Ellaville/Hillman Bridge | Madison County Florida | c. late 1800's-early 1900's
On the Western banks of the Suwannee River stands the collapsing skeleton of a community that used to be. The town records date to just before the Civil War period, with a Confederate Fort that once stood nearby to protect the railroad bridge. By the 1870’s, this emerging dot on Florida’s map was thriving with nearly 1,000 citizens. One of the most important being George Drew, who would become the first Governor of Florida (1877-1881) after Reconstruction. Drew built a mansion in the area in the 1860’s (see below) and named the town after his long-time African American servant, Ella.
Drew opened a steam-operated sawmill with Louis Bucki of New York in 1865, which at one point was the largest of its kind in Florida, employing 500 people. The towns advantageous location at the mergence of the Suwannee and Withlacoochee Rivers provided an easy way to transport logs down the river early on, until the Florida Railway was constructed through town and opened special service to the mill. The town had a train station, steamboat dock, masonic lodge, two churches, two schools and a commissary. After his term as Governor was completed, Drew sold his shares in the mill to Bucki and pursued other lumber ventures near Jacksonville Florida.
Like the fate of most agricultural economies, the successes and defeats of next hundred years would depend heavily on environmental and economic factors. In 1898, the original mill burned and although it was rebuilt, the industry would quickly exhaust the yellow pine it harvested and would close for good. The early 1900’s brought flooding and of course Wars and a depression.
Throughout these incredibly trying times, I suppose Ellaville held on to it’s relevance because of its location on the Florida Railway Mainline between Jacksonville and Tallahassee. And in present day, the bridges into Ellaville are the only epitaphs of what once was. They hold faithfully to the past even though the rest of the town has burned or crumbled to the ground. The railroad bridge has seen many reincarnations and was once reportedly deconstructed during Governor Drew’s election as carpetbaggers approached by train trying to derail his gubernatorial bid. The main traffic bridge in to town is known as the Hillman Bridge has known many forms as well.
The Hillman bridge which we can still see today is a through truss bridge and was built from a Federal Aid Project from 1925-26 and designed by RHH Blackwell Company of East Aurora, New York.
The trying period of the early 1900’s dealt a big blow to the economy of Ellaville. By 1942, the Post Office would be closed. In 1970, the remaining owner of the abandoned Drew Mansion burned it to the ground after years of vandalism and scrapping had taken their toll. In 1986, the Hillman Bridge was bypassed by a new highway and is no longer in use.
Thanks to the State Archive of Florida for the generous use of all original photos seen in this post.