Stretching 1,300 statute miles from the southern tip of Texas through the Florida panhandle, the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) is the nation’s third busiest waterway. The eastern section begins at Harvey Lock on the Mississippi River in New Orleans and takes boaters through some of the more historic and scenic parts of the Gulf Coast.
Juan Ponce de Leon sailed the first European vessel into the Gulf in 1513, and Spanish explorers established their first foothold in the region near present-day Pensacola, Fla. French explorers arrived via the Mississippi River, establishing New Orleans in 1718.
These settlements changed flags numerous times with the shifting tides of European naval battles. Stability didn’t come until after the American Revolution, President Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase and War of 1812 — when Admiral Farragut “damned the torpedoes” in Mobile Bay and Andrew Jackson fought the bloody British in the town of New Orleans.
The federal government passed the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1873, funding a survey to “connect the inland waters along the margin of the Gulf of Mexico by cuts and canals.” This was the start of the GIWW, but political procrastination and competition from railways delayed completion for decades. Shipping representatives and industrialists formed the Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association in 1905 to promote the concept. President Theodore Roosevelt threw his weight behind the effort, and in 1909 Congress authorized surveys for a system of connected intracoastal waterways stretching from Boston to Brownsville, Texas.
Today, history buffs can tour sites like Fort Barrancas or the Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, or the still thriving French Quarter in New Orleans. Biloxi has also grown into a popular destination. A series of hurricanes left the waterfront as a blank slate, which is being filled in with modern casinos. Several sites have included marinas in their developments to attract the cruising crowd.
For a more laid-back stop, consider Apalachicola, one of the more colorful historic fishing villages remaining in Florida. Pick up a walking trail brochure at the history center or maritime museum.