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A Brief History of Perdido Bay by Jim Lane

Perdido Bay apparently got its name because the mouth of the bay was very narrow and made a sudden turn before opening up into the larger bay. This made the bay hard to find by a ship moving along the coast. Rumor has it that pirates of the 17th and 18th centuries buried treasure on the shores of the bay because it was difficult to find, and shoals in the narrow mouth made entering the bay a tricky maneuver. There have been repeated rumors that people have located buried treasure in shallow areas of the bay after a storm washed away sand leaving the treasure uncovered, but the rumors haven't been confirmed. Since the states of Florida and Alabama both regard any treasure found in the water as property of the state, it's very likely that anyone finding treasure in the water would remove it secretly.

The mouth of the bay has shifted positions many times in recorded history. No doubt this occurred after hurricanes passed through the area. A map - the source of which I have forgotten - shows the shifts in the mouth since 1867. Unfortunately the map is very difficult to read, but it appears that at the 1911 mapping, the bay had two mouths.

Gertrude (Mrs. Daniel B.) Smith, a former resident on Perdido Bay (and one of the original members of Friends of Perdido Bay) reports in a history of Millview (1)

that at one time [apparently during the 1800's] the mouth of the bay was closed and the bay was so fresh that it was "covered with lily pads." She continues that "during a siege of malaria, J. C. Heinrichs and five men dug out the mouth of the bay with spades." Her history does not tell how the flow of the Perdido River and other tributaries was getting to the Gulf, but it is possible that it was going through Big Lagoon. Logging was a big industry on the bay for many years, and for part of the time, logs were moved to Pensacola Bay by taking them through a manmade cut dug approximately where the intracoastal waterway now connects Perdido Bay and Big Lagoon.

A reprint of an 1888 article, A Visit to Death Lake, Florida, (apparently from Outing Magazine) in a fairly recent book (2) tells of Army Lieutenant Hamilton's visit to the headwaters of Perdido River. He describes paddling with his guide on the upper part of the river: "either side of stream was bounded by the swamp. Huge cypress trees lifted their weird limbs upward, and long streamers of trailing moss floated from them, and even at times formed a swinging arch across the entire width of the stream." After paddling a "torturous channel" through the swamp, at about noon they reached "Death Lake" a place where there was "no sign of life anywhere...even the water was lifeless...." Hamilton used a weighted line and a "sea trolley" to measure the depth of the lake, but his 250 foot line would not reach the bottom. Despite the lifeless look of the water and the green slime on top, they started fishing, using cane poles and 30-foot lines. In about two hours they caught enough bream to "nearly fill our boat," and left about two o'clock to avoid "those poisonous vapors that killed all animal life." The lieutenant writes that he wanted to visit the lake again until, about two weeks after his visit, he came down with "the terrible 'swamp fever,'" and after a fight for his life, "lost all desire to ever see the horrible place again."

The sawmills at Millview closed down about the turn of the twentieth century, and the shores of the bay remained largely unsettled until the 1940's. There were few houses that fronted the bay. From my recollection, there was an average of about one house per quarter mile along Lillian Highway in Florida. The Innerarity peninsula had some settlement, quite a bit of which was weekend cottages I have been told. I don't know much about the Alabama shore, but from observing the age of houses now there, it appears to have been sparsely inhabited too. There has been a small community at the mouth of Soldiers Creek for some time. It would be interesting to get the history of that community before those who remember it are gone.

The 1940's and the Second World War brought the construction of Bronson Field and Saufley Field, both on the shores of Perdido Bay. Bronson Field was to have been a seaplane training base using the bay for takeoffs and landings - the seaplane ramps are still there, but I don't think that they were ever used for seaplanes. Many of the Navy men rented houses near the bay. Some of them rented houses at "Paradise Beach," a small subdivision just north of the Lillian bridge on the Florida side. Next to the subdivision was the Paradise Beach Hotel, which had been built during WW I and had gained some measure of fame. It was the center of social life for Navy personnel at Bronson Field. The subdivision is still there, and the hotel continued to be used for several years after Bronson was closed in 1946, but without the all the Navy personnel nearby, it eventually was closed.

