Through the Looking Glass of Silver Springs:
Tourism and the Politics of Vision

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2004, Volume 3, Issue 1

Wendy Adams King
University of South Florida


An Enya musical score drifts down from the white rafters of the Victorian boat dock then floats around the meticulously manicured curves and intense colors of the surrounding tropical landscaping (see figure 1). In the company of strangers, my family and I wait in a small line to board the Chief Yahalocee, one out of a small fleet of Silver Springs’s famous glass-bottom boats. I cannot help feeling a bit skeptical. How can an old-fashioned tourist gimmick, such as the glass-bottom boat, compete with the cyberspace spectacles and multi-media extravaganzas so readily available today? My barely nine-year-old daughter is already a seasoned veteran of Space Shuttle launches, the Museum of Science, IMAX surround-sound movies, Disney and Busch Gardens virtual reality rides, all supplemented with a daily diet of DVDs and video games. What fascination can plying across the river, peering down at aquatic life through a transparent pane of glass encased in the bottom of a small boat hold for sensation saturated and technologically savvy tourists of the twenty-first century?

Figure 1

At the turn of the twentieth century, however, much of the appeal of Silver Springs (Florida’s oldest tourist, theme park) and the glass-bottom boat tour was not unlike the interest that Space Shuttle launches and IMAX movies possess for many tourists today. During the nascent days of Florida’s budding tourism industry, in the late 1870s, Phillip Morell invented the glass-bottom. 1. (Later, Hullam Jones’ 1878 version was made from a three-foot hollowed out cypress log. 2.) The relative transparency of the Silver River’s waters coupled with the glass bottom of the boat promised Silver Springs tourists beauty, motion, and spectacle while also offering them a scientific education, a sense of national pride, and a sense of cultural progress (see figure 2). As cultural historian Susan Davis contends, “Every culture uses nature metaphorically and the natural world provides not only all means of material life but a common, human currency for representing ideas about that life as society and culture” (30).

Figure 2

Illustrating Davis’ point, the privileging of vision (an outgrowth of the scientific revolution) 3., a privileging which informs the design and promotion of the glass-bottom boat, intertwines with American social constructions of nature over the last 125 years. Upon the Silver River’s waters and within the glass-bottom boat, the social significance of America and its landscape is negotiated within tensions between romantic, scientific, and cinematic visions. An amalgam of Western myth and Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Romantic ideals is used to frame Silver Springs as an edifying landscape of personal, spiritual and scientific national importance. Like the destinations of the American Grand Tour, rhetoric surrounding Silver Springs is indicative of the larger role tourism and spectacle play in the quest for a national cultural identity bubbling forth out of an America in the wake of modern industrialization. 4. As cultural critics such as John Sears, David E. Nye, and Mark Neumann suggest, in many ways the act of tourism and the national park itself, in the United States of the nineteenth and twentieth century, functioned as a public space that attempted to help define and unify American culture and its heterogeneous population. 5.

A Romantic Vision:
The Quest for the Sublime and Picturesque

As the craggy, yet cheerful, voice of our gray-haired captain welcomes all aboard, each of us dutifully awaits our turn to climb up and then down into the belly of the boat. Sinking into the water, now fully loaded with shorts-wearing tourists, armed with shiny cameras of all varieties as well as with the occasional juice-stained sippy cup, the boat slowly slides backward from the dock (see figures 3, 4). “Bubbles!” squeals a toddler. To everyone’s delight, thousands of tiny bubbles, like those in a freshly poured ginger ale, start zipping across the glass. In these shallow waters, the captain briefly lectures over a small buzzing speaker, trying to compete with the scratchy grind of tall river grasses rubbing against the boat’s transparent bottom. As we reach a clearing, the captain instructs all passengers to look down at the dizzying depths of the first Silver Springs cavern on our tour. “What is under water you will be able to see clearly,” repeats the captain. At this point in the tour, he proclaims that the glass-bottom makes visible the overwhelming beauty and scientific knowledge encased within the Silver River’s crystalline waters. As he promotes the park, I muse to myself that it has changed very little in the 125 years since Silver Springs first captured the imaginations of nineteenth century travelers.

Figure 3 Figure 4

By the mid-nineteenth century, Romantic and Transcendentalist views of nature as a sublime and picturesque landscape had become an essential part of experiencing nature for many leisure and middle-class Americans. Patricia Jansen argues in reference to tourism in Niagara Falls, for example, “The importance of the sublime as an element in both elite and popular culture was well established by the late eighteenth century . . .The craze for sublime experience entailed a new appreciation of natural phenomena” (8). John F. Kasson as well contends that aesthetics of the sublime and picturesque commonly superimposed on to the American landscape at the turn of the century exemplify the hegemonic genteel values promoted by elite “official” culture. Leisure class values such as the quest for the sublime, according to Kasson, filtered down to the masses (who would later visit Florida and Silver Springs) via mass-produced periodicals and the agents of culture such as museum curators and educators. “Genteel reformers founded museums, art galleries, libraries, symphonies, and other institutions which set the terms of formal cultural life and established the cultural tone that dominated public discussion,” writes Kasson, “as nineteenth-century cultural entrepreneurs sought to develop a vast new market, they popularized genteel values and conceptions of art” (4-5).

