Many a visitor to Port St. Joe today, enjoying the boating, sportfishing, biking, hiking, and other recreational pursuits available on St. Joseph Bay, Cape San Blas, and the St. Joseph Peninsula, may be unaware a different town once stood nearby back in Florida’s territorial days. Indeed, St. Joseph, as that bygone predecessor of Port St. Joe was called, once ranked as Florida’s largest community, though it proved a mighty short-lived one. A visit to the Constitution Convention Museum State Park offers a portal to that long-ago time when St. Joseph played a crucial role in shaping Florida’s statehood.
This state park along US 98 is well worth a visit for anybody vacationing on this stretch of the Florida Panhandle’s Forgotten Coast. Sure, it’ll be most interesting to dyed-in-the-wool history buffs. But the 14-acre grounds themselves are their own attraction, and, furthermore, anybody’s appreciation for the Forgotten Coast can be deepened by learning a little of this backstory.
So what exactly is the backstory? Well, the park lies within what used to be St. Joseph, established in 1835 by Apalachicola businessmen motivated to develop a deepwater port to rival that prospering outpost to the east. Rapid growth saw St. Joseph’s population exceed 12,000 people, making it the biggest town in Florida Territory (only established in 1821 after the U.S. acquired the land from Spain). It also, incidentally, had something of a reputation for debauchery.
The political sway of St. Joseph’s promoters meant this young boomtown earned selection over Tallahassee as the site of Florida’s very first State Constitution Convention in 1838. In early December of that year, 56 territorial delegates assembled at the site now marked by the state park’s Constitution Convention Monument to draft a state constitution.
The delegates’ work at St. Joseph, completed in mid-January of 1839, became the foundation of what, following subsequent meetings, was adopted as Florida’s constitution when the territory became a state in 1845. By then, St. Joseph had already virtually disappeared, hammered by multiple hurricanes, a yellow fever breakout, and a wildfire.
Within the Constitution Convention Museum, animatronic mannequins of a number of delegates—Robert Raymond Reid, William P. Duvall, David Y. Levy, and Thomas L. Baltzell—are arrayed in a recreation of the original convention hall. Their audio presentation brings the debates of 1838-1839 to life for visitors.
Museumgoers can also study a variety of artifacts not only from the vanished town of St. Joseph but also some from the area’s Spanish and Native American eras.
Outside, a vintage Baldwin steam locomotive on its original tracks summons the legacy of the Lake Wimico & St. Joseph Canal & Railroad Company, the first steam railroad in Florida, launched as St. Joseph was founded with the aim of transporting lumber between the Apalachicola River, Lake Wimico, and St. Joseph Bay. (Like the town itself, the railroad didn’t last long.)
The Constitution Convention Monument, built in 1922, stands where the territorial delegates did their debating and drafting. Distinguished by Tuscan-style columns, the monument comes inscribed with the names of all the participating delegates. A grassy memorial mall edged by sabal (cabbage) palms represents the original dirt road that would have accessed the convention hall and frames a fine vista of St. Joseph Bay to the west.
The grounds of the park are quite lovely, marked not only by palms but also by slash pines, southern magnolias, and live oaks. This is a great place to picnic and birdwatch, not only educate yourself on a pretty fascinating little piece of Sunshine State history!
-You can access Constitution Convention Museum State Park right off the fantastic Port City Trail, which provides a paved, well-marked pedestrian path through the Port St. Joe area nearly four miles long.
-The state park happens to be a lovely place to get hitched: Weddings on the beautiful grounds, backdropped by that palm-lined avenue toward the bay and featuring some knockout sunsets, are arrangeable.