Life along the bay during the early 40's was relaxed but perhaps not too easy for those who tried to earn a living from the bay. [See the section of the web site for personal recollections.] Although fish were plentiful, commercial fishing was not intensive. At least in the upper part of the bay, which is where I lived, you would see a "mullet boat" every two or three days. These were flat bottomed wooden boats about 14 to 16 feet long, and were "poled" along - moved through the water by the fisherman pushing on the bottom with a wooden pole about 10 feet long. He usually had oars too, but you rarely saw the oars in use. Once in a while you'd see a mullet boat powered by a small inboard engine. On the back four feet of the boat was a platform even with the gunwale. The net was piled in an accordion fold on the platform. When the fisherman spotted fish - usually a school of mullet - he would lay the end of the net on the shore, weighted so it would stay. Then he would pole the boat around the school of fish, letting the net be pulled from the boat as he went, ending up with the boat pulled up on shore about 200 feet from the beginning end of the net. The fisherman invariable made the circle so that when the boat got to shore almost all of the net had been put in the water. Then he would get out of the boat and wade into the circled area, whacking his pole on the surface of the water, scaring the fish into the net. A few mullet would always jump over the net, but more would get caught in it. They used "trammel" nets. The nets had two layers. One layer had a very coarse mesh - the squares were about four or five inches on a side. The other layer was a finer mesh - squares about 3/4 inches on a side. The net was laid so that the fine layer was toward the inside of the circle. When the fish ran into the net they would push the fine mesh through the coarse mesh and would be caught in the bag that was formed. Since the fishermen usually tried to circle mullet, they usually caught mostly mullet, but they would also catch croakers, pinfish, flounder, red fish and an occasional black bass, bream, or catfish. The water in the bay near the mouths of creeks was fresh enough that freshwater fish were in the bay as well as in the creeks.

Despite signs at both ends of the Lillian bridge stating "Fishing Prohibited on Bridge," the bridge was usually lined with fishermen and women on the weekends despite the narrow width of the bridge and the lack of any shoulder or walkway. When a car came by - not too often in those days - all the fishermen would climb up on the 8-inch wide curb. This was a time before everyone had rods and reels. Many fished with hand lines. The catch was usually croakers, red fish, pin fish, catfish, and speckled trout. The speckled trout were usually caught on lures, many of them home made. A "red head" was by far the most popular. The trout would appear in schools, in their feeding frenzy driving the bait fish to the surface. The shout would be heard "Trout!", and those with rods and reels would run to the part of the bridge near the feeding trout and start casting. They usually caught several before the trout stopped feeding.

The 1940's also brought the paper mill in Cantonment. It was started as the Florida Pulp and Paper Company, first producing paper in 1941. The story is that the mill was originally going to be built in Santa Rosa County, but the final choice was Cantonment, so the mill was situated in such a way that it would discharge into Eleven Mile Creek, which flows into Perdido Bay. [A separate section will be added to the web site giving the history of the paper mill.] In 1946 the mill merged with St. Regis Paper Company, which was bought out by Champion International in 1984, which was bought out by International Paper Company in 2000. The effect of the paper mill on Eleven Mile Creek and Perdido Bay became evident as production increased in the 1940's and 50's. The water turned a dark reddish brown, and swimmers in the upper bay would emerge from the water coated with reddish brown fibers. Aquatic vegetation disappeared, and the number of fish and minnows decreased noticeably.

During the 50's and 60's more houses were built along the bay, and several small sewage treatment plants were privately built along Marcus Creek to serve housing subdivisions. The requirements for discharge were lax (this was before the "Clean Water" act), and these treatment plants contributed a small amount of pollutants to the bay - very little in comparison to the paper mill.

As a result of complaints by residents, an evaluation of the quality of the water of Perdido River, Eleven Mile Creek and Perdido Bay was made by the Florida State Board of Health in 1966 and 1967 (3). Curiously, the report made no recommendations, but among the "Conclusions" of the report are:

- "Perdido River is a normal and healthy stream."

- "Eleven Mile Creek is grossly polluted chemically and biologically, by the discharge of waste from the St. Regis Paper Company operation."

- "Discharge of treated domestic waste to Marcus Creek is taxing the assimilation capacity of the stream."

- "During those seasons of the year with high temperature and prevailing southerly wind, the chemical influence of the discharge of Eleven Mile Creek can be noted as far south as Lillian Highway Bridge (Hwy. 98)."

- An evaluation of the chemical and biological parameters of Perdido Bay, South of Highway 98, indicate that the area is free from pollution."

- "All areas of this survey are subjected to acute bacteriological loading during periods of heavy rainfall and land runoff."

Despite the conclusions made in the Florida Board of Health Survey, the bay continued to deteriorate. It seemed that local political powers in Florida were not interested in any action by the state that would require the paper mill or the small treatment plants to improve their operation. The tax dollars from the mill were going into tax coffers on the Florida side, and the economic benefits of the mill were felt by local businesses; however, those on the Alabama side were not enjoying these benefits. On "April 7, 1969, the Southeast Region of the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration received a request for technical assistance from the Director, Technical Staff, Alabama Water Improvement Commission in evaluating water quality conditions and waste sources in Perdido Bay. An investigation of waste sources and a detailed study of the bay and its major tributaries were conducted during the period of September 9-17, 1969." (4)

