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Awakening Days at Dead River

by Edward C. Woodward

With his jeans rolled up to his knees, a dog at his side and a flat boat to pole about, Ron Yates had a carefree smile in a September 1960 photograph. A few days earlier, Hurricane Donna had swept through Florida and up the U.S. East Coast, causing $387 million in property damage.

 But for a young boy with a boat, flood waters meant fun. 

Dead River Road in 2010

 The photograph was taken at Dead River, a secluded weekend village northeast of Tampa named for a branch of the Hillsborough River. The community sat at the confluence of the Hillsborough and Dead Rivers. 

Yates, a south Tampa jeweler, recalls that flooding there wasn’t unusual. But after Donna, the water rose so high that Yates and the dog appear to be poling across the Hillsborough River. The caption explains: “Ron Yates is poling from “Pa” Corbetts (sic) back yard to Yates’ back step. This was the height of the flood.” 

 Dead River was populated by more sabal palms than people. About a mile downstream from Hillsborough River State Park, it had fewer than a dozen masonry block and wood frame homes, all two miles from the nearest paved road. They were getaways for a policeman, carpenter, rancher, and jeweler, among others. They sometime-residents came from Tampa, Zephyrhills, and rural Hillsborough County. 

Donna, however, would be a catalyst for closing their private retreat. The hurricane followed heavy spring flooding. For four days in mid-March 1960, 27 inches of rain soaked West Central Florida. “Worst Flood Batters Tampa Area,” proclaimed the front page of the The Tampa Tribune. An accompanying photograph shows a boy standing atop a submerged car in Town ‘N Country. 

Within six years of Hurricane Donna, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, a new state agency, began acquiring property to help prevent the kind of flooding seen in 1960. The part-time residents of Dead River were forced to either sell their homes to the state or lose them through eminent domain. 

By 1981, the 17,000-acre Lower Hillsborough Flood Detention Area would double as a densely wooded recreation site for a booming region. During the same period, the Tampa Bypass Canal was built to divert Hillsborough River floodwaters from the cities of Temple Terrace and Tampa to McKay Bay. 

About 20 years ago, Dead River was improved as a park to be maintained by Hillsborough County. Razed homes and four decades of forest growth have camouflaged clues to its past life. A clearing with an elevated view of the Hillsborough River suggests a gathering spot, but a fish camp that beckoned boaters, swimmers, and fishermen is long gone. 

In roadside woods, an abandoned John Deere tractor that once graded an unpaved road and freed stuck cars is now a makeshift planter: four-leaf ferns and moss sprout from its front wheels. The memories of Dead River’s homeowners and weekenders, however, fill in the gaps. Zephyrhills resident Craig Miller frequented the fish camp as a teenager. There he dove from a giant sweet gum tree into the Hillsborough River, or trapped “big ‘ol stink pot turtles,” in wire-mesh cages. The turtles became water scooters for Miller and his brothers. Shells were handle bars, the animal’s strong legs motors. “They’re just going like mad and you can … turn ‘em up, down, dive with them … use them like a scooter,” Miller recalled. The rides lasted as long as 20 minutes or, Miller confessed, “’till the turtle’d get tired.” 

Betty Yates Garton recalled getting stuck in the mud on her way home from the beauty shop. Garton had to leave her mother and baby son in the car and trudge two miles to Dead River. And it was all the fault of her husband, Arthur. He was supposed to call her if the access road was impassable. “I walked all the way from [Highway] 301 down to the road, across the bridge, and Ronnie [her son Ron] saw me, and he said, ‘Dad, you won’t believe. Mom’s coming across the bridge and she is mad as hell. And guess what, she just got a new perm and … she’s got all little ringlets all over it.” 

Since the early 1980s, two resident rangers have revived family life at Dead River. Lester Truman, who manages Lithia Springs Park, had a veritable zoo, where he cared for and rehabilitated animals, often showing them at schools. “You name it I pretty much had it out there,” Truman said. Most – except the snakes and bobcats – roamed free. “They stayed close to the house. They knew where the food was.” 

When Jack Coleman succeeded Truman at Dead River, he recalled someone doubting his ability to cope with the isolation. But a secluded park is Coleman’s briar patch – he grew up in a Massachusetts state park on the outskirts of Boston. “Someone said I wouldn’t last two weeks, and I’ve been here 20 years.” 

During the unprecedented 2004 hurricane season, Coleman and his family split their time between Dead River, where they preferred to stay, and their church’s annex when county officials asked them to evacuate. Coleman had his green sconce hurricane candle holder, the same one he used during Hurricane Donna when it hit his Massachusetts home post-Florida more than 45 years ago. Little did he know that Donna would indirectly sustain his livelihood in the woods by helping turn a private enclave into a public park. “I think this [Dead River] has been a great extension,” he said. “Now I’m actually living here longer than the park I was born and raised in.” 

Edward is co-founder and editor of paddleandpath.com

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