Florida’s City on a Hill
One of the most charming small cities in Florida, Chattahoochee is nestled atop the high bluffs that overlook the Apalachicola River. While the modern city was established as Mount Vernon during the 1820s, its colorful history dates back thousands of years. Over the centuries, Chattahoochee has been the location of Indian mound complexes, fortifications, the home port of a Confederate warship, a Reconstruction era prison, and the Florida State Hospital.
The city's location near the confluence of the Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers gives it historical importance out of all proportion to its size. The rivers served as early trade routes by which prehistoric Native Americans moved goods and raw materials from points as far flung as the North Georgia Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico. By the time of the Mississippian era (900 A.D. - 1500 A.D.), the strategic and commercial importance of the high bluffs near the confluence had become obvious. A powerful chiefdom settled on the banks of the Apalachicola at Chattahoochee and built one of the most important ceremonial Indian mound complexes in Florida. The Chattahoochee Landing Mounds were built roughly 1,000 years ago. Parts of three of them can still be seen at Chattahoochee Landing Park today, but archaeologists believe the complex once included at least seven earthen mounds. While archaeological investigations at the site have been limited, the mounds are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. They are associated with Florida's Fort Walton culture and recent study suggests they were aligned to serve as something of a giant astronomical observatory. The mounds were abandoned by the time Spanish explorers arrived in Florida, but soldiers, priests, and Christian Indians often crossed the Apalachicola River at the site during Florida's Spanish Mission era. River Landing Road, which leads down to the river from on top of the bluffs, was part of the original Old Spanish Trail.
In 1799, Chattahoochee became the site of the second known observatory and weather station established in Florida. Andrew Ellicott (pictured left), the U.S. Commissioner of Limits, was working with his Spanish counterpart, Stephen Minor, to mark the border between the United States and Spanish Florida. The observatory was established to determine the latitude and longitude at which the border intersected the river. Ellicott, Minor, and their associates occupied the observatory briefly until disgruntled Creek and Seminole warriors forced them to evacuate it in great haste. The Indians were upset to see white men dividing their lands. A marker commemorating the observatory can be seen at the intersection of Pearl and High Streets today (pictured left).
The strategic importance of the land at the confluence of the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers again became apparent during the War of 1812. British forces landed at Apalachicola Bay in May 1814 and soon established a large fort and supply depot at Prospect Bluff, 30 miles upstream from the mouth of the Apalachicola. To better secure this position, the British in the fall of 1814 built a second fort atop the largest of the prehistoric Indian mounds at Chattahoochee Landing.
Two years later, Creek, African and Seminole warriors hiding in the vicinity ambushed a U.S. Army boat making its way up the Apalachicola River. It was under the command of Lieutenant Richard W. Scott of the 7th U.S. Infantry and carried 40 soldiers, 7 women and 4 children. The Scott Massacre of 1817 was the first U.S. defeat of the four-decade long Seminole Wars. Forty-four people on Scott's boat were killed in a bloody disaster that led President James Monroe to order Andrew Jackson's 1818 invasion of Florida. The battle led to Florida becoming part of the United States.
Early Years of Mt. Vernon Arsenal
By the early 1820s, settlers were living in present-day Chattahoochee and a ferry was established on the Apalachicola River at Chattahoochee Landing. The settlement was first known as Mount Vernon and grew to become a river port for the planters of Gadsden County. Its strategic location at the head of the river led the U.S. Army to select the village to become the site of Florida's only arsenal. Construction on this four-acre complex began in 1834 and was completed in 1839. Surrounded by a strong brick wall and named the Apalachicola Arsenal after the river itself, the fortification stood on the grounds of today's Florida State Hospital. Confusion in the postal system caused by the fact that there were arsenals in towns named Mount Vernon in both Florida and Alabama led to the renaming of the community to Chattahoochee. The interior of the Powder Magazine building (below) of the arsenal as it is seen today.
The U.S. Civil War
The U.S. Arsenal at Chattahoochee was seized by the state militia of Florida on January 6, 1861, and became the first military installation in Florida to fall to what would become the Confederate States of America. The Confederate army used it as a camp of instruction and barracks for the duration of the war. The First Florida Infantry Regiment and the Sixth Florida Infantry Regiment both used this site when they were originally formed before going on to having pivotal roles in large Civil War battles such as Chickamauga, Atlanta, Missionary Ridge, and Shiloh. It was later reoccupied by the U.S. Army after the fall of the Confederacy in 1865.
Regimental Colors of the 6th Florida Infantry during the second half of the Civil War. This flag is still in existence today and is housed at a museum in Tallahassee.
The original colors of the 1st Florida Infantry that was consolidated later in the war due to the large numbers of casualties they and the 3rd Florida Infantry had received. Notice the battle honors that adorn the flag that were added after the unit had been in large engagements such as Shiloh and Chickamauga.
Site of Florida’s First Prison
In 1869 the arsenal was turned over to the state for use as a prison, a function that it served throughout the Reconstruction era. Among those held there were political prisoners who opposed Florida's occupation government after the Civil War.
Site of Florida’s First Psychiatric Hospital
In 1876 the complex was converted for use as a hospital for the mentally ill. The original Officers' Quarters (pictured below), listed on the National Register of Historic Places, now serves as the Administration Building of the Florida State Hospital. The medical facility is Chattahoochee's and Gadsden County’s largest employer.
Chattahoochee's status as a river port was a major part of its history from the 1820s until the 20th century. A tavern was built atop one of the Indian mounds at the landing and paddlewheel steamboats once docked at a wharf there. The CSS Chattahoochee (pictured below) used the landing as its homeport during the Civil War and the ferry continued to operate until the river was bridged during the 20th Century. The John W. Callahan was one of the most prominent steamboats in the area and is featured on the mural in Heritage Park in the downtown area.
Chattahoochee today is a peaceful and charming community that is known for its scenery, nature trails, historic sites, quaint business district, oak-lined streets and beautiful Angus Gholson Nature Park. It is a gateway to both Lake Seminole and the Apalachicola River, a major eco and heritage tourism destination.