by Mike McCann
The origin of the Apalachicola River watershed is a confluence of the Chattahoochee River and Flint River at Chattahoochee, Florida emptying into the Gulf of Mexico at Apalachicola, Florida. The Apalachicola River is just over 100 miles long in the state of Florida. The river’s name comes from the Apalachicola tribe who used to live along the river.
Native Americans lived on the Apalachicola for thousands of years before the arrival of the first Europeans. Civilizations rose and fell here and traces of their presence can still be found in the mound groups that dot the river's banks. One of the most impressive of these is located at Chattahoochee Landing.
The Spanish established missions near the confluence of the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers during the late 1600s and later built a fort near present-day Apalachicola. During the 1700s, the pirate and adventurer William Augustus Bowles operated from a base at Estiffanulga Bluff and used the river to hide his flotilla of pirate ships.
The British envisioned using the river as an avenue for invading the United States during the War of 1812 and established two forts along the Apalachicola. Their massive post at Prospect Bluff was used as a supply and training base.
Left in the hands of their Native American and black allies when the British evacuated the river in 1815, the post became known to U.S. authorities as the “Negro Fort” on the Apalachicola. It was destroyed by the Army and Navy in 1816.
Fighting returned to the Apalachicola River just one year later when it became a focus of action during the First Seminole War of 1817-1818. Battles were fought near present-day Chattahoochee and at Ocheesee Bluff and Blountstown. The war led to an invasion of Spanish Florida by Andrew Jackson in 1818 and the establishment of Fort Gadsden on the old British post site at Prospect Bluff. A base for Jackson's operations in Florida, the fort also played an important role in the story of Milly Francis, the Creek Pocahontas.
After the transfer of Florida from Spain to the United States, the Apalachicola became a major avenue of commerce. Paddlewheel steamboats carried people and products up the river to Columbus and down to the port of Apalachicola. Towns grew and flourished and Apalachicola even witnessed the birth of the world's first machine for making ice.
Fighting was fierce through the valley during the Second Seminole War and Confederate troops built forts and artillery batteries along the Apalachicola during the Civil War.
Significance of the Apalachicola River
The Apalachicola River flows south through the forests of the Florida Panhandle, past Bristol. In northern Gulf County, the river intersects the Chipola River from the west and then flows into Apalachicola Bay, an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico, at Apalachicola. The last 30 miles of the river is surrounded by numerous swamps and wetlands, until the river reaches the Gulf Coast.
The river has significant forests with some of the most diverse biology east of the Mississippi River and rivaling that of the Great Smoky Mountains. Where the river enters the Gulf of Mexico it creates a rich array of wetlands varying in salinity. These include tidal marshes and sea grass meadows. Over 200,000 acres of this diverse delta are included within the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve. There are also dunes with coastal grasslands.
The basin of the Apalachicola River is also noted for its tupelo honey, which is produced wherever the tupelo trees bloom in the southeastern United States.
During Florida's British colonial period, the river formed the boundary between East Florida and West Florida. Geologically the river links the coastal plain and Gulf Coast with the Appalachian Mountains.
Some of the remaining important areas of natural habitat along the river include Apalachicola National Forest, Torreya State Park, The Nature Conservancy Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve, Tates Hell State Forest and Apalachicola River Wildlife and Environmental Area, as well as the Apalachicola River Water Management Area.
The watershed has the greatest number of freshwater fish species in Florida, with 86 species identified. It also provides habitat for 315 bird species and 52 mammalian species, many of which are threatened or endangered. For many years, Apalachicola Bay has supported the largest oyster-harvesting industry in Florida, as well as extensive shrimping, crabbing, and commercial fishing.
The Apalachicola River plays an integral role in the ecology of Apalachicola Bay. This estuary serves as the interface between the freshwater uplands and the Gulf of Mexico. The bay is bounded by four barrier islands: St. Vincent Island, St. George Island, Cape St. George Island, and Dog Island.
Apalachicola Bay is an exceptionally important nursery area for fish and shellfish in the Gulf of Mexico and a major foraging area for offshore fish species. It is also a major stopping point and foraging area for migratory birds. For many years, the bay has supported the largest oyster-harvesting industry in Florida, as well as extensive shrimping, crabbing, and commercial fishing.
• In terms of water flow, the 100+-mile-long Apalachicola River is the largest in Florida and 21st in the nation.
• The upper Apalachicola watershed has more endangered plant species than any comparably sized area in Florida and has the highest density of amphibians and reptiles on the continent north of Mexico.
• Apalachicola Bay provides 90 percent of Florida's oysters and 13 percent of total oyster production in the United States (2010).