Coming for a paddle, a ride or a nice long hike? Take a moment to plan your visit, bring supplies for a picnic and make a day of it. Mornings are a good time to see white tailed deer, the afternoon sun tempts out the gopher tortoise which are often seen eating grass on the road shoulder. If you go out on the river, the water is often clear enough to see schools of mullet and other salt water...
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The Little Manatee River has shaped the history of the park and the surrounding communities. Southern Hillsborough County has been home to an interesting array of people, from the earliest native Americans to the cowboys, pioneers, entrepreneurs and dreamers who have settled here over the years.
The Uzita were the first native people to settle on the mouth of the Little Manatee River at Cockroach Bay, over 10,000 years ago. The Uzita fished in the river, went clamming and fishing in the Gulf and used shell deposits to build burial mounds. A Spanish expedition into Cockroach Bay yielded some of the first written accounts of the Uzita people.
Peninsular Florida remained sparsely settled and wilderness prevailed in southern Hillsborough County through the 1800s. A few Florida crackers would pass through the landscape, following their cattle as they roamed across the vast free range of palmetto and pine flatwoods. Temporary logging camps popped up overnight along the River and bays; loggers would harvest the bald cypress and longleaf pines, then dismantle camp and move to the next harvest location. The occassional "fly up the creek" would homestead areas where they could subsist off the land. The earliest settlers along the Little Manatee River sought the wilderness and solitude. Some were looking to escape; some perhaps deserters from the army or the Second Seminole War, some perhaps outcasts or outlaws, or others simply hoping to escape the city and the inevitable growth ahead.
The Little Manatee River still follows the same winding, sinewy course it has for centuries. It is one of the few rivers in Florida that was never significantly dredged or altered by canals or mining operations. At the turn of the 20th Century, some local communities, including the socialist colony of Ruskin, hoped to create a more commercially viable port and trade channel, but the funding was never available and the timing never quite right for those requests to be realized. The river remains one of the most pristine blackwater rivers in southwest Florida.
With the arrival of the South Florida railroad in 1884, the population multiplied around it. Small towns like Palmetto, Wimauma, and Willow popped up along the railroad line almost overnight. Willow, a small lumbermill town, sprung up on the south bank of the Little Manatee River where the Seaboard Air Line railroad crossed the river. Willow is now a ghost town that has returned to scrub. The historic railroad bridge still stands over the river, approximately three miles upstream from the park.
As the railroad made south Florida more accesssible, new industries moved into this area. Northerners were marketed the healthful benefits of the warm sunny climate and tourism became a viable industry. The turn of the century saw "citrus fever" hit the nation and truck farming emerged in Ruskin and other towns in this area. Evidence of two old homesteads and remnants of tomato fields and light cattle ranching can still be seen on the park property.
Evidence of other historical uses of the land within the park have vanished from the landscape. Historic sites have returned to scrubby flatwoods, evidence of the old fish camp from the early 1900s, and the riverside bar from the 1950s, have all but disappeared. Only oral tradition passed down from local residents and park staff keeps the park history alive.