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In the Withlacoochee near Istachatta, stories of a bridge

Old bridge piers jutting out from the Withlacoochee River near Istachatta were standing in January 2012, when this photo of kayaker Carole Barice was taken. But some time in the past few weeks, her husband, Charles Lee, noticed that the piers had fallen into the channel.

Photo by Charles Lee

Old bridge piers jutting out from the Withlacoochee River near Istachatta were standing in January 2012, when this photo of kayaker Carole Barice was taken. But some time in the past few weeks, her husband, Charles Lee, noticed that the piers had fallen into the channel.

Sad as it is to see the remains of the old piers — barely jutting above the surface of the slow-flowing Withlacoochee River near Istachatta — they do have the benefit of revealing secrets about old-time bridge construction.

Workers apparently drove steel tubes into the riverbed, along with — right down the middle of these tubes — sturdy, reinforcing timbers. The tubes were then filled with a mixture of concrete and fist-sized rocks, forming pillars about 2 feet in diameter and nearly 20 feet high.

The piers were still standing as recently as three weeks ago, said Charles Lee, Florida Audubon's director of advocacy, who lives near the river.

But when he paddled by them on Jan. 27, he said, they had collapsed into the river.

"A part of history now gone," Lee wrote in an email to me last week.

True enough, though it's probably a little different than the history Lee heard from neighbors and passed on to me in his email and when he met me on the river Saturday — that the bridge was built by slaves during the Civil War, originally for rail, and was later converted for use by cars.

Melba Ward, 66, is an Istachatta resident who grew up in the Peters family, one of the first to settle in the tiny community in the northeast corner of Hernando County. In 2007, she wrote an extensive report about it, Istachatta: History of the First 100 Years, 1850-1950, published by the Hernando Historical Museum Association.

Ward was not able to find a record of when the bridge was completed. She did discover when the County Commission approved a $2,200 contract to build the bridge — in 1908.

She agrees with Lee on another point. It was the only bridge in the area available for car traffic until the steel and concrete bridge for what is now County Road 476 was finished in the early 1940s.

There was no record of a rail bridge before that — only of several ferries, including one that began operating near present-day Nobleton in 1859.

Those ferries were basically small barges with decks attached to ropes strung across the river. Horns made of conch shells were hung at the landings on either side so customers could summon the ferry.

As to another part of Lee's email — "The bridge had an infamous history involving lynchings" — there could definitely be something to that.

In 1926, Brooksville's Southern Argus newspaper reported that a black man named Charles Davis, accused of killing a white Pasco County deputy in eastern Hernando County, had been seized by an armed mob near the river as he was being led back to Brooksville from Ocala.

"I believe Davis was taken and thrown into the Withlacoochee River," Sheriff W.D. Cobb told the paper. "Maybe in a day or two the body will come to the surface."

The apparent lack of concern in Cobb's comment isn't surprising once you know, as some historians believe, that he was complicit in this killing and several other acts of racial violence in the 1920s.

That's not in Ward's book. But here are some things that are.

Istachatta appears on early maps as Magnolia or Magnolia Bluff. The current name didn't show up until 1884, when F.M. Townsend filed a plat map with the county.

Nearby Townsen Lake and Lake Townsen Regional Park were named after him, Ward said, which means both have been misspelled on maps and in county documents for years; she thinks somebody in the county mistakenly dropped the final "d" and the result took on a life of its own.

But even Townsend didn't really found the town, which didn't take its current shape until a developer mapped a grid of streets during the 1920s land boom.

Of course, you don't need to know about this history of the bridge or the town — if, with a population of 116, it can even be called a town.

But maybe hearing about the bridge will encourage you to get in a canoe or kayak and take a trip along the river to see what's left of the piers.

It's a good trip, even when you don't know the history. Just a little more so when you do.

In the Withlacoochee near Istachatta, stories of a bridge 02/05/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 8:13pm]
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