By Charles Nelson
Every day, tens of thousands of residents cross over the Alafia River or one of its tributaries without giving a single thought to the role it has played in our history. Arguably, the Alafia River is our single most dominant geographic feature, and it has produced a treasure trove of historical facts and fiction.
Humans first settled along the Alafia River thousands of years ago. Remains of a sizeable native town were found in Gibsonton, possibly belonging to the Mocoso tribe that lived at the site during Hernando de Soto’s arrival in 1539. Further upstream, work and hunting sites dotting the placid river have been found and explored. These smaller sites provided ongoing shelter and sustenance to precontact natives.
The first settlers known to have permanently settled in Eastern Hillsborough County were Benjamin and Sarah Moody. They chose a site (later named Peru) on the south shore of the river near today’s U.S. 301. For Moody and other early settlers, the river provided ample fishing and game. It also served as a highway to Tampa, where these pioneers found markets, supplies and services.
As the river population grew, steamships, like The Ancient City or the stern-wheel steamer The Gopher, operated regular shipping routes from Riverview to Tampa and Sarasota. Steamships carried wood, citrus, phosphate and, occasionally, tourists along the Alafia, helping to grow a thriving county economy.
The discovery of phosphate along the Alafia’s watershed, along with its mines and processing plants, brought both prosperity and grief to the area. The industry provided employment, population growth and wealth. In later years, reclaimed land was donated to create beautiful parks, such as the Alafia River State Park.
The mines also produced misery through numerous spills and discharges that nearly destroyed the river. Severe pollution in the last half of the 20th century led the Florida Department of Health to declare that the Alafia was a dead ‘industrial river’ unfit for any life. Thankfully, due to both citizen and state action, as well as improving company awareness, the river has recovered.
Legends surrounding the Alafia River have added elements of mystery to the story. Even the origins of its name are a bit murky. The river’s first reference on an 1827 map indecisively labeled the steam as either “The Alaffia” or “Manatee River.” Within a decade, the spelling morphed through several variations, including the Haffia, the Haffina, the Allaffiya, before finally settling on Alafia during the Seminole War period of 1835-1842.
The name’s meaning is shrouded in mystery as well. Most storytellers today relate that ‘Alafia’ is a native word meaning ‘river of fire,’ recalling that underwater pebble phosphate, under certain conditions, does create a fiery glow on the river.
What of buried treasure? One legend might encourage you to search for lost bullion on the banks of the Alafia. A Civil War story ‘recalls’ that a Confederate ship loaded with a payroll of gold and silver escaped to the Alafia to avoid Union blockade runners. To save the treasure, the sailors buried the precious metals in the mud. If you’re feeling lucky, nothing has been found…so far.
Perhaps you’d prefer to locate the site of America’s first moon launch. One account suggests that you look not towards Cape Canaveral but to the banks of the Alafia. In 1865, Jules Verne published his science fiction novel From the Earth to the Moon. In it, he describes that first moon shot from the 1,800-foot bluffs overlooking the Alafia River, likely near today’s Bell Shoals Nature Preserve. (By the way, Verne never visited Florida, so he was unaware that Florida’s highest point is Britton Hill, in the Panhandle, at 365 feet.) While searching, you may hear of a large piece of the cannon being discovered there, but, alas, it turned out to be the remains of a grist mill that once stood on the site.
So, the next time you cross either the Alafia or one of its streams, recall that the facts and legends surrounding the river are also a significant part of our history, and there’s more to explore.