PANAMA CITY, Fla. (AP) — Bay County Historical Society vice president Bob Hurst unrolled an 8-foot map, a replica of British cartographer Joseph Purcell's drawing of the Old Spanish Trail, the oldest road in Florida.
Slowly, Hurst ran his fingers over the map, recalling the hundreds of miles along the trail he has explored since late winter.
"A lot of times the road will be obliterated," he said in a recent interview. "I'll have to jump from another place that I have plotted, where I think it is, and go there. So, I mean, I bypassed a lot of land. And a lot of the land is private, unfortunately. I wish I could get on some of it and check it out."
In a recently-finished project to definitively map the Old Spanish Trail in Florida, Hurst covered more than half of the 465-mile route from St. Augustine to Pensacola. Along the way, he used aerial photographs, topographical maps, and referenced Purcell's map and other historical documents to plot a more accurate path of the historic trail, which is also known as the El Camino Real and the Spanish Royal Road.
Hurst said Purcell's map has proven to be very accurate over the years, and that his project was based "almost totally" on Purcell's route. But Hurst charted a stretch of the trail between Quincy and Marianna that he believes is older than the route Purcell plotted. It serpentines north of Purcell's path, and Hurst said he found evidence of a Spanish causeway and bridge on that section of the trail.
"A lot of people assume that it's further south than I show on my map," Hurst said.
Despite its historical significance, little effort has been made to maintain the trail, which was first used by the Spanish circa 1565 for purposes of commerce and military defense. It also was heavily used by Spanish missionaries to spread Christianity to Native Americans, according to Hurst. Purcell mapped the trail during the British colonization of America, in which England occupied Florida and killed scores of Spaniards and Native Americans over several decades.
Blackwater River State Forest is the only area of Florida that has worked to preserve the trail. That section is known "The Jackson Trail." Many other sections of the trail, Hurst said, have been lost forever to farming and other kinds of land cultivation.
"It's just been erased in a lot of areas," he said.
Hurst hopes his research will lead to increased preservation efforts on the Old Spanish Trail. He has traveled the famous Oregon Trail, and said its signage, marked points of interest, and the historical context provided to visitors by the National Park Service offer a blueprint that could be used for the Old Spanish Trail.
Hurst also plans to provide his updated map of the Old Spanish Trail to Florida state parks.