History of Highlands Hammock

Historic masonry constructed by the CCC in the 1930s.

Highlands Hammock is one of the finest examples of early grass-roots public support for environmental preservation. The concept of the park was inspired by a March 1928 letter published in the Sebring American by Dr. F.H. Newell of the U.S. Department of the Interior. "It is my belief that you should make special efforts to see to it that this beauty spot is preserved and made known to your winter visitors as well as the citizens of your state." 

Carol Beck interpreting at Highlands Hammock State Park
Carol Beck, the Florida Park Service's first chief naturalist, interprets 'tree surgery' of the 'Big Oak' at Richard Lieber Memorial Trail in Highlands Hammock State Park.

During the latter part of 1929, a movement was initiated to have the Hammock designated as a national park. The acreage was inspected by federal officials in February 1930 and deemed too small.

The efforts that followed to establish the land as a local park caught the attention of Margaret Shippen Roebling, who donated $25,000 to purchase the land and later contributed another $25,000, with the condition that the community raise $5,000 to show its commitment. Area residents rose to the occasion, and contributions ranged from one dollar to $1,000, a sacrifice in the hard times of the Depression. 

The property, which consisted of 550 acres of the Hammock proper and an additional 1,500 acres, was acquired in 1930. After Mrs. Roebling’s untimely death in October 1930, her husband, John A. Roebling II, scion of the builder of the Brooklyn Bridge, made the commitment to complete the park as a memorial to his late wife. Some of the original trails and facilities were constructed in 1931.

An official dedication of Highlands Hammock was held in March 1931, and the park was opened to the public.  

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was one of President Franklin Roosevelt's most successful New Deal era programs. Two CCC companies, one established in 1934 and the other in 1936, continued Roebling’s efforts to finish the park’s trails, pavilions and infrastructure and to create the Florida Botanical Gardens and Arboretum.

Highlands Hammock State Park was officially opened as Florida’s first state park in August 1935. It is one of eight original CCC parks in Florida. In November 1941, as World War II loomed on the horizon, CCC operations ceased and the camp closed at the end of the month.

Car by the entrance to Highlands Hammock State Park, circa 1947
Entrance to Highlands Hammock State Park, circa 1947

From 1934-1941, the men of the CCC planted thousands of plants and constructed roadways, dams, bridges and buildings. Although the tropical gardens never became a reality, the park’s natural beauty endures today. 

Highlands Hammock State Park was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on Oct. 16, 2018.

There have been many key figures in the creation and preservation of the park, and one notable person was Carol Beck, a botanist who worked in the park from 1949 until 1965. Beck was a woman of “firsts.” She was the first Florida Park Service naturalist, the first female field employee and one of the first involved with interpretation. 

When she hitched up an old wagon to a four-wheel drive vehicle in the 1950s and took people on guided tours in restricted areas, she launched the park’s first tram tours.

The tours have continued and are one of the park’s most popular activities. The tram passes slowly through four major ecosystems: hydric hammock, cypress swamp, pine flatwoods and baygall. Passengers may observe alligators, water birds, deer and other wildlife up close. The tram is fully accessible and allows those who cannot or choose not to walk to see the park and observe wildlife.