by RAY CARSON
HIGH SPRINGS – Six miles north of High Springs on U.S. Highway 441 is a unique state park called O’Leno. The park was one of Florida’s first state parks, originally opened in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps who built log cabins and a suspension bridge that crosses the river.
Located along the banks of the Santa Fe River, which is a tributary of the Suwannee River, the park covers over 6,000 acres and features sinkholes, hardwood hammocks, river swamps and sand hills. It features hiking and biking trails, canoeing, fishing, picnic facilities and camping. Overnight visitors can stay at 61 RV sites, primitive tent camping or, if booked far enough in advance, one of the 17 log cabins near the river.
Santa Fe River Flows Underground
What makes the park unique is that the Santa Fe River suddenly disappears, traveling three miles underground to resurface at River Rise Park. Visitors can walk a shaded trail along the river bank and then cross over to the other side on the three-mile land bridge. This natural bridge has served as a crossroads between east and west Florida for centuries.
Native American trails converged at this land bridge that provided a dry crossing of the Santa Fe River. When the Spanish occupied Florida in 1513 they built a line of missions between Saint Marks and Saint Augustine and made use of the same native trails, renaming the route “el Camino Real,” the Royal Road.
The road fell into disuse in the late1700s as Spanish influence waned. Between raids from the French and English, Indian raids, and disease, the native population declined and the missions and settlements were abandoned. Florida became a liability for Spain and in 1819 they ceded the territory to the United States. As settlers moved in, the federal government provided money for a road across the upper part of the state and tasked the Army with creating it. John Bellamy, who was a wealthy plantation owner, was contracted to create the eastern part, and Bellamy Road was created.
Keno – The Original O’Leno
It was only fitting that a town would be built along the banks of the nearby river. A pioneer town was started by 1840 by a man named Henry Matier. The town was referred to as Keno, which was a common gambling game at the time. As the town of Keno grew, the main livelihood was the mills, which were powered by the river. Two grist mills, six cotton gins and one cotton seed oil gin with a circular saw mill for lumber were in operation. A dry kiln, the only one of its kind in the area, was also in use.
By the 1870s Keno had a general merchandise store, owned and operated by a well-known proprietor by the name of Colonel George M. Whetson. Some say Whetston called the town Keno because he considered it to be a risky business venture. The town also had a large hotel with a door on all four sides. It also had a restaurant, livery stable, blacksmith, doctor and general store. In 1876, Colonel Whetson applied for a post office for the town of Keno. The postal department denied the request due to the name Keno meaning gambling, so Whetston then changed the name to Leno to justify that it was a decent town. The post office was put upstairs above the general store, along with the telegraph office. In 1890, Colonel Whetston moved the post office to the sister town of Mikesville, three miles away.
Florida Forest Service
In 1894, there was a rumor that a railroad from Alligator, today’s Lake City, was going to come through the area of Leno. However, the train bypassed the town and went to Fort White instead. This spelled the end for the town and the people of Leno moved on to other communities in the area. The last record of the town of Leno was in 1896. Although the town was no longer inhabited, the area remained a popular place for residents of nearby towns to gather for picnics and swimming. It was often referred to as “Old Leno,” which was eventually shortened to O’Leno, the name still used today.
In 1935, the Florida Forest Service purchased the property where the town had been located. During the Great Depression, workers under the federal Work Progress Administration (WPA), with help from Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), developed the area for a forest service training camp, building roads, cabins, the suspension bridge and other buildings. Camp O’Leno opened in 1938 as a Florida Forest Service training camp. It became a state park in 1940, and was one of the original nine state parks in the Florida Park Service.
Most of the buildings on the site date back to that time period with additional trails and camping sites added later. The true beauty of the park is the diversity of environments and the differences each season brings. The park is open 365 days a year from 8 a.m. until sundown. Entry fee for day visits is $5. For more information or camping reservations call 386-454-1853.
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