The genteel values and aesthetic conventions constructing a Romantic sense of the sublime and picturesque greatly contribute to American notions of national identity and leisure. 6. During the nineteenth and early twentieth century, these values and conventions were central to the history of Silver Springs as an image of America as paradise. The American leisure class traveler’s quest for the sublime and beautiful in Florida is revealed in images of Silver Springs even before the glass-bottom boat was invented. In 1860, Hubbard Hart expanded his successful stagecoach line that ran between Palatka, Silver Springs, Ocala, and Tampa to include a steamboat that toured the Ocklawaha and Silver rivers. Hart’s steamer passengers embarked on a two-day journey that followed the coffee-colored waters 7. of the alligator lined Ocklawaha River (Upper St. John’s) up into the crystal clear water of Silver Springs.

The first written accounts of the Silver Springs steamboat tours illustrate the significance of genteel aesthetics, Romantic conventions, and American nationalism in the early reception and twentieth century development of Silver Springs as a tourist attraction and registered Natural Landmark. 8. And as Nye argues, “The American sublime transformed the individual’s experience of immensity and awe into a belief in national greatness” (43). The nineteenth-century travelers, who had the time and could afford to travel to Florida in significant numbers, often used the Western literary and fine art canon to frame their experience and the Silver Springs steamboat tour as a sublime spiritual journey. Florida history and architecture historian Margot Ammidown, for example, contends that “many of the written descriptions of the early trips to the springs seemed to equate the journey with a spiritual transition to the afterlife, or to refer to the time-honored notion of the river as a metaphor for a spiritual journey to the source, which, with the advent of tourism, became a regular mini-pageant acted out on the Ocklawaha” (245). For instance, Ammidown cites the letters of nineteenth-century anthropologist Daniel Brinton (who is also quoted in the contemporary Silver Springs book) who described his journey as “one of the most dramatic transitions from darkness into light that a traveler can make anywhere on the continent” (qtd. in Ammidown 245).

Such nineteenth-century visitors as Daniel Brinton, Constance Fenimore Cooper Woolson and George McCall described Silver Springs using Western myth, Romantic ideals, and European and American landscape oil painting conventions. Brinton, Woolson and McCall’s imagery evokes the iconography of the sublime described by American transcendentalists like Emerson, painted by Hudson River School artists, and later examined in the twentieth century by philosophers such as Heidegger. In the 1856 history Notes on the Floridian Peninsula, Brinton exclaimed, “Slowly drifting in a canoe over the precipice I could not restrain an involuntary start of terror, so difficult was it, from the transparency of the supporting medium for the mind to appreciate its existence” (186). Woolson commented in 1876 that “the water was so clear that one could hardly tell where it ended and the air began . . . the fish swimming about were as distinct as though we had them in our hands; in short . . . it was enchantment” (30). And George McCall, while serving in Florida during the Second Seminole War, wrote, “We were stationary … in a moment all was still as death. The line of demarcation between the waters and the atmosphere was invisible. Heavens! What an impression filled my mind at that moment! Were not the canoe and its contents obviously suspended in mid-air like Mahomet’s coffin?” (150).

The intensely disorienting and enlightening collapse of space and time, described by Brinton, Woolson and McCall, is an essential component of the Romantic and Transcendentalist vision of the sublime, vast, natural landscape. The blurred boundary as the celestial and terrestrial dissolve in the transparency of Silver Springs’ waters resonates with Emerson’s transcendentalist vision of the transparent eyeball. Like Emerson’s communion with the natural world recounted in Nature, the water and surrounding landscape of Silver Springs act as a catalyst to the sublime experience believed to initiate a similar reintegration with the divine. Woolson and McCall become “a transparent eye-ball,” “nothing,” “all,” “part or particle of God” (17). The disconcerting elements (a degree of danger and powerless to the experience itself) implied in Brinton, Woolson and McCall’s choice to compare experiences on the Silver River to “terror,” “enchantment,” “death,” and suspension “in mid-air” illustrates what Heidegger regarded as the “sublime moment, in which anxiety is preparation of insight into the whole” (Wilson 155). The anxiety and sense of the ineffable present in Brinton, Woolson and McCall’s portrayal of Silver Springs also recalls Kant’s 1870 (about the same time the glass bottom boat appears) distinctions between the aesthetics of the sublime and picturesque. The Kantian sensation of the sublime is characterized by a mix of pleasure and pain experienced in a moment when the mind is overwhelmed, pained at its inability to grasp fully ideas intuiting, not imagining, the infinite, the total (Wilson 20). The disorienting amorphous space described by Brinton, Woolson and McCall also exemplifies the asymmetry, the formlessness versus the harmony of form of the picturesque as defined by Kant.

