep over our town. The wind suddenly lulled for a few minutes, and then came from South West, with redoubled violence and blew till day-light. Every ware-house in the town was laid flat with the ground, except one, Messrs. Hamlin & Snell’s, and a part of that also fell. Nearly every dwelling was thrown from its foundation, and many of them crushed to atoms. The loss of property is immense. Every inhabitant participating in the loss more or less. None have escaped – many with only the clothes they stand in. St. Marks suffered in the like proportion with ourselves. But, our losses are nothing in comparison with hat at the Light House. Every building but the Light House gone. And dreadful to relate, FOURTEEN LIVES LOST, and among them some of our most valued citizens. [I]
The list of the dead included a number of people who took refuge at the St. Marks Lighthouse. In addition to the 14 lives lost reported by the newspaper, at least ten more people died at nearby Shell Point when the storm surge swept over the peninsula. One man, Mr. Edward Walker, survived by “clinging to the branches of a tree, till the waters subsided.” [II]
Subsequent reports verified the total destruction of Port Leon and noted the unwillingness of the town’s residents to rebuild. Many soon settled in the new upriver town of Newport and Port Leon faded away into the wetlands on which it had stood.
The site of Port Leon is in the Plum Orchard area of St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. An informational kiosk at the honor pay station near the Visitor Center offers history of the town. The site is open to the public but requires a 3.5 miles walk (one way!) from the kiosk.
[I] Port Leon Commercial Gazette, September 15, 1843.