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Journey Through Time: Unveiling the Rich History of Tavares and the Enchanting Dora Canal

Updated: Jan 20

Embark on a captivating voyage through time as we unveil the fascinating history of Tavares, dating back to its roots with St. Clair Abrams, and the enchanting Dora Canal. From ancient waterways to modern conservation efforts, join us on this liquid journey through the ages.


Introduction: Setting the Stage for History


(Courtesy of Tavares History Research Center)

Nestled on the shores of Lake Dora within the Harris Chain, Tavares, Florida, has a history as rich as its natural beauty. Our journey begins with St. Clair Abrams, a pioneering settler whose vision laid the groundwork for Tavares' growth. Major St. Clair Abrams, a man of diverse talents as a wealthy attorney, newspaper magnate, and railroad visionary, bestowed upon Tavares its foundation in 1880. The city, bearing the surname of his Portuguese ancestor Lopez Para y Tavares, witnessed rapid expansion under Abrams' guidance. In the early 1880s, Abrams orchestrated the construction of a hotel, sawmill, expansive stores, warehouses, and charming cottages. He transformed Tavares into a bustling railroad hub, firmly convinced that the fusion of railroads and waterways was essential for fostering growth and prosperity.


Abrams harbored grand aspirations for Tavares to become the capital of the State of Florida. Although this dream faced an abrupt halt with a devastating fire in 1888, Tavares did not falter in its ascent. By 1887, it proudly claimed the title of Lake County seat, solidifying its significance in the region's history.


The Introduction of the Railway: Connecting Tavares to the World


As the late 19th century unfolded, another transformative chapter in Tavares' history began with the introduction of the railway. The arrival of the railway connected Tavares to the broader world, opening avenues for commerce and cultural exchange. The railway became a lifeline for the town, facilitating the movement of goods and people, and forever altering the landscape of Tavares.


(Courtesy of Tavares History Research Center)



The Birth of Citrus in Lake County


(Courtesy of Tavares History Research Center)

In the early days of Lake County, Captain Melton Haynes emerged as a pioneering figure, bringing his surveying expertise from North Carolina to the lake region of Florida in 1845. Settling on the north side of Lake Harris with his brothers, they laid the foundation for the citrus industry in the area by planting a quarter acre of sweet orange seeds from Charleston, North Carolina.

The citrus industry quickly became a vital economic force in Tavares. Captain Melton Haynes, recognized for his contributions, was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1854 and later to the Florida State Senate in 1866. Tragically, in 1883, while returning from a surveying job, Captain Haynes met his untimely end in the Dora Canal. His funeral in Yalaha drew over two hundred people, reflecting the deep love and respect the community held for him. During the ceremony, the atmosphere was solemn, marked by muffled whispers, and as the casket was lowered, the gathered crowd joined in singing, "Jesus Lover of My Soul" (Major Alexander St. Clair Abrams - Bob Grenier). This poignant moment captured the enduring impact of Captain Melton Haynes on the hearts of those who knew him.


Fast forward to 1938, a pivotal year that marked the introduction of the Ruby-brand red grapefruit. This vibrant citrus variety owes its name to Ruby Prevatt, the daughter of Jennings Bryant Prevatt. Jennings, a steadfast pillar, dedicated 45 years to the Lake Region Packaging Association, eventually assuming the role of its president. Beyond his professional commitments, he also held the esteemed position of mayor in Tavares.


The legacy of the Prevatt family extends beyond their contributions to the citrus industry. Ruby Street in Tavares, now home to various downtown establishments, including Adventure Outdoor Paddle, pays homage to Ruby Prevatt. The street serves as a living tribute to her impact and is a testament to the interconnected history of Tavares and the citrus heritage that shaped it.


(Courtesy of Tavares History Research Center)


Tavares: A Hub for early Aviation


Just a few short years after the first seaplane was invented, Tony Jannus landed his seaplane in Lake County waters in 1914. While Florida may not have been the most ideal location for conventional airplane landings, Lake County, with its vast network of lakes, emerged as a seaplane oasis. The unique geography of the region provided seaplanes with an unparalleled opportunity to utilize the expansive water bodies as makeshift runways, opening up new possibilities for aviation exploration. The connection between Tavares and aviation is etched in the skies and reflected in the waters below. Tony Jannus's historic seaplane landing marked the beginning of a legacy that continues to thrive.


(Courtesy of Tavares History Research Center)


Embark on a high-flying adventure with Adventure Outdoor Paddle and Jones Brother's Air and Sea Adventures. Book your aviation-inspired paddle tour today and experience the wings over waters that define the captivating history of Tavares.