Today, the sublime and picturesque qualities of Silver Springs are interrupted by the activity of tourists and toddlers and the motion of the boat. Now, we float above the Spring of Fire, and our Silver Springs glass-bottom boat turns dramatically leftward as the captain explains that the spring’s name comes from the tiny volcano-like forms spewing out of the cavern. Like liquid in a slow turning glass, I feel as if I am moving in the opposite direction of the boat, only to meet back with myself at circle’s completion. “Whoa,” whisper several fellow riders. Disoriented and a little woozy, the majority of the tourists nonetheless remain hunched-over, looking through the rectangular frames of glass in the boat’s bottom at the luminescent fish and rock formations below. The boat glides to its next stop entitled the Blue Grotto. Frances Kenneley’s Discover Silver Springs: Souvenir Book reports that the Blue Grotto’s “moniker came from the cerulean hue reflected from sunlight filtering through the water” (14). I’m not entirely convinced. In addition to the spring’s blue waters, the well-known, exotic Blue Grotto of Italy or even the infamous Love Grotto of Tristam and Isolde, made popular by Romantic writers, must have influenced its naming.

The captain announces the next stop as The Bridal Chamber. Written over sixty years before my Discover Silver Springs: Souvenir Book (first copyrighted in 1994), a 1930s Silver Springs brochure exemplifies how the promotion of Florida and Silver Springs as a rejuvenating, romantic paradise (in the genteel Romantic tradition) changed very little even as the demographic of Florida tourism drastically shifted. 9. As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, so did the steamer to rail and car. By the mid-1920s, the Florida vacation was no longer restricted to the elite. The leisure class Victorian travelers, with which early Florida robber barons like Flagler sought to fill their luxury hotels, eventually were outnumbered by a new wave of middle class tourists owning automobiles. The affordable mass-produced cars and subsequent American highway systems, financed by the Coolidge Prosperity, made the state available to middle class tourists and homesteaders (Allen 227). Tin Can Tourists packed up in the new family car and left for vacation. They flocked southward to visit the state’s attractions and even scrambled to purchase small pieces of Florida paradise. Record numbers of tourists even landed permanently in South Florida to live in communities, steeped in Mediterranean fantasy architecture: towns such as Coral Gables, Hollywood-by-the-Sea, and Venice-of-the-South. Evidence to Florida's popular appeal, Miami alone experienced an influx of 2.5 million people in 1925 (Gannon 77).

Although more middle-brow educational exhibits and working-class snake milking and alligator wrestling side shows were added to Silver Springs when Ross Allen opened his Reptile Institute in 1931, the genteel promotion of the park as a sublime and picturesque paradise changed very little. Writers of the 1930s brochure compared the park to the idyllic Elysian Fields, and like the much earlier descriptions of Florida by fifteenth-century French explorer Ribaut, much of the pamphlet is devoted to framing Florida and Silver Springs as a picturesque earthly Paradise. Descriptions of the multitudinous plants and animals in Florida focus the reader on the fecundity of the earthly garden. The brochure boasts of rare aquatic life visible through Silver Springs’ crystal clear waters. In fact, the brochure told readers they would see “more than 43 varieties of fish, turtles and fresh water shellfish.” Also attesting to the Eden-like fertility imagery used to promote the park, the pamphlet notes that plants even “bloom and bear fruit under water.” Not only are the plants and animals abundant in Florida’s bountiful landscape, they are “bewitchingly beautiful, rare and exotic.”

While the long lists of plants and animals at Silver Springs evoke the natural abundance most often associated with earthly paradise, the descriptions of the individual’s experience within the park’s surrounding natural beauty best illustrate the construction of the park as earthly paradise in the romantic image. Stressing feeling and the exotic, the text places the reader in an utopian fantasy landscape by making promises to “all who enter.” Silver Springs, according to the depression era brochure text from Richter Library, intrigues and fascinates:

Here is a scene that intrigues the imagination – more fascinating than anything you have seen, more beautiful than dreams can imagine, for Silver Springs is in truth the Elysian Fields of America. They who enter here leave all cares behind them. Individual worries become petite and insignificant when one is communing with Nature at her loveliest.

