The Washington County Volcano - Florida - The Washington County Volcano, Florida - The Washington County Volcano, Florida
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One of the most bizarre legends ever to surface in Northwest Florida has to do with claims that
a volcano once roared to life in Washington County.

The story is very old, having first appeared in the accounts of early explorers and travelers who
noticed unusual rocks on the hills just southeast of the present location of the city of Chipley.
Among the early explorers to express a belief that an inactive volcano lay hidden somewhere in
the region was Rt. Rev. Michael Portier, a French born Catholic leader who stopped briefly at
Orange (Hickory) Hill in 1827 while traveling from Pensacola to St. Augustine.

Writing in French in his journal, Rt. Rev. Portier penned the following commentary:

...I am inclined to believe that Florida was at some period convulsed by powerful earthquakes
and a universal upheaval. Even to judge from the presence of volcanic stones, many of which
are to be found - some of them still covered with lava - a fearful volcano must have ruined the

Portier was not the only writer to include such references in early accounts of the area around
Orange, Falling Waters and Rock Hills, but the story did not generate much excitement until a
bizarre document surfaced during the early 1900s. Purportedly written by a Spanish explorer
named Jose Matanzas who was captured by Native Americans while exploring the upper
Apalachicola River shortly after the founding of St. Augustine in 1565, the account told of a
strange fiery hill somewhere to the west of the river.

According to the narrative, Matanzas was with his captors at a high bluff on the east side of the
Apalachicola River when Indians came in from the west with stories of a place where the
ground was on fire. The alleged explorer tried to explain volcanoes to them and they insisted
that he come with them to see the place for himself. The set out and traveled west for two days.
On the second night, they saw a sudden "great flash that seemed to be to be the lightning from
a cloud." Not long after the party felt the ground tremble.

At 11 o'clock the next morning, Matanzas and his guides found themselves surrounded by a
"great fog of smoke" that smelled like burning leather:

...Soon we got to the fire, and it was a liquid running down a hollow slough on fire. The red liquid
was oozing out of a hill top of rocks in several places, and there seemed to be a deadly gas in
the air. We could not go on top of the hill. This gas made us faintly. So we camped a mile north
that night, and some time near the middle of the night a great explosion occurred on this hill. For
more than an hour it seemed that the whole elements were on fire, and a great hissing sound on
the hill. Soon everything hushed and all was quiet and light of the fire died down.

The next morning the party went back up the hill and found the red liquid still running down its
east and west sides. Another explosion soon took place and a flash of deadly gas "rolled up to
the Heavens for a short while and then all got quiet." Matanzas claimed he saw large pieces of
rock flying up out of the hill with each explosion.

It is a fascinating story and almost certainly not true. The area of Florida in question is of karst
topography and is underlain by limestone and riddled with caves and sinks but, according to
geologists, no volcanoes. In addition, the Matanzas document gives distances in miles instead
of Spanish leagues as do all authentic accounts of the time. There are numerous other
references in the document that clearly indicate it was written long after the 16th century.

But if the story is not true, what was the purpose in creating it? The answer may rest in rumors
that the area is rich in oil. In 1919 a wildcat operation drilled one of the first oil wells in Florida
on Falling Waters Hill. There was speculation by promoters of the well that some of the rocks
found there had been formed from oil-bearing material. It is highly suspicious that the purported
Matanzas account first appeared at about this same time. Could it have been propaganda to
help encourage investment in the drilling effort? Stranger things have happened.

The oil well did not produce a gusher, but it was one of the most significant wells drilled in
Florida prior to 1954. The drillers went past 3,900 feet and did succeed in striking a gas pocket,
but they never hit oil in commercial quantities. The project was abandoned and all that remains
today is a capped metal pipe and slight indentation in the earth.

Ironically, it was this abandoned well that helped open the door for the creation of Falling
Waters State Park. The Chipley Kiwanis Club had been working for several years to create a
park around the waterfall, but the state was not inclined to buy the land and the owner,
International Paper Company, had no desire to sell. Unexpectedly, though, a cow fell into a
sludge pit left over from the drilling operation. She animal was rescued, but newspaper
coverage of the event focused on the open pits, deep sinks and dangerous caves in the area.
Managers for the paper company immediately recognized they could face serious liability of
anyone was hurt on the property, so they donated 7.8 acres atop Falling Waters Hill to
Washington County.

The donation was followed by other property exchanges and in 1961 the Florida State
Legislature appropriated funding to begin construction of Falling Waters State Park. The park
today is a true jewel. Located atop the picturesque hill, it offers walking trails and boardwalks,
one of which leads down into the primary sink to provide visitors with a spectacular view of the
73-foot waterfall. There are also picnic areas, a swimming lake and campgrounds as well as
other facilities.
by Dale Cox
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Copyright 2011 by Dale Cox
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