History of the Blackwater Heritage State Trail

Blackwater, pine, turpentine tree

Long leaf pine is known by many names, turpentine pine, southern pine, pitch pine and heart pine but to most lumbermen of Northwest Florida is was simply yellow pine. At one time long leaf, along with other lesser species, covered most of the southern United States so densely that only wire grass grew beneath them. At one hundred plus feet high and hundreds of years old, these towering trees commonly reached diameters of 4 to 6 feet! They were referred to as “virgin timber” meaning they had never been felled by human hands. The lumber from these trees was sought after as a building component in the shipping and construction industries. The abundance of pine and the growing demand created a boom for West Florida and started a new era of rail transportation.

In 1828 Juan de la Rua, a prominent Pensacola businessman, sold 680 acres on Pond Creek to Joseph Forsyth. Forsyth started his venture quarrying iron stone and soon brought on partners, Andrew and Ezekiel Simpson, to help him with his original intention of building a saw mill. His first mill was located 3 miles up Pond Creek and was known as Arcadia. The mill was a success and by 1836 was producing 5000 board feet of lumber per week!  The increased production made the use of winding creeks an inefficient means of transport. The owners consulted with Timothy Twitchell to build a canal but instead chartered The Arcadian Railroad Company. By 1838 this 3.2-mile rudimentary rail-line was completed and in 1840 the Forsyth and Simpson mill was moved to the mouth of Pond Creek at a location he named Bagdad.

The birth of the Blackwater Heritage State Trail truly began here. The mill at Bagdad prospered and the main rail line was built and grew in length as the trees were cut and hauled back to the mill. Camps along the rail grew from mere tents to more sophisticated homes as the workers families joined them in the forest. The town of Munson, and the community of Roeville, were two areas named after camp managers that still go by their names today. The railroad changed hands and names over the years and suffered a serious setback in March of 1862 when retreating Confederate troops systematically burned all 14 mills across the county. After the war the mill was rebuilt and by 1870 the mill was again the leader in lumber production.

The saw mill end of the road was typical of a logging line. The rail line was never placed legally in common service yet, its mixed train passenger service was published in the official guide and became widely known as the Florida and Alabama Railroad. By 1915 passengers could depart Bagdad at 8:30 a.m. for a two-hour trip to Munson with a return trip at 5:30 p.m.

By 1920 the line went all the way to Whitty in Alabama, part of what is now known as the Conecuh national Forest. The rail road prospered until the mill closed in 1939. In 1943 the US Navy reconstructed the southernmost 5 ½ miles and added a 4 mile spur at Roeville. The Navy used the road to build and operate the flight training facilities which became Naval Air Station Whiting Field. The Navy used the line until the mid-1970s where it sat unused and abandoned.

Local efforts began in September 1989 to convert the property to a rails to trails linear park. In February 1990 the largest group of citizens (500) to gather at a public meeting in Santa Rosa County history listened to a presentation at the county auditorium. Efforts toward the conversion of the property into a premier multi-use trail were coordinated through city, county, state and federal agencies.  The Department of The Interior transferred title of the land to the state of Florida on November 4, 1993 and on February 20, 1999 the property was dedicated as the Blackwater Heritage State Trail for the general public’s park and recreational use FOREVER.