Journey Back to Port Leon

by: Doug Alderson, Outdoor & Nature Expert

View of St. Marks River from Port Leon There is nothing left to see of Port Leon. That's the remarkable thing about this former town of 450 along the lower St. Marks River. You can hike or bike there, heading west about three-and-a-half miles from the St. Marks Refuge Visitor's Center on an unpaved refuge road or the Florida Trail. When you near the St. Marks River, there it is, or was, in a spacious pine and live oak forest-a once bustling port town that was connected to St. Marks and Tallahassee by a mule-drawn railroad. There are a few foundation pilings just off the trail, but those were likely from an early refuge headquarters, not Port Leon. 

From the town site, you can walk on an old tram to the river's edge and enjoy a spacious view of water and marsh, and imagine sailing ships being loaded with cotton from North Florida and South Georgia plantations bound for the United States East Coast. Only a few anglers and paddlers move on the river now, along with manatees, dolphins, and schools of fish.

Established in 1837, the town quickly grew based on a gross inaccuracy. According to a refuge brochure, advertisements stated that Port Leon was "handsomely located on the most elevated site on the bay... beyond the influence of the highest tides."

At its peak, the town boasted a hotel, two taverns, stores, a post office, newspaper, and warehouses, but then a three-month yellow fever epidemic struck, brought by a Key West boat passenger. Residents fled or succumbed to the disease, and the town's population was cut to less than half.

As the town slowly recovered, Port Leon was named the Wakulla County seat when the county was formed in March of 1843. But six months later, disaster struck again in the form of a hurricane. While only one resident died, the ten-foot storm surge devastated the town and severely damaged nearby St. Marks. The townspeople decided to abandon all hope of rebuilding Port Leon and moved five miles upriver near a sulphur spring. This is how the town of Newport came into being, a town that still stands, albeit a shadow of its former self.

Port Leon now belongs to the alligators, deer and other critters; not a soul lives there. So, take a walk or bike ride into some of our coastal history, and ponder the fate of one of our earliest ghost towns.

Doug Alderson. Outdoor & Nature Expert from Tallahassee, FL Author:

Doug Alderson

Outdoor & Nature Expert


Doug Alderson is the author of several books, including Waters Less Traveled: Exploring Florida's Big Bend Coast (University Press of Florida 2005), The Vision Keepers: Walking for Native Americans and the Earth (Quest Books 2007), New Dawn for the Kissimmee River: Orlando to Okeechobee by Kayak (University Press of Florida, 2009), Encounters with Florida's Endangered Wildlife (University Press of Florida, 2010), and his newest book, Wild Florida Waters: Exploring the Sunshine State by Kayak and Canoe (Earthways Press, 2011). Additionally, his articles and photographs have been featured in magazines such as Sea Kayaker, Coast and Kayak, Wildlife Conservation, American Forests, Sierra, Mother Earth News and Shaman's Drum. He has won several state and national awards for his books and magazine features. Doug also works as the paddling trails coordinator for the Florida Office of Greenways and Trails.

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