In the early 1900s, U.S. Highway 41 ran from Copper Harbor, Michigan to Tampa, Florida. Between 1915 and 1928, only portions of main roads existed between Tampa and Naples. At that time, the “Velvet Highway” connected Tampa with Venice. Further south, prominent businessmen began to push for the continuation of U.S. 41 all the way to Miami, passing through Fort Myers, Naples and the formidable Everglades. They were told it was impossible, so in 1923 an adventurous group set out from Fort Myers in a 7-car caravan to prove it could be done!
“After five days, the party’s food gave out, while it fought off squadrons of mosquitoes, tiptoed past cottonmouths and rattlers, dodged log-like alligators, hacked its way through swamps and underbrush and built log bridges over streams that were not supposed to be there. After the rations ran out, the ‘Trail Blazers,’ as they were being called in the nation’s press as anxiety for their whereabouts grew, lived off the country on a menu which included venison, fish, frogs’ legs, swamp cabbage and palm hearts,” reported The New York Times.
“Three weeks after the party had left the end of a sand track near Everglades, the five Model T’s chugged into Miami. The other cars had bogged down in the swamps. Haggard but triumphant, the Trail Blazers had dramatized the potential feasibility of the road.”
That road trip set in motion the plans for the completion of U.S. 41 to Miami, to be designated the Tamiami Trail from Tampa to Miami. By 1928, the “impossible” road became a reality thanks to the hard work and devotion of many individuals, and the workers were considered “heroes.” The original 283.9-mile Tamiami Trail took approximately 13 years and eight million dollars to bring to fruition.
While the completion of the road was celebrated in Miami, Fort Myers and Tampa in 1928, the Venice area was experiencing an end to the land boom, and many people and businesses moved away. For several years, most people used Tamiami Trail to drive right past Venice onto larger cities.
Slowly, the area began to prosper and attract more residents, leading to a need for road enhancements. Thirty years later, The New York Times surmised, “The Trail has been improved and widened since its first completion. In its future there may be even more ambitious plans.” Were they ever right!
To improve safety and travel efficiency, a number of changes have been made to the original route over the years, including the addition of lighting, medians and sidewalks. Most sections have been rerouted and widened. Today, almost 80 years after the original road completion, the Trail is still being widened to accommodate the ever-increasing population of residents and tourists, in some areas to 10 lanes!
While the Tamiami Trail connects several major cities, it also passes through small historical towns, such as Venice, Laurel, Nokomis and Osprey. Many of these towns still possess quaint buildings and homes, and a quick side trip off the Trail can provide a charming glimpse of how life looked many years ago.
If you travel further south and east on the Trail, you will be surrounded by nature as it traverses the Everglades and Big Cypress National Preserve.
As such, Tamiami Trail has been designated a National Scenic Byway for its unique scenery in this area. You can see alligators, eagles, osprey, deer, herons, egrets, anhinga, and if you are lucky, a rare Florida panther!
The Tamiami Trail has provided convenient access for millions of travelers over the years in south Florida, but it is also a trail lined with history and paved with dedication which begs recognition beside just being a paved roadway from point A to point B. Next time you are traveling the Tamiami Trail, remember the heroes who originally made it possible, and revel at the historical and natural treasures alongside its shoulders.
Historical Photographs Courtesy of Venice Archives Current Photos by Lizette Lenhard
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