A very brief summary of the conclusions and recommendations of the report of the investigation is given here. [For more detail see the soon-to-be-added section of the website on the history of the paper mill.] Among the "Conclusions" were:

"The inadequately treated waste effluent from the St. Regis Paper Company at Cantonment, Florida is the major cause of the low dissolved oxygen, unsightly foam, excessive sludge deposits, and increased lignin in Perdido Bay and River, as well as degraded water quality in Eleven Mile Creek." (5)

"The average biochemical oxygen demand content of the wastes discharged from the St. Regis holding ponds is equivalent to a population of 330,000. This compares to a population equivalent of 840 discharged collectively from the six treatment plants on Bayou Marcus, Florida and 6,850 from the Perdido River above the tidal influence. St. Regis discharges 98% of the biochemical oxygen demand from all point sources to Perdido Bay including the Perdido River input." (6)

Among the recommendations of the report are:

"An overall removal efficiency of 90% for carbonaceous waste material from the St. Regis Paper Company....All settleable solids be removed." (7)

"St. Regis Paper Company in cooperation with the Florida Department of Air and Water Pollution Control make a feasibility study of construction of an essentially closed system involving recirculation, treatment and reuse of its process water. This report shall be submitted to the Conferees by January 1, 1971." (8)

Also in the body of the report it is noted:

"In summary, St. Regis contributes 99.7% of the five day BOD, 97.5% of the TOD, 71.9% of the total Kjeldahl nitrogen, 99.1% of the total organic carbon and 45.1% of the total phosphate discharge from all point sources of wasted in the study area exclusive of the input of the Perdido River." (9)

The first bridge over the mouth of Perdido Bay was built in the 1950's. During the 1970's a higher and longer bridge was built and the mouth was dredged by the Army Corps of Engineers in conjunction with the construction of jetties and a special basin to collect sand drifting from east to west to help keep the channel open. Periodically the sand in the basin is dredged over to the west of the western jetty. It had been thought by many people that the deepening and widening of the mouth would increase the flushing in the bay and ease the pollution problems, but things didn't work that way. The increased tidal flow caused a rise in the average salinity of the bay's water, contributing to a change in the overall ecology of the bay and its tributaries. Prior to the dredging most of the tributaries had large areas of lily pads close to the mouth providing habitat for freshwater species. The lily pads are no longer to be found until you go far up the tributaries. Salt water species of fish such as mackerel, lady fish, and even an occasional tarpon have been caught in the upper bay. Some people attribute the ecological changes in the bay to the conversion by the paper mill in the 1980's to 100% bleached paper. Probably both the dredging of the mouth and changes made by the paper mill contributed to changes. So much happens in an estuary that its impossible to scientifically pin point the cause of all changes.

The lack of improvement of water quality in the bay brought public opposition to an application for renewal of Champion's state permit in 1987. A grass-roots organization called the Perdido Bay Environmental Association (PBEA) was formed by long-time mill critic Jo Anne Allen, Jackie Lane and others. Several members of the organization (as well as other citizens) filed for an Administrative Hearing contesting the issuance of the permit which would have allowed the mill to discharge effluent that did not meet state standards for water quality. During preparation for the hearing, PBEA split, with a splinter group forming Friends of Perdido Bay (FOPB). Champion tried to negotiate with both groups, but was only successful with FOPB. Members of that group who had filed for the hearing agreed to withdraw from the administrative hearing in return for funding by Champion of an independent scientific study of the bay. PBEA continued through the administrative hearing which resulted in an order by the hearing officer that the mill be allowed to continue operation but develop and institute changes that would bring it in full compliance with state standards by 1994.

Champion did fund a study of the bay. It was directed by Dr. Robert Livingston, a professor at Florida State University, and reportedly cost $5 million. The study report concluded that the mill was having a large effect on Eleven Mile Creek, but only a minimal effect on Perdido Bay. The report conclusions were strongly contested by many, including members of FOPB who had agreed to the study in return for withdrawing from the hearing. A review of the report by knowledgeable scientists supported the objections to the report's conclusions.

As of 2004 the mill had not come into full compliance with state standards for water quality. After failing at an attempt to obtain a permit in the mid 1990's which would still contain "variances" allowing the mill to discharge effluent not meeting state standards, Champion tried a new tack. In May of 1997 Champion announced that it was initiating a study of a plan to pipe the mill's effluent to Escambia River, which is in the Escambia-Pensacola Bay system. This would effectively remove all the mill's effluent from the Perdido Bay system and put it in the Escambia Pensacola Bay system which was larger and could probably tolerate the paper mill waste better than Perdido Bay. Dr. Robert Livingston, who had directed the Perdido Bay study was hired to do a study of Escambia Bay to determine if the effluent would damage that bay. The announcement brought a fire-storm of opposition from residents on the Escambia-Pensacola Bay system, who considered this a step in the wrong direction because much effort had put into reducing pollution of that system. A lawyer, Mike Papantonio, who had property on Escambia Bay (or River) personally paid about $40,000 for TV ads to fight the plan. Champion announced in February of 1999 that it was "suspending" it's plan to route effluent to the Escambia River. The formal report by Dr. Livingston concluded that he couldn't be sure that the effluent wouldn't cause harm to Escambia Bay.

