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Lost town lies on pipeline route

The abandoned turpentine camp could be listed on the National Register of Historic Places but the site is a mystery to local historians.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 13, 2001

SUGARMILL WOODS -- The town of Etna, an abandoned turpentine camp from the early 1900s, may be one of Citrus County's best-kept secrets.

Nestled along the eastern edge of Florida Power's main corridor, more than a mile from any paved road, the camp was once home to the transient workers who bled the sap from pine trees to make tar, turpentine and other goods.

The wooded site now contains the ruins of several buildings and hundreds of artifacts that have been covered for nearly a century by shifting sands and blankets of dried pine needles.

Florida Gas Transmission first stumbled across the site in 1993 while surveying a proposed pipeline route. A report by R. Christopher Goodwin & Associates, the archaeological firm hired by Florida Gas, concludes that the site is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

The camp "clearly has the potential to yield information important to the regional and local history of the naval stores industry and the exploitation of the southern pine forests," the report states.

Yet the site remains a mystery in Citrus County. Local records make no mention of the camp, and area historians admit they've never heard of it.

"We have more of these little tiny towns in the county than we have accounted for," said Gary Ellis, director of the Gulf Archaeology Research Institute, noting that many turpentine camps cropped up after the Civil War. "They were short-term, not even around for a generation."

What's left of the camp may not remain intact for much longer, either. A series of reports obtained by the Times, including documents that federal regulations classify as "privileged" information that should not be released, outline Florida Gas' proposal to excavate the site and then run a 36-inch diameter pipeline through it.

Florida Gas is seeking federal approval of its $452-million plan to lay 167 miles of pipeline through Mississippi, Alabama and Florida by next April. The 14-mile leg of pipeline proposed in Citrus County would run from the company's Maylan Avenue pumping station in Lecanto to the Hernando County line, clipping the Etna camp along the way.

Before Florida Gas touches the site, it must reach an agreement with state and federal officials to mitigate the damage from construction. Florida Gas' archaeological consultant proposes excavating the 17-acre site for artifacts, creating detailed site maps, recording oral histories and compiling a report about the importance of any finds.

Yet Etna seems destined to remain a mystery. Except for a pamphlet to be created about the site, officials said none of the archaeological information about the site would be available to the public.

When construction projects cross historical sites, federal regulations require that any documents "containing location, character, and ownership information about cultural resources" be marked as "Contains privileged information -- do not release."

"Florida Gas has to keep that information about cultural resources non-public so as to protect that site from vandalism," said Tamara Young-Allen, a spokeswoman with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

That may be, but there should be a way to share the information with historical societies that would have an obvious interest in the site, said Dan Quick, president of the Citrus County Historical Society.

After learning about the site from the Times, Quick drafted a letter to the energy commission asking that members of the historical society be allowed to watch as the site is excavated and the pipeline built. He also requested that any information be shared with the group.

"I'm quite disappointed in the fact that the historical society wasn't made aware of this" by anyone involved in the project, Quick said.

Taking up the cause of a site that he has never seen and knows little about, Quick was hard-pressed to say which revelation was more startling: The fact that an unheard-of camp called Etna exists, or the likelihood that federal rules could keep most of the information about it under wraps.

"I think there is extremely important information there," Quick said. "And that is what this historical society is all about."

Providing answers

Though individual turpentine camps lasted for only a few years at a time, the industry was an integral part of the Citrus County economy around the turn of the century, local archaeologist Ellis said. To this day, it is not unusual in wooded areas to find shards of the reddish clay pots once used to gather pine tree sap, he said.

But Ellis said he has yet to come across an intact camp in Citrus County that could provide a fuller picture of who the workers were and how they lived.

"There are a whole bunch of questions that could be answered if they had a site with context," Ellis said.

Describing Etna as a "large, well-preserved example of a turpentine camp," R. Christopher Goodwin & Associates' archaeological report suggests that Etna could hold some of the answers.

According to the firm's proposed research plan, the site contains the remains of what appears to be workers' quarters and up to four homes for camp managers. The layout of those buildings, as well as any artifacts recovered from them, "presents an excellent opportunity to explore the nature of housing in a turpentine town," the plan reads.

Random digs along the proposed pipeline route unearthed at least 37 historical artifacts in 1993 and 186 items in 1999, including everything from broken glass and ceramic bits to old tools and nails.

While turpentine camps were mostly home to working men, parts of a porcelain doll found at Etna suggest that some women and children lived at the camp as well.

The survey also found two structures where tree sap was probably distilled into turpentine, and sites where leftover rosin was dumped. Study of those sites could provide a better understanding of how the turpentine was produced, the report states.

Any information gleaned from the excavations would be a considerable addition to the county's limited records on the site. The county Historical Resources' file on site 8CI795, better known as Etna, contains just four pages. Two of those pages give a limited description of the site from R. Christopher Goodwin and Associates' 1993 survey, along with a small map.

The fourth page in the file is a copy of a 1907 entry in the county's land ledger, in which the Varn Turpentine and Lumber Company sold 120 acres -- which presumably included Etna -- for $120 to a man named Chester Clark. But Varn retained the right to continue using the trees for turpentine or timber for the next 12 years.

The site has changed hands over the years, and now part of it falls within Florida Power's right of way, the corridor Florida Gas plans to use for its proposed pipeline.

Quick, the historical society president, has mixed feelings about the possibility of a pipeline coming through Etna. He hates to see the site damaged, but without the pipeline, there would be no excavations to unearth whatever Etna has to offer.

"I guess I want to have my cake and eat it too," he said.

Flying in the face of logic

Quick's letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission asks that any information from the site be shared with the historical society, but it is unclear whether the group will receive anything.

Citing the federal rule that information about a historical site under these circumstances is "privileged," both Florida Gas and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission have declined to release any documents about Etna to the Times.

"We're just following the rules FERC gave us," Florida Gas spokeswoman Gina Taylor said.

Young-Allen, the energy commission spokeswoman, said any artifacts from the excavation would go to the land owner or a museum. R. Christopher Goodwin & Associates' report from the excavations would go to the energy commission and the state historical division, but would not be available to the public, she said.

Etna is mentioned in one public document: the draft environmental impact statement for the pipeline project, released last month by the energy commission.

The inch-thick report describes how the project could affect homes, habitats and historical sites along the pipeline routes in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will accept public comment on the project until May 29 before deciding whether the pipeline can be built.

The impact statement identifies 10 archaeological sites, 14 isolated historical finds and two historic structures along the Citrus leg of the proposed pipeline.

Of those sites, only Etna qualifies for the National Register of Historic Places.

At first, the state's Division of Historical Resources urged Florida Gas to avoid boring through Etna because of the camp's significance.

But Florida Gas said it could not avoid the site; it argued the site had already been affected by the construction and maintenance of the nearby Florida Power lines.

The state's Division of Historical Resources agreed with that reasoning and signed off on R. Christopher Goodwin & Associates' excavation plan. The plan still awaits federal approval.

Responding to a public records request, the state historical division provided the Times with more than 80 pages of documents on the site, including copies of the excavation plan and other reports that Florida Gas had refused to release.

Quick said he is grateful someone provided the information, because he hopes the society can share in whatever discoveries come out of Etna.

"It doesn't even make sense to study something and not make the information public, at least to the appropriate organizations," Quick said. "That just flies in the face of any kind of logic."

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