Apalachicola on the River: Florida History and Small-Town Appeal
With a population under 3,000, Apalachicola has preserved its history and small-town appeal. Come here for seafood, charming inns and a growing arts scene.
By Terry Tomalin
“Apalachicola” is a native word for “people on the other side.” Locals, however, say that Apalachicola really means “land of the friendly people.”
Most folks approach this tiny seaside town from the east or west, along Route 98, the country highway that links Florida’s seafood capital with Tallahassee and Pensacola. But to fully appreciate the beauty and culture of Apalachicola, I paddled in from the north, down the river that gives the rural town its name.
The Apalachicola River, Florida’s largest in terms of water volume, flows south 106 miles from the Georgia border through some of the wildest country the state has to offer before emptying into Apalachicola Bay at Apalachicola.
Apalachicola was the third-largest port on the gulf in the mid-1800s, shipping cotton and other goods directly to England and the northeast. Today, arriving in Apalachicola, the river is quiet, except for the occasional fishing boat.
Like the river, the live-oak-laced incorporated city is a time-piece. Well-preserved but not too precious, it boasts both an art scene with a number of galleries and a flourishing culinary scene that is drawing the attention of travel writers from just about every major newspaper in the country.
The city of Apalachicola, population 2,340, is the perfect departure point to discover Florida’s Forgotten Coast and other destinations in Franklin and Gulf Counties. Start your visit at the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce on (of course) Commerce Street. They provide a map with a 35-point walking tour of the city. (It’s easy — most of the streets are numbered, and the cross streets are letters.)
They will certainly direct you to see the home of Dr. John Gorrie, who built an ice-making machine to help keep his yellow-fever patients cool. While mostly forgotten, Gorrie is considered to be the father of modern air conditioning and malaria control (his statue is in the U.S. Capitol). John Gorrie Museum State Park, at 46 Sixth St., houses a model of his original contraption and has exhibits on local history, including the cotton warehouses that once lined the banks of the river. He is buried in the town’s Gorrie Square.
At the time of Gorrie’s arrival in 1833, the town was booming, crowded with steamboats that carried cotton from the interior to be sent abroad. During the Civil War, Union troops blocked the port and put an end to the cotton trade. After the war, timber became the river’s top commodity. Through it all, and until recently, the town had oysters. Even today, the FM radio station in Apalachicola is WOYS, 100.5 FM, Oyster Radio.
Apalachicola Bay once produced 90 percent of the state’s oysters, and the state of Florida has made the restoration of the oyster beds, depleted due to an imbalance of water salinity, a priority. Floridians love the tasty little mollusks, fried, baked, broiled, steamed or raw, even though most of the mollusks these days are now imported from other states.
This town is like a chilled oyster with cocktail sauce and pinch of horseradish. You have to try it at least once.
Where to Eat
Try Tamara’s Café at 71 Market Street. Located in the middle of the historic district, this little restaurant is popular with visitors and locals alike. It’s all about crab cakes, oyster stew and seafood bisque with a Venezuelan spin.
The Hole in the Wall Oyster Bar, at 23 Avenue D, offers casual dinning in a charming historic atmosphere. Here, you can dine on fresh, local seafood, shrimp, homemade soups, casseroles and daily specials.
The Franklin at the Gibson, 51 Avenue C, spotlights local seafood and farmers, reimagining familiar favorites by fusing Japanese, French and Southern cuisines. The menu changes with the seasons, offering unexpected but incredibly pleasing flavor combinations.
Make it a Night - Stay Over in Apalachicola
Don’t miss the Raney House, the stately antebellum residence of Apalachicola’s two-time former mayor, David Raney. It is now a house museum, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1838, this Greek Revival house at 128 Market Street is one of the two oldest structures in the city. The adjacent guest cottage is available for overnight stays.
One of the best-known landmarks of the town is also a hotel. Built in 1907, The Gibson Inn (at 51 Avenue C) is an impressive wooden structure and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Inside are historical charts on the region. Friday night happy hours are very popular here, especially with the locals.
Another option is the Coombs Inn & Suites, 80 Sixth St., which was built in 1905 out of exotic lumber that owner James N. Coombs had gathered from around the world. Coombs, a timber tycoon, was a close friend of Teddy Roosevelt and is said to have turned down both the vice presidency and the governorship of Florida.