Florida may just have the most geographically inconvenient capital in the country. This week, in Florida Time, we discover how Tallahassee became the state capital.
Nowadays it sure seems Florida has the most geographically inconvenient capital in the country, with the possible exception of Juneau, Alaska, which cannot be reached by road. How did the seat of government end up there?
First, you must remember that, before the U.S. took over in 1821, there were two Floridas. East Florida went from the sparsely populated peninsula around the top and west to the Apalachicola River. The territory of West Florida stretched nearly to New Orleans and included what’s now parts of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. The two capitals were in logical centralized locales: St. Augustine and Pensacola.
But in 1824, after Florida had shrunk to its current borders and become an American territory, neither site now made geographical sense. They essentially were bookends, separated by a pre-automobile 400-mile, 20-day round-trip. Leaders needed a new, centralized capital city.
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One legend, almost assuredly fictional, is that riders launched from each of the former capitals and where they converged became the new one.
The more boring story is that leaders eyeballed a map and found a cluster of seven hills almost exactly halfway between the two. Local indigenous people had called it by a Creek word for “abandoned village” or “oil fields.” Tallahassee. It was declared the new capital March 4, 1824.
With almost no one living south of Ocala at the time, the location of “Tally” made sense. And it would for the better part of a century. But then Florida started getting bottom-heavy, population-wise. And then Tallahassee's location didn’t look that good.
Enter Lee Weissenborn.
The old Capitol building had dated back to 1845, the year Florida became a state. With only 58,000 residents in the whole state, and fewer than 2,000 in Tallahassee, state government was then so small it couldn't fill all the offices in the 23-0000 square foot building and rented out space in the basement.
But by the 1970s, Florida had gotten way too big for the tiny edifice. And, some believed, too populous at its south end to have a capital city at the north end.
Weissenborn, a state senator from Miami, argued the capital should be moved to Orlando, a more logical site.
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Tallahassee leaders gasped in horror. State government was a cash cow they did not want to lose. They pressed the state to build the new, 22-story capitol building. It opened March 31, 1978. The old capitol, nestled at the base of the tower, was restored to its 1902 appearance and became a museum.
Next week: Brother vs. brother
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Eliot Kleinberg is a staff writer for the past three decades at The Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, and the author of 10 books about Florida (www.ekfla.com). Florida Time is a product of GateHouse Media and publishes online in their 22 Florida markets. Submit your questions, comments or memories to FloridaTime@Gatehousemedia.com. Include your full name and hometown. Sorry; no personal replies.