This text reflects the Romantic and transcendentalist desire to escape from civilization into the rejuvenating arms of sublime nature. Simultaneously evoking the dwarfing landscapes often associated with the sublime and restorative powers of nature, the text boasts, “Worries become petite and insignificant when one is communing with Nature.” Also, the description of the caves and springs suggests the overwhelming and sometimes limitless rocky landscapes, rushing waterfalls, and flowing rivers frequently seen in Romantic landscape paintings and poetry. The text further emphasizes emerging, flowing water and a large cavern: “Silver Springs is really a subterranean river springing from the earth through a vast cavern 65 feet long and 12 feet high.” Including the aesthetic quality also integral to the Romantic view of nature, tourists do not only get the opportunity to commune with Nature at Silver Springs; they commune with “Nature at her loveliest.”

The direct comparison to Elysian Fields also works in conjunction with the images of the sublime and beautiful nature connoted in the text. The mythical reference not only evokes the image of paradise so often associated with Florida, it also suggests the exoticism, myth, and idyllic past used so often by Romantic poets and painters. As Wordsworth wrote in “The Prospectus to the Recluse,”

Paradise, and groves
Elysian, Fortunate Fields – like those of old
Sought in the Atlantic man – Why should they be
A history only of departed things,
Or a mere fiction of what never was? (399)

Silver Springs as Elysian Fields metaphor goes from Romantic nostalgic reference to idyllic mythological landscape to edifying sublime nature, elevating the springs to authentic space contrasted against the artificial man-made trappings of civilized society. The metaphor illustrates the efforts to exult American landscapes in order to characterize American culture as equal to, if not superior to, European culture. The beauty of North America presented as “evidence” to a unique presence of the divine in the United States also supported the popular notion of Manifest Destiny. Charles Sanford noted that American artists Thomas Cole and William Cullen Bryant, for example, “had need of the sublime to celebrate what they felt was peculiar and unique about American scenery” (qtd. in Nye 24). Neumann, Nye, and Sears contend that American romantic landscape tourism ironically functioned as a source of cultural production. Within the context of the America First tourism campaign, Silver Springs as the true Elysian Fields connotes that the American landscape even exceeds in importance and authenticity the one imagined by the culture of the Golden Age of Greece so revered by American gentility and the European elite. As Neumann argues, the effort to frame places such as Silver Springs as the true site of ancient myth and literary reference “fits well with the federal mandate to promote American scenery as superior to that of Europe; it’s part of a quest for antiquities.” The presence of Romanticism and the quest for American antiquities remain at Silver Springs today in the “Indian legends” and ancient fossils featured so prominently at the park.

The Chief Yahalocee moves forward. Several adults join the small children who much earlier abandoned the official position of scientists leaning over microscopes, examining the invisible world revealed by its lens, in favor of letting the wind blow on their faces as they stare at the open-air view of trees, terrestrial animals, and the surface of the water available through the open deck windows. At our captain’s request, many passengers again look down through the glass bottom of the boat at the rock formation and jetting spring below. Stopping to float above the Bridal Chamber spring, the captain tells its legend. The Bridal Chamber is named after the tale of the ill-fated love affair of Indian Prince Chulcotah and Winona. She hurled herself into the deepest point of the river in a moment of agonizing grief over her forbidden love for the Prince.

It is interesting to note, however, that the Legend of the Bridal Chamber told today is different from that quoted in the Silver Springs brochures spanning from the first half of the twentieth century. 10. Still a romantic tale of “star-crossed lovers,” earlier promotion cites the tale of Aunt Silla, “a 110-year-old negress,” who recalls when her “honey child,” Bernice Mayo, a poor, yet beautiful maiden, who wasted away after her wealthy lover’s father refused to let them marry. On her deathbed, the withering Bernice, asked Aunt Silla to drop her into the big Boiling Spring (now the Bridal Chamber). Like Ophelia, Bernice’s frail, porcelain white body gracefully spiraled downward as the crevice in the riverbed opened welcoming her. Her lost love, Claire, happened to be rowing by the spring with his new fiancé (a cousin-bride chosen by his father). The sparkling light from Bernice’s bracelet, a token of his love, captured his attention. Knowing it was his old love reaching upward from the rock, Claire dove downward into the opening that shut and enclosed him within the riverbed with Bernice for eternity.

