MANATEE — The Braden River is a rare bird.
It’s a geologic rarity because it flows mostly north instead of south.
It is fed by rainfall that trickles down through tiny tributaries amid the cow pastures of eastern Manatee County and gathers strength as it cuts a path through ranchland, suburbia and urban areas to empty into the Manatee River.
While its few north-flowing counterparts — the Nile River in Africa and the Saint Johns River on the east coast of Florida — are famous, the Braden River is well-known only among those who live and work near it.
But the river has a long and rich history, from its wild years as a place that spawned tales of moonshiners and supported sugar plantations, to the leafy enclave whose cool rush of limpid water is barely detectable behind golf courses and suburban homes.
The population along it has multiplied from sparse rural denizens to tens of thousands of suburbanites, with neighborhoods like the Harborage, River Club, Lakewood Ranch and River Forest. Development has affected its ecology, but the river’s bounty has remained clean — benefiting, in part, from careful protection.
It is the source of fresh water for Bradenton, officials say.
“It’s unique because parts of this river are held back as a reservoir that provides drinking water to over 60,000 people,” says Charlie Hunsicker, director of the county’s Natural Resources Department. “Recognizing and protecting this irreplaceable source of drinking water to the city of Bradenton is very important.”
A rich resource
The Braden River has long exerted a magnetic pull with its banks teeming with lush vegetation, animals and birds, and its waters a place to fish and boat.
When the Marineland neighborhood was built on the banks of the Braden River after World War II, it “offered to people the kind of wild Florida frontier you normally had to go 50 miles inland to find,” Hunsicker says.
Marineland resident Denise Kleiner is a stockbroker who works from her home overlooking the water. Originally from Sanibel Island, she came to love Braden River’s convoluted twists and turns, its elegance as a retreat for kayakers and canoeists, its rich wildlife.
“I saw a whole family of limpkins in my driveway once,” she recalls. A limpkin, which looks like a cross between a crane and a rail, is a wading bird with a 42-inch wingspan and a piercing call. It is widespread in the American tropics, but in the United States is found only in Florida, where it can satisfy its dietary requirement for a certain freshwater snail, according to BirdingGuide.com.
Two years ago, Kleiner founded the Old Braden River Historical Society, now a nonprofit group, in efforts to protect the river’s fragile environment and preserve historical sites along its banks.
Those sites include Linger Lodge, a funky restaurant and campground shaded by huge oaks that has for decades inhabited the river’s shady edge, and Jiggs Landing, a former fish camp the county purchased to renovate into a park.
River changes with seasons
The river is 21 miles long, according to calculations by Natural Resources Department experts, and represents the largest tributary of the Manatee River.
It’s difficult to mark a definite “headwater” of the river, but several spots are considered its source, or reasonably close to its source, says Gary S. Comp, regional manager, ecological and water resources associate for WilsonMiller, a consulting firm.
During the state’s long winter dry season, many of the sources dry up completely, but they spring back to life once the summer rains begin.
A team of Herald reporters set out to explore the Braden River from one end to the other during the past few months and discovered that with the drought conditions, the headwaters east of Lorraine Road and north of State Road 70 were dry. In places, they found pastures and creek channels, but no visible water.
Even as far west as Linger Lodge, in the dry season, many parts of the river are too shallow for even a kayak or canoe.
The river’s flow was changed in 1936 when a reservoir was created to provide Bradenton a source of fresh water. The resulting Ward Lake could store 585 million gallons.
By the 1940s, subdivisions like Lincoln Marine’s “Marineland” appeared outside the city limits of Bradenton.
With Bradenton’s growing population and need for more water, the reservoir was reconstructed in 1985 to increase its size to about 1.4 billion gallons, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report. Ward Lake was renamed the Bill Evers Reservoir, after the mayor at the time, and collects water from a 59-square-mile area, referred to as a watershed.
The Braden River watershed has three components, according to the report. The upper reach consists of a free-flowing channel of 8.6 miles, a 6.4-mile mid-section of meandering channel and the lower six miles that is a tidal estuary.
The waterway’s namesake
The first settlers who lived along the Braden River grew oranges, made bricks and fished for a living. And old-timers have passed down many a story about moonshining along its banks.
Originally called “Braden Creek,” the waterway was named for Dr. Joseph A. Braden, a physician and native Virginian who came from Tallahassee to the Manatee River area in the early 1840s, according to a historic plaque in Bradenton, which is also named for him.
By 1850, Braden had acquired close to 1,100 acres and built a steam-operated sugar mill, according to “Story of Braden Castle And Braden Castle Park,” written by Garnet B. Lamberson.
Using slave labor and local materials, he built what is now known as Braden Castle — a large, gracious two-story residence complete with four chimneys and eight fireplaces, Lamberson wrote.
Its 20-inch-thick walls were built of tabby, made from burnt oyster shells, crushed and sifted, making lime that was then mixed with water and sand and poured into forms.
In 1856, the castle was attacked unsuccessfully by Seminole Indians; in 1857, acres of sugar cane were destroyed by corn borers. Braden faced foreclosure and left the area in 1864, Lamberson wrote.
In 1903, the abandoned castle was destroyed by fire. The ruins were bought by the Camping Tourists of America in 1924 and can be seen as part of the Braden Castle Park Historic District, designated in 1983. The district is bounded by the Manatee and Braden rivers.
Flowing with history
Another early settler along the river was Nancy Cunliff, who with her husband, James, built a house near the river, according to an account in “The Singing River,” written by Joe Warner.
“Nancy maintained a free ferry service for travelers going to and from Pine Level (now in DeSoto County), which was the Manatee County seat from 1866-1887,” he wrote. “Whoever was available towed people in a small boat across the river in response to a cowhorn call from the opposite bank, which became known as ‘Hollering Point.’ ”
During threats of Indian raids, the Cunliffs took refuge at Braden Castle, but because they had befriended Indians living nearby, their home was spared from burning and looting, Warner wrote.
The first bridge to span the river was a hump-backed wooden structure built in 1882-83, near the present-day spot where State Road 70 spans the river, Warner wrote.
In 1888, a storm washed out the original bridge, but it was rebuilt for $1,500, he wrote.
The two present concrete spans were built in 1999, according to Cindy Clemmons-Adente, a public information director for the Florida Department of Transportation.
To conserve and celebrate
Old Braden River Historical Society members turn out frequently for cleanup days and fundraisers on the river’s behalf. Still, Kleiner would like to see more East Manatee residents take an active role in helping conserve and celebrate the river.
Claude Tankersley knows something about stewardship.
As the director of public works and utilities for Bradenton, his department has monitored the quality of the river water for decades.
“We have not seen any degradation of the quality of the water,” said Tankersley. “We’re very lucky most of the water that enters the river comes from groundwater, which carries and percolates through the ground. The dirt, soil, plants and plant roots act as a filter for the water.”
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 708-7908.