Magnolia, Port Leon and Newport
The oldest marked grave in Wakulla County lies buried within a small iron gated cemetery in the ghost town of Magnolia. The three earliest towns of Wakulla County – Magnolia, Port Leon, and Newport - all positioned along various points on the St. Marks River at various times, are linked together in similar quest to dominate the lucrative cotton trade of the early to mid-1800s with the leading shipping port. Prior to the Civil War, approximately 75 percent of revenue of our nation’s treasury was based on cotton. Magnolia, located on the west side of the St. Marks River approximately two miles upstream from the present-day community of Newport is the oldest of the towns. It was founded in 1827 by the four Hamlin brothers who hailed from Augusta, Maine. In the boom years between 1828-1832, Magnolia was a flourishing settlement with close to 300 residents and was reportedly “the second largest town in Middle Florida” attracting wealth and power to the community with mercantile establishments, warehouses, a hotel with stables, two public houses of entertainment, a bank, post office, weekly newspaper, and most importantly, a customs house. In time, for logistical, legal and personal reasons, the Hamlin brothers were forced to abandon their town venture and by 1838 Magnolia had become a ghost town. The only remaining evidence of this once thriving community is the small cemetery where the youngest Hamlin brother is buried.
The site of the Magnolia township is on private property and not publicly accessible. The general area now densely overgrown can be seen by boat travelling the St. Marks River.
Port Leon, the second of the river port towns, was subsequently established in 1838. It also played a significant role in the export of cotton coming from the plantations of the Red Hills Region around Tallahassee and northward from Georgia. The Tallahassee Railroad reached all the way to Port Leon further adding to its success as a dominant port. The lively town grew to several hundred citizens with many businesses, warehouses, wharfs, hotels, taverns, and a town newspaper. When the county of Wakulla was founded on March 11, 1843, Port Leon became the first county seat. Only a few short months later, however, a devastating hurricane and 10 foot storm surge destroyed the town completely. Port Leon was abandoned and many of the residents, along with the county seat, moved back up river to a new town, aptly named Newport.
The rudimentary streets and culverts of Port Leon can still be recognized by determined visitors. The waterfront site of the extinct town can be viewed by boat and the actual site accessed from the Florida Scenic Trail which requires crossing the river by boat in the town of St. Marks. The remains of Port Leon are located within the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge which occasionally conducts tours to the site by tram.
Two miles below the former town of Magnolia on a location with higher ground and beautiful bubbling springs, the town of Newport was established in 1844. The townspeople built a new port with several warehouses, sawmill, foundry, two hotels, stores, turpentine still and many residences. This new port was now in direct competition with the port at St. Marks. A plank road for wagons was constructed as a railroad alternative and contributed to the success of Newport’s mercantile prominence. From its prime location, Newport for a time controlled the area shipping. Eventually the tracks to St. Marks destroyed earlier in the storm of 1843 were rebuilt. Upgrades were made to the Tallahassee Railroad that could now provide better service and faster transport than wagons using the plank road. At its height, Newport had 1500 residents. The beautiful Newport Springs with its supposed healing waters is located slightly north and became a popular tourist destination in the early 20th century. Not much further upstream where the river goes underground is the historic site where Union forces were held at bay by Confederate forces in the 1865 Civil War Battle of Natural Bridge. In the same year, the county seat was moved again leaving Newport behind.
Today only a handful of citizens reside in Newport. The plank road to Newport (now dirt) is still in existence. Visitors to Newport will find a small county park with campground, a boat ramp, and the popular iconic Outzs Too oyster bar and grill.
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- Wakulla, FL