During the time Champion and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection were negotiating to determine how to give the mill a permit without getting involved in another administrative hearing, residents along the bay decided to try another route to get the mill to stop its pollution of the bay. In 1994 a class action lawsuit was filed against Champion. The suit was spearheaded by Jackie Lane, president of FOPB with the help of Mary Murchison, a local lawyer, who associated a law firm in Birmingham to take the case. (The Murchison family had owned property on the bay near Soldier's Creek for many years.) The suit ended in a settlement in which Champion paid $5 million to the class.

Class representatives, Jackie Lane, Jim Lane (Jackie's husband), and Bob Donnenwirth, with help and advice from Mary Murchison, developed a plan for starting a foundation, asking members of the class to contribute a portion of their settlement money to help protect and improve Perdido Bay. Individual letters were sent to all class members asking for donations. From these donations the Perdido Bay Foundation was formed and is now administered by a board of concerned citizens.

A plan emerged in 1999 to close the Pensacola Main Street sewage treatment plant, divert the sewage to a new ECUA plant near the paper mill, use the treated effluent as "process water" in the paper mill, treat the mill effluent and then discharge it in "wetlands" somewhere near the Perdido River. The plan was attributed to Bobby Cooley, then District Director for Florida DEP. The plan was strongly criticized by Perdido Bay proponents. Actually the plan was little more than an idea, but it got the support of three powerful groups: 1) those who had been advocating the closure of the Main Street Plant for years, 2) those on Pensacola Bay system who advocated stopping discharge by the plant into the bay, and 3) the paper mill.

After some massaging of the plan, it emerged with somewhat different features: the ECUA sewage treatment plant would have a capacity of only 5 million gallons per day (mgd), the mill might use the ECUA effluent as process water, and the pipe - with a capacity of 37.5 mgd - would carry the mill and sewage plant effluent to a discharge area near the mouth of Eleven Mile Creek where it would be impounded by a series of dikes and then discharged through pipes and let run into the bay and creek. The plan was strongly backed by DEP. A formal announcement of the plan was made by David Struhs (Secretary of Florida DEP) at the Navy's Bronson Recreation Area, which fronts on Perdido Bay. The new mill owner, International Paper (IP), seemed to be very interested in the plan, but ECUA did not seem as enthusiastic; however, after some strong, behind-the-scenes pushing by David Struhs, the ECUA board voted to support the plan October 1, 2002.

Within four months of this vote Struhs announced that he was leaving DEP to become Vice President for Environmental Affairs at IP. Many people including some members of the ECUA board expressed their distress at this apparent conflict of interest. [St. Pete Times link] Moreover, just six months before the ECUA vote, Bobby Cooley left DEP to work at CarlanKillam, a local engineering firm. In the early part of 2003, ECUA formed a "Select Committee" to determine the best approach to take with regards to the Main Street plant. CarlanKillam (since acquired by Hatch-Mott-McDonald) was chosen by the Select Committee to do the engineering studies. It didn't surprise many people who were following the process that all three of the alternatives recommended in the engineering study involved using the IP-ECUA pipeline to send 5 mgd to Perdido Bay.

As of this writing (August 2004), DEP is still reviewing the latest version of a proposed mill permit which now includes the pipe-it-to-the-bay plan along with improved treatment of the effluent before it enters the pipe. DEP is still reviewing various versions of the mill permit (as it has been for nine years now). ECUA has not decided what it will do, although it has a written agreement with IP to participate in the overall plan. [For more details see the soon-to-be-added section on the IP-ECUA plan on this website.]

Meanwhile, Perdido Bay's condition continues to deteriorate.

1. 1. Millview; Pensacola Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. I No. 3, July 19, 1965

2. 2. Tales of Old Florida; published by Castle, a division of Book Sales, Inc.; Secaucus, NJ 1987

3. 3. Survey of Perdido River and Bay, 1966-1967; Florida State Board of Health, Bureau of Sanitary Engineering; Jacksonville, FL

4. 4. Effects of Pollution on Water Quality, Perdido River and Bay, Alabama and Florida; U. S. Department of the Interior, Federal Water Pollution Control Administration, Southeast Water Laboratory, Technical Services Program, Athens, Georgia; p1

5. 5. Ibid, p 2

6. 6. Ibid, p 3

7. 7. Ibid, p 5

8. 8. Ibid, p 5

9. 9. Ibid, p17