See, it started this way:
In 1823, members of the two-year-old Florida territorial legislature said “We can’t keep meeting like this.” One year in St. Augustine, one year in Pensacola.
The 400-mile, two-weeks-or-more journey between Florida’s only two cities was killing the delegates. So they designated two men to find a place in the middle that could serve as the territorial capital.
John Lee Williams set out from Pensacola, and Dr. William Simmons left from St. Augustine. They met at a small waterfall in the rolling, red clay hills of present-day Leon County and chose a nearby hill as the seat of government.
That’s how Tallahassee came to be — leaving out Spanish explorers, Apalachee Indians and Andrew Jackson’s army, who had previously inhabited the area. Our name, Tallahassee, is an Indian word for “old fields” or “old town.”
We almost didn’t make it to statehood in 1845. In the 1830s, we were a den of iniquity, where gambling, drinking and gunfights led Ralph Waldo Emerson to label us a town of “desperadoes and speculators.” In 1841, a yellow fever epidemic killed about half of the town’s 800 citizens. In 1843, a fire destroyed almost every downtown building. But we elected a reform-minded city council (led by Thomas Jefferson’s grandson) to bring law and order; we buried the yellow fever dead in the Old City Cemetery; and we set up shops in the downtown Chain of Parks until new brick buildings could be constructed.
Always, Tallahassee had resiliency.
Certainly, we’ve been helped by being the seat of government in what is now the fourth most populous state in the nation. In 1851, the Legislature created the West Florida Seminary, which became today’s Florida State University.
In 1887, the Legislature approved a state normal school, which became today’s Florida A&M University. Between the universities and the annual legislative session, we’ve survived many an economic downturn.
We even got a little help from the federal government during World War II, when it established the Dale Mabry Air Base for pilot training.
That’s not to say we haven’t endured rough patches.
Tallahassee was a plantation society in the antebellum days and as late as the 1950s census, blacks out-numbered whites. But it took a while to knock down the Jim Crow laws that treated blacks as second-class citizens. In 1956, a bus boycott started the civil rights ball rolling. That was followed by lunch counter sit-ins, theater protests and eventually school desegregation. Today, Tallahassee is proud of its diversity, which currently includes a black mayor and a black city manager.
In 1967, some legislators wanted to move the capital to Orlando — and thus steal our reason for being. We made a few adjustments to make ourselves more palatable to legislators, like reinstating liquor sales after a 60-year prohibition and inaugurating the Springtime Tallahassee festival to advertise our charms.
And in 1977, construction was completed on a new, 22-story Capitol, an investment that pretty much sealed our fate as the forever capital.
In some quarters, we are most famous for football. The legendary Jake Gaither led FAMU to seven black national championships. The legendary Bobby Bowden led FSU to two national championships.
We cherish many elements of our past.
After we built a new Capitol, people rallied to save the old Capitol, which today is a museum. We have 95 miles of canopy roads, which is our term for the tree-shaded roads into the county where cotton merchants used to bring their cotton.
We are also greeting the future with the past: Next year, construction on Cascades Park will be completed. That slice of downtown is where long ago there was a small cascade or waterfall that so charmed founders Williams and Simmons that they chose this spot for Florida’s capital.
The cascade is long gone. But the city remains.
And it’s a good one.