In a rush of rain-driven waters, the Suwannee and Withlacoochee Rivers collide at a sharply defined peninsula that is part of Suwannee River State Park, swirling into one as they swiftly slip past the pages of history along the shores of Twin Rivers State Forest in Madison County. For it is here, walking the Florida Trail with its river views, that you find subtle reminders of centuries past.
In the North Ellaville Tract of Twin Rivers State Forest, a walk in the woods wraps you in a soft blanket of green. A dense river bluff forest, characterized by larger live oaks and an understory of saw palmetto, with scattered Southern magnolias and tall sparkleberry – Florida’s tallest member of the blueberry family, with peeling red bark – providing colorful accents. Look carefully, and you may find charred limestone and the fading outlines of foundations, all that remains of the town of Ellaville. The farther you draw away from the river, the habitat transitions to sandhills, with longleaf pines and turkey oaks.
These forests are relatively young. When George Franklin Drew opened his sawmill in Ellaville in 1865, it was the largest in Florida. It’s purpose? To convert the ancient longleaf pines along the rivers into timber, and cash.
Drew became one of Florida’s wealthiest post-Civil War businessmen. His brothers built Drew and his family a grand home in Ellaville. Over time, it came to be known as the Drew Mansion – particularly after Drew was elected as Florida’s Governor in 1876.
Parking at the Suwannee River State Park Annex – off US 90 just west of the Suwannee River – puts you at this intersection of nature and history, the present and the past, in the ghost town of Ellaville. Surviving numerous floods, then the tapping-out of the timber in the 1920s, the town finally evaporated after the post office closed in 1942. Only its ghosts remain.
It’s here that hiking trails meet. One, a portion of the Big Oak Trail, leads across the river on the Old US 90 bridge – a scenic overlook open only to pedestrians and cyclists – to the core of Suwannee River State Park with its campground and cabins.
Blue-blazed to the west, the Big Oak Trail also connects you with the Florida Trail’s north-south route through Twin Rivers State Forest, with a primitive campsite overlooking the Withlacoochee River less than a mile’s walk north.
A worn footpath leads from the parking area through the picnic grounds, which are historic in their own right, to the river’s edge. From the parking area, heading due north on a path that parallels the river, you’ll glimpse what remains of the Drew Mansion.
It’s best seen in winter when the vegetation dies back – near the railroad, which the trail passes beneath. As the Suwannee River becomes visible through the trees along the loop of the Drew Mansion Ruins Trail, look down and you’ll see Suwannacoochee Spring, which provided the town with its source of spring water.