The changing Bridal Chamber legend is yet another example of the ways in which issues of race, class, and gender are often played out within Florida’s tourist spaces. Interestingly, the “negress” tale metamorphoses into an “Indian” version of Romeo and Juliet as more progressive attitudes toward African-Americans evolve. Unfortunately, the Aunt Silla caricature, an example of the age-defying “primitive” seer stereotype (African-American film director Spike Lee recently coined “the magical Negro”) is not the only example of racist imagery in Silver Springs promotion, past and present (see figure 5). Women and minorities are most often shown in servant roles or as park attractions. African Americans, for instance, were smiling servants (glass-bottom boat captains) or minstrel performers. On Emancipation Day 1949, Silver Springs even opened Paradise Park, a segregated Silver Springs for “colored people only” (see figure 6). Seminole Indians were often featured as alligator wrestlers and colorful, picturesque natives living in the domestic realm of the Chickee (see figure 7). The tale of the ill-fated love affair of Chulcotah and Winona still told today, however, illustrates the continued presence of Native-American and gender stereotypes at Silver Springs. 11.

Clockwise - Figure 5, Figure 6, Figure 7

Technological Vision: Science, Power, and the Sublime

Ironically, the exotic characters, danger, and excess illustrated in the ill-fated love stories so often told by Silver Springs tour guides starkly contrasts with the controlled experience and relatively homogeneous riders depicted in the park’s glass-bottom boat promotion. The promotional rhetoric of Silver Springs and the glass-bottom boat embody the tension between the total abandon of sublime experience and the positions of power and containment that often appear in American conventions of sublime representation. As travel scholar Chloe Chard contends, “The sublime entails not only a disruption of the state of immobile contemplations, but also a re-imposition of that state” (137). The 1930s promotional brochure exemplifies the magisterial gaze that is part of the representation of Silver Springs as a sublime landscape. Signifying the sublime experience as often realized in Romantic and American Transcendental conventions, a god-like perspective similar to the elevated viewpoints repeatedly shown in landscape oil painting is presented to the reader in the opening paragraph of the 1930s Silver Spring brochure:

Picture if you will a palm-fringed strip beside a lake of sapphire blue giving rise to a river of sparkling transparency and you have a birds-eye view of Silver Springs; but the water is blue only when viewed from a distance, for its crystal depths when seen from the surface are so clear that every fish and aquatic plant is an open-sesame.

As Allan Wallach asserts, in the conventions of travel literature established by James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The tourist climbs to the top of a mountain, hill or tower---confronts a panoramic landscape—first overhauled by feelings of sublimity“ (82). The “birds-eye view of Silver Springs” presented to the reader provides the expected panoramic vision so often associated with the sublime as experienced by tourists. Reminiscent of the Romantic landscape tradition, the omnipotent view allows the reader “to see” the spring in its entirety: “Navigable to its very source and fed by innumerable smaller springs, each a gorgeous beauty spot in itself, the stream meanders through forest primeval to join the Oklawaha nine miles away.”

Not only is the reader given a birds-eye view of the formulaically beautiful “palm-fringed strip” and “sapphire blue” surface of Silver Springs, but a panoramic view of the “crystal depths” below the surface is also revealed. Instead of looking down into the valley atop a mountain-ridge (like the romantic figures of Durand), Silver Springs’s visitors experience the sublime through glass-bottom boats that make visible everything underwater. The tourists stare down from above, through the glass and “sparkling transparency” of the water, at the sublime landscape below the subterranean river’s surface. From the omnipotent perspective of the tourist, “every fish and aquatic plant is an open-sesame.” The concluding paragraph even suggests that the mysteries of nature are revealed in all their beauty at Silver Springs. Nature is no longer “nature.” Instead it is a theater, a panorama, an invisible place made visible:

Glass bottom boats ply over Florida’s Subaqueous Fairyland. The underwater scenery is as gorgeous and varied as terrestrial plant and animal life is multiple; for here at Silver Springs Nature has drawn aside the curtain of mystery that shrouds other waters and revealed the living panorama of a world unknown to those who have never seen beneath its surface.

Cultural critics Mary Louise Pratt and Allan Wallach have examined the power and conventional beauty intimated in omniscient views like the one constructed for modern tourists in the quoted Silver Springs description. In the groundbreaking text Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, Pratt contends that nineteenth-century travelers often used promontory views with pictorial conventions to present themselves as a “discoverer” who has the power/authority to evaluate, if not to possess, a scene (205). In his 1993 essay, “Making a Picture of the View from Mount Holyoke,” Wallach uses the term “panoptic sublime,” to describe issues of power and control he sees in the Romantic visions of Nature. Wallach argues that the omnipotent panoramic position of vision seen so often in Romantic and transcendentalist landscape painting correlates to the surveying control described by Foucault. In the nineteenth century, only the ruling class had the time and money to tour because of the expense of transportation and travel. Wallach writes, for example, “Having reached the topmost point in an optical hierarchy, the tourist experiences a sudden access of power, a dizzy sense of having suddenly come into possession of a terrain stretching as far as the eyes could see” (83). And in the panorama, the viewer is shrouded in darkness, invisible, surveying and psychologically taking possession of all that is laid before him. Like the “open-sesame” and “living panorama” of Silver Springs, nineteenth-century panorama paintings, according to Wallach, present the world in the “form of totality; nothing seems hidden to the spectator, looking down upon a vast scene from its center, appears to preside over all visibility” (82). 12. Using Pratt and Wallach’s thesis, the birds-eye view of nature written into the 1930s Silver Springs brochure and created by picture frame glass-bottom boats located at the park, not only reflects the Romantic aesthetics and values of the old genteel culture; they offer the tourist the invigorating experience of possession and power over terrestrial and aquatic Nature.

