St. Johns River // Bartram Frolic // Riverboat Tour in Palatka, Florida

, St. Johns River // Bartram Frolic // Riverboat Tour in Palatka, Florida

Every September, the Putnam County Bartram Trail in Putnam County, Florida hosts their annual Bartram Frolic commemorating William Bartram’s travels on the St. Johns River in 1774.

This year’s frolic was the 245th anniversary of William Bartram’s travels through Palatka. I serve as the riverboat captain, commanding a 45 foot pontoon boat powered with twin 200 hp Yamaha outboard‘s on jack plates. This boat is a dream to operate, and the guided riverboat tours are a favorite part of the historic weekend.

, St. Johns River // Bartram Frolic // Riverboat Tour in Palatka, Florida

St. Johns River Tours

The river boat tours include running commentary as we cruise the St. Johns River. Local historian and Bartram Frolic organizer Sam Carr provides information and readings about how the Bartram Trail waterway system was established.

Locations along to Saint johns river where William Bartram explored and wrote about in his book “travels “are marked with historic preservation placard’s, describing Bartram’s activities there.

, St. Johns River // Bartram Frolic // Riverboat Tour in Palatka, Florida
Sam Carr and Lisa Rinaman

Riverkeeper Presentation

The St. Johns River keeper, Lisa Rinaman, provided the downstream commentary about flow rates, algae bloom, the effect of tapping the river for freshwater for increasing populations south of us, and what we can do to help preserve the river.

On the return trip, Sam Carr covered the upstream trip, noting sites of historical interest, naming riverside communities, and pointing out wildlife and other items of interest. We even got to wave at his wife as she watched us from their dock on the river.

, St. Johns River // Bartram Frolic // Riverboat Tour in Palatka, Florida

The St. Johns River Flows North

This year, we conducted an afternoon tour that took us upstream on the St. Johns River, south, to Dunn’s Creek and back. Along the way, we passed several islands, stands of cypress trees, waterway markers with osprey nests on them, and waterfront settlements.

My favorite spot is above, the site of Rollestown, a 20,000 acre community. Rollestown is where Englishman Denys Rolle brought 200 indentured servants from the streets of London in 1767. His settlement was agricultural, with plans to raise cattle, citrus, and turpentine as the main products. The people were not farmers, the crops did not prosper, and they scattered.

Next, slaves were brought in to continue the efforts. However, in 1783 the colony was abandoned when Britain ceded Florida to Spain. Denys Rolle is known as a philanthropist because his hope was to provide an agricultural community for the poor – a land of “Peace and Plenty.”

The British withdrew in 1783, and Rolle moved everyone in the trading ship “Peace and Plenty” to the Exumas in the Bahamas. There he established Rolletown and Rolleville. Those people, over the next couple hundred years, spread all over the Bahamas, and the “Rolle” surname is very familiar throughout the islands.

, St. Johns River // Bartram Frolic // Riverboat Tour in Palatka, Florida

Historic Marker at Rollestown

, St. Johns River // Bartram Frolic // Riverboat Tour in Palatka, Florida

Evening Wine Cruise

For the evening wine cruise, we followed the same route. Sam Carr, plus the William Bartram and Long Warrior Indian characters read from Bartram‘s travels.

The two characters spent their day in tents on the bank of the St. Johns River entertaining and educating visitors about their character and their part in Bartram’s travels. They spent the week acting out scenes from Bartram’s visits for 300 second graders.

On the evening wine tour, they came with us to participate in the journey along part of the Bartram National Recreation Trail and provide historic readings.

, St. Johns River // Bartram Frolic // Riverboat Tour in Palatka, Florida

Sunset Wine Tour

Many of the returning passengers chose to elevate the experience, and brought a variety of appetizers to share with their table mates, personalizing the experience and adding to the fun.

, St. Johns River // Bartram Frolic // Riverboat Tour in Palatka, Florida

The pride of Palatka has several rows of bench seating, as well as areas of picnic table style seating. It was rewarding to greet returning passengers and see them putting their personal touch on the evening tour. Local restauranteur Hoyt Muir served as sommelier, keeping the wine flowing.

, St. Johns River // Bartram Frolic // Riverboat Tour in Palatka, Florida

Evening Tour Route

We passed by Corky Bell’s restaurant, a seafood restaurant on a high Bank of the St. Johns River. I always like to toot the horn a couple times when we pass by there to let the diners know that we are operating on the river! They have a very long dock, and plenty of boat traffic comes and goes.

Very close to Corky Bell’s, in the location of the former Burger King, which used to have their own dock “back in the day” for water skiers and fishermen and anyone else on the river to stop by for a burger and fries. I sort imagine we had the only waterfront Burger King with dock access for boaters in the whole country!

Now, after over 10 years of vacancy, there is a Taco Bell and a Bojangles on this high river bank, prime riverfront real estate! I wonder if they will build a dock for patrons to come eat there?

Sunset on the St. Johns River

Returning to Palatka, our final approach brought us around Sunset Point. We knew that we would see spectacular views from there. As expected, we were treated to a spectacular sunset as we came around the point.

I don’t think there was a single person on the boat who could resist pulling out their cell phone and snapping a few shots.

, St. Johns River // Bartram Frolic // Riverboat Tour in Palatka, Florida

As we rounded the corner and were treated to the view of the sunset over the St. Johns River, with Palatka situated on the bank of the St. Johns River, William Bartram read about seeing that exact view.

, St. Johns River // Bartram Frolic // Riverboat Tour in Palatka, Florida

Modern Times on the River

I kept expecting to see one of those cypress dugout canoes Bartram described, with some Indians in it, silently paddling along the shore.

When I was a child, we used to dinghy over to Sunset Point to see the wreck of the Hiawatha. It was an old wooden paddle wheeler that had been abandoned there on shore. Old-timers tell stories about going to shore and looking for artifacts from the vessel. I remember my father taking black-and-white photos of it in the 1970s. It eventually broke apart, probably in the 80s or 90s. I don’t think there is any evidence at all left behind now.

Instead, I saw the modern day version: some people in a small boat casting shrimp nets, which made my heart soar.

, St. Johns River // Bartram Frolic // Riverboat Tour in Palatka, Florida

Watching Shrimping on the River

All day long, we enjoyed watching people at the city dock cast nets, listening to the thump thump thump of the skirt lids hitting the metal dock.

Every year toward the end of August, sometimes throughout September, and this year well into October, we are seeing groups of 20 to 30 small boats around the Shands Bridge north of Palatka, and as many boats scattered around the bends of the river near Palatka. People who don’t have boats use the city docks for shrimping well into the night.

, St. Johns River // Bartram Frolic // Riverboat Tour in Palatka, Florida

After we returned to the dock and unloaded our last passengers, we had one more view of these people shrimping at the next stop down, with their lights and friendly chatter as they fish for their own food from our bountiful Saint Johns River.

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What to Read Next:

Bartram Trail Cruise on the St. Johns River

Watch my vlog about the trip: Bartram Trail St. Johns River Cruise

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