Engineering Marvel: The Creation of the Dora Canal


The Dora Canal, formerly known as the Elfin River or the Little Ocklawaha, is a picturesque waterway that connects Lake Dora and Lake Eustis within the Harris Chain of Lakes in Florida. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Tavares experienced a boom in development, and the canal played a crucial role in this growth. With the vision of enhancing transportation and trade, St Clair Abrams and others like Capt. T.R. Boyd worked on dredging and widening the water passage. The canal's transformation included clearing obstacles and making it navigable for boats, contributing to the establishment of Tavares as a transportation hub.


1911 Postcard featuring the Dora Canal

(Courtesy of Tavares History Research Center)


A picture taken in March of 1908 of the entire population of Tavares gathered for a picnic along the Dora Canal

(Courtesy of Tavares History Research Center)


Dora Canal - A Natural Highway to Prosperity


In the early stages of Tavares' development, the significance of the Dora Canal became apparent. The canal played a vital role as a lifeline for the growing town, serving as a key connection to the expansive Harris Chain of Lakes. This natural waterway not only facilitated trade but also served as a crucial means of transportation, enabling the flow of goods and connecting Tavares to the broader region. Additionally, the Dora Canal became a gateway for exploration, allowing residents and visitors to venture into the scenic beauty and diverse landscapes of the Harris Chain of Lakes. Overall, the canal played a pivotal role in shaping Tavares and fostering its growth and connectivity.


1898 photograph of a Dora Canal cruise on an early inboard motorboat

(Courtesy of Tavares History Research Center)


Dora Canal's Claim to Fame


Grantland Rice, a renowned sportswriter and poet, was inspired by the beauty of the Dora Canal. In the early 20th century, when the canal was still known as the Elfin River, Rice wrote about its enchanting scenery in his columns. His poetic descriptions helped bring attention to the natural allure of the waterway. He referred to it as "the most beautiful mile of waterway in the world."


The Dora Canal gained international recognition as one of the filming locations (re-takes) for the classic movie "The African Queen" (1951). Starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, the film used the canal's lush and exotic backdrop to depict the African river where the story unfolds. The Dora Canal's beauty added to the film's atmospheric charm.


The Dora Canal also played a role in the history of Tarzan films. The 1939 movie "Tarzan Finds a Son!" starring Johnny Weissmuller featured scenes filmed on the Dora Canal. The lush vegetation and tropical feel of the canal contributed to the exotic settings often associated with Tarzan adventures.


Environmental Conservation Efforts: Preserving Nature's Masterpiece


In the spirit of Abrams and Captain Haynes, Tavares continues to recognize the importance of preserving its natural treasures. Recognizing the historical and ecological significance of the Dora Canal, efforts have been made to preserve its natural beauty. Environmental initiatives and conservation projects aim to maintain the canal's unique ecosystem for future generations. From Abrams' time to the present day, the commitment to conservation echoes through the ages, ensuring the delicate balance between progress and preservation.



Conclusion: Tying the Threads of Liquid History


As we conclude our extensive journey through time, the threads of Tavares' history and the Dora Canal remain tightly woven. St. Clair Abrams' and Captain Haynes' legacies live on, each contributing to the town's unique narrative. Join Adventure Outdoor Paddle in Tavares, where every ripple on the Dora Canal echoes the stories of visionaries and pioneers, and where the enduring beauty remains unchanged even after centuries.


Diving into the rich history of the Dora Canal has been an incredibly rewarding journey for us at Adventure Outdoor Paddle. This exploration not only expanded our knowledge but also deepened our affection for this cherished waterway in Tavares – a place that truly holds a special spot in our hearts. What brings us so much joy is the opportunity to share this profound connection with others during our paddle tours.


As we navigate the scenic waters of the Dora Canal, each paddle becomes a storytelling experience. We take our guests on a captivating journey through time, unraveling the fascinating tales woven into the fabric of this canal's history. The joy we feel is not just in the paddling; it's in witnessing the awe and appreciation on the faces of those who join us. Sharing the beauty of the Dora Canal is like sharing a piece of our own history and passion. The Dora Canal isn't just a route for us; it's a living testament to the legacy we strive to preserve and the experiences we're thrilled to impart to our guests.


**A special thanks to City of Tavares Mayor Bob Grenier for the detailed information and photos he shared through his books (Images of America-Tavares), (Major Alexander St Clair Abrams -The Unparalleled Career of the Perfect Southern Gentlemen), and his time speaking with me at the Tavares History Research Center. I also want to acknowledge the wonderful Tavares History Museum on Ruby Street for their help with sharing the history to our unique town of Tavares.

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