The supremacy of vision and genteel notions of the sublime and beautiful expressed within the Silver Springs brochure’s Romantic rhetoric are also intertwined within the scientific gaze connoted in the very design and experience of the glass-bottom boat itself. In many ways the frame and transparent glass of the boat’s bottom, in which the world below the surface is even more clearly made visible, functions much like the transparent lens of a microscope. Like a variety of technologies of observation that were invented and perfected during the period between the early Renaissance and the nineteenth century, the microscope made objects that were invisible visible. These optical technologies revealed an overwhelming vision of a vast and intricately beautiful view of the cosmos (both micro and macro). The relationship between the individual and larger natural systems highly influenced transcendentalists like Emerson’s concepts of the sublime as revealed by science. As Wilson contends, “Under the scientific gaze, organisms become pattern of holistic force, energy, life; an insight into the relationships between part and whole becomes sublime vision” (10). Inducing an aspect of the sublime reported by some of its visitors, the scientific gaze inherent in the glass-bottom boat, like that of the microscope and telescope, reveals more clearly the overwhelming depths and biology of the diverse aquatic “universe” below the Silver River’s surface. The text of the 1930s brochure, for example, rather flamboyantly boasts that the transparency at Silver Springs “has drawn aside the curtain of mystery that shrouds other waters and revealed the living panorama of a world unknown to those who have never seen beneath its surface.” Similarly, Emerson once stated when speaking of the night sky, “One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime” (15).

The vision of the sublime constructed for Silver Springs tourists by the transparency of the water and the scientific gaze connoted within the frame of the glass-bottom boat has, in many ways, more in common with representations of the panoptic sublime as discussed by Wallach. Unlike the eye level sunsets and upward reaching mountains created by Romantic painters like Casper Friedrich, the glass-bottom boat riders are situated high above the vast caverns, jutting rocks, exotic plants, and abundant fish of the Silver River that they are watching. Like the amateur naturalist travelers examined by Pratt, they examine the natural world through the privileged “lens” of science. Although elements of the sublime (i.e. anxiety inducing vertigo, disorientation from movement, and insignificance in relation to the vastness of the depths of the water) are present, the scientific gaze and the sense of the picturesque created by the frame of the glass-bottom boat functions to contain and manage the experience of nature. Like the canvases of nineteenth-century transcendentalist American landscape oil paintings or the outer edges optical devices like the Claude Glass, the “picture window” of the glass-bottom boat functions to contain and mediate the experience of the vastness of natural landscapes. As Neumann argues in relation to the optical devices and park-sanctioned Kodak photo spots made available at the Grand Canyon by the National Park service, “The general view of the Grand Canyon is so overpowering that separating a section of it for a moment and making it a ‘framed picture’ – brings it better within one’s comprehension” (152).

Cinematic Vision: Nature and Technology Hollywood Style

As our Silver Springs tour nears completion, our captain slowly turns the boat around and heads back to the Victorian dock. This time, however, the boat travels northward, tracing the opposite side of the bank. During the trip home, the captain boasts about Silver Springs’ cinematic history. He instructs all passengers to look at the right bank in order to catch a glimpse of a horseshoe-shaped “lucky palm” where movie stars such a Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Doris Day, and Don Johnson got their picture taken while at Silver Springs. The captain reminds everyone not to forget to get his or her picture taken there before leaving the park. “Make sure to make a wish,” he adds. The boat momentarily stops. As the boat hovers, the captain says that he would like to introduce us to the Silver Springs’ celebrities in permanent residence. After instructing everyone once again to look down through the frame of glass embedded in the boat’s hull, he points to white, fiberglass statues and states that they were featured players in the television shows I Spy and Sea Hunt and in several James Bond feature films. As the boat begins to move again, the captain recommends that everyone take the Jungle Cruise glass-bottom boat in order to see the set of Johnnie Weismuller’s television program Tarzan and the film sets of Marjoire Kinnan Rawlings’s novels The Yearling and Cross Creek.

The moving images created by the frame of the glass-bottom boat and the passivity of viewers sitting and watching sections of the world below float past place the natural world within the culturally sanctioned aesthetics of science, the sublime, and the picturesque – and is not unlike watching a film. As Walker Percy asserts, “The very means by which the thing is presented for consumption, the very techniques by which the thing is made available, as an item of need-satisfaction, these very means operate to remove the thing from the sovereignty of the knower” (62). Jonathan Crary too points out that “technologies of vision not only suspended the coordinate of a lived time and space, they equally implicated the spectator in a real and fictional landscape of successive images effortlessly moving across the eyes” (158). Anthony D. King also explains, “The window . . . in modern times functions as a mechanism for consuming the landscape not only visually (as is the “picture window”) but also economically and socially” (136).


Influenced by the fact that his Florida essays were part of a series about the social and economic conditions in the post-Civil War South commissioned by Scribner’s Monthly, Edward Smith King writes about a Silver Springs that is a peaceful, harmoniously beautiful, Edenesque garden. While still maintaining some elements of the sublime, King frames Silver Springs as picturesque by evoking the Romantic pastoral conventions like the wandering poet or painter, the prelapsarian landscape, stylized foliage, and a highly aesthetic setting sun. He writes:

Yes, what of fiction could exceed in romantic interest the history of this venerable State? What poet’s imagination, seven times heated, could paint foliage whose splendors should surpass that of the virgin forest of the Ocklawaha and Indian rivers? What “fountain of youth” could be imagined more redolent of enchantment than the “Silver Spring,” now annually visited by 50,000 tourists? The subtle moonlight, the perfect glory of the dying sun as he sinks below a horizon fringed with fantastic trees, the perfume faintly borne from the orange grove, the murmurous music of the waves along the inlets, and the mangrove-covered banks, are beyond words. (145)

Silver Springs as an uniquely American landscape, as a sublime and picturesque earthly paradise, and the glass-bottom boat as a privileged way of seeing, all have their roots in European aesthetics and scientific traditions that attempt to elevate and contain the natural landscape. By the mid-nineteenth century, Romantic and American transcendentalist representations of nature as a sacred space for transcendence and aesthetic pleasure, which contrasts against the artificial trappings of industrial civilized society, became an essential part of the visual paradigm of many upper and middle class Americans. Thus, the quest for and construction of the sublime, beautiful, and scientific in nature are often found throughout the history of American environmental tourist attractions such as Silver Springs and are inseparably intertwined with American concerns about national identity, culture, and industrialization. The construction of Silver Springs as a worthwhile tourist destination, as an edifying, scientific landscape, as picturesque, as sublime is illustrated in the nineteenth-century travel narratives of Daniel Brinton, of Constance Fenimore Cooper Woolson, of George McCall, in the promotional brochures and souvenir books of the twentieth century, in the narratives performed by glass-bottom boat captains today, in the essays of Edward Smith King, within twentieth-century, park-sanctioned promotional materials, and through the looking glass in the bottom of the boat itself. Even today, the rhetoric of Silver Springs promoters promises to entertain glass-bottom boat riders with beauty, motion, and spectacle, but also offers them a scientific education with a sense of national pride and cultural progress as well. This rhetoric surrounding Silver Springs is indicative of the larger role tourism and spectacle play in how Americans define themselves as individuals and as a nation.


1. In Florida, later than many destinations on the American Grand Tour, tourism as an industry did not really see its modest beginnings as a significant tourist destination until the region became a territory of the United States in 1821 and a state in 1845. Florida historian Rembert W. Patrick asserts that it was during the territorial and early statehood periods that small numbers of visitors/tourists started to replace the earlier adventurers and journalists who came to Florida. Patrick further argues that printed journals such as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Reminiscences, amongst other publications by lesser-known visiting authors, “were responsible for an ever-increasing number of visitors who sought the warmth and sunshine of Florida before the Civil War” (ix). As early as 1869, according to Patrick, over 25, 000 travelers were reported to have visited Florida; less reliable sources boasted even twice that number (xiii).

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2. According to both the official Silver Springs website and the Discover Silver Springs: Souvenir Book available today, it was Phillip Morrell who first invented that glass-bottom in the late 1870’s. But it wasn’t until 1890s that the glass-bottom boat was commercially developed.

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3. John Berger’s seminal work Ways of Seeing first exposed me to this contention.

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4. According to John Sears, the American Grand Tour encompassed the Hudson River, the Catskills, Lake George, the Erie Canal, Niagara Falls, the White Mountains, and the Connecticut Valley.

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5. Most of the culturally “sanctioned”/“certified” American tourists sights, however, were constructed with little concern or knowledge of working class or minority tastes and values until later in the twentieth century. John Kasson, for example, examines the ways in which the nineteenth-century genteel culture that dominated early American tourism is eventually subverted (but never completely) by the more working class aesthetics available at mass culture entertainment parks like Coney Island and become even more readily available in the twentieth century. This cultural shift can also be seen in the snake milking and Alligator wresting shows that appear in the early 30s when Ross Allen brings his “Reptile Institute” to Silver Springs.

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6. Sears, Nye, Neumann, and Leo Marx all examine the importance of romanticism, nature, and tourism in the construction of American national identity.

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7. The dark color of the Ocklawaha River is attributed to the tannins present in the water.

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8. According to Kenneley’s Discover Silver Springs, the area was designated a Registered National Landmark in 1925. The U.S. Department of the Interior stated: “This site possesses exceptional value in illustrating the natural history of the United States.”

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9.The brochure was obtained from the Richter Library of the University of Miami. It is undated. The dress and cars shown in one of its photographs approximate the date.

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10. “Prince Chulcotah, son of Chief Yemassee, fell in love with Winona, daughter of Ikehumpkee, and enemy chief. When Winona’s father learned of her desire to marry the prince, he declared war on Yemassee’s tribe. Prince Chuloctah was killed, causing Winona great grief. The story says she lost her will to live, and on a clear, moonlit night, leapt into the water and was drowned,” read the contemporary Discover Silver Springs guidebook (Kenneley 14).

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11. I have yet to obtain brochures from after the 1950s; thus, I’m not yet certain when the legend changes in the official guides books. The first glass-bottom boats were also named after the park founders. My current research includes discovering when the boat names changed to those of famous Florida Indians.

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12. In the paintings of Casper Friedrich, for example, the figures most often are positioned at the horizon even when standing on mountaintops. In many of the Hudson River School painting, however, the figures are looking down upon the sublime landscape spread before them.

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Works Cited

Allen, Frederick Lewis. Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920's. New York: Harper & Row, 1931.

Ammidown, Margot. “Edens, Underworlds, and Shrines: Florida’s Small Tourist Attractions.” The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts 23 (1998): 239-259.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: BBC, 1972.

Brinton, Daniel. Notes on the Floridian Peninsula and Its Literary History: Indian Tribes and Antiquities. 1859. New York: AMS Press, 1969.

Chard, Chloe. “Crossing Boundaries and Exceeding Limits: Destabilization, Tourism and the Sublime.” Ed. Chloe Chard and Helen Longon. Transports: Travel, Pleasure, and Imaginary Geography, 1600-1830. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1996.

Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990.

Davis, Susan. Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the Sea World Experience. Berkley: U of California P, 1997.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nature: Addresses, and Lectures 1. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1971.

Gannon, Michael. Florida: A Short History. Gainesville: UP of Florida,1993.

Jansen, Partricia. Wild Things: Nature, Culture, and Tourism in Ontario 1790-1914. Toronto: Toronto Press, 1995.

Kasson, John. Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century. New York: Whill & Wang, 1978.

Kenneley, Frances. Discover Silver Springs: Souvenir Book. Ed. Daniel Le Blanc. Florida Leisure, Inc, 1994.

King, Anthony D. “The Politics of Vision.” Understanding Ordinary Landscapes. Ed. Paul Groth and Todd W. Bressi. New Haven: Yale UP, 1997.

King, Edward Smith. “The Southern States of North America: Florida.” The Florida Reader: Visions of Paradise from 1530 to the Present. Eds. Maurice O’Sullivan and Jack C. Lane. Sarasota: Pineapple Press, 1991. 144-148.

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden; Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. 1964. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.

McCall, George A. Letters from the Frontiers. 1868. Gainesville: U of Florida P, 1974.

Neumann, Mark. On the Rim: Looking for the Grand Canyon. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1999.

---. Personal interview. 20 Oct. 2002.

Nye, David. American Technological Sublime. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1996.

Patrick, W. Rembert. Introduction. Guide to Florida. By “Rambler.” Gainesville: U of Florida P, 1964. vii-xix.

Percy, Walker. The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.

Pratt. Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. New York and London: Routledge, 1992.

Sears, John. Sacred Places: American Tourist Attractions in the Nineteenth Century. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1989.

Silver Springs. University of Miami Richter Library Special Collections, undated brochure.

Wallach, Allan. “Making a Picture of the View from Mount Holyoke.” Ed. David Miller. American Iconology: New Approaches to Nineteenth-Century Art and Literature. New Haven: Yale UP, 1993.

Wilson, Eric. Emerson’s Sublime Science. New York: St. Martin’s Press Inc, 1999.

Woolson, Constance Fenimore. “The Oklawaha.” 1875. Old Florida 100. Ed. Skip Whitson. Albuquerque: Sun Publishing Co., 1977.

Wordsworth, William. “The Recluse.” Wordsworth’s Poems. Vol. 3. Ed. Philip Wayne. London: J. M. Dent & Sons LTD, 1955.


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