How Tarzan Inspired Monkey Island

Samuel Chase
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If you live near the “Nature Coast” of Florida, you’re probably familiar with the tale of ‘Monkey Island.’ Or, at least one of them. You see, the problem is there’s more than one.  There are actually two ‘Monkey Islands’ and its easy for people to get the two confused as they are located less than 45 minutes from each other. The lesser known island is located in Homosassa Springs, Florida.

Monkey Island
Monkey Island in Homosassa, Florida.

Monkey Island Homosassa Springs

According to local legend, Homosassa developer G.A. “Furgy” Furgason, took a business trip to Africa as he was developing what is now known as Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. The park was to include an assortment of exotic plants and wild animals, including some monkeys he had obtained from a doctor doing polio research in the United States.

Now keep in mind, a few of these monkeys were causing Furgy much consternation by swiping candy from children, breaking into cars, and literally biting the hands of visitors trying to feed them. Furgy was up to his eyeballs in monkey business and jokingly stated that he wished he could exile the little hooligans to Alcatraz.

In the middle of the Homosassa River, there was located an outcropping of rocks that in the 1960’s boaters were continually running aground on. Just before leaving for Africa, Furgy instructed some of his workers at the park to pile some dirt on the outcropping of rocks to make it more visible.

When he returned from Africa, he found his crew had built what can only be described as “a small island.” Always flamboyant, Furgy decided to build a mini “Alcatraz” on the island to house some of his hooligans obtained from the research doctor. A mini lighthouse, trees, fencing, and huts were eventually added to the island. And, that is how ‘Monkey Island’ in Homosassa Springs came to be.

Monkey island
Silver Springs — View from glass bottom boat looking toward docks.

Monkey Island Silver Springs

But, the more famous ‘Monkey Island’ is located in Silver Springs, Florida. It is responsible for spawning the largest contingent of wild monkeys ever in the United States.

Silver Springs has been a destination attraction for tourist since before the Civil War. It was famous long before Disney World was envisioned. It became particularly popular with Northerners following the American Civil War. The Spring’s main attraction features glass-bottom boat tours which have been operating on the huge artesian springs fed river since 1878.

This exotic southern location was a perfect setting for the filming of the 1932 hit movie, Tarzan the Ape Man, starring 5 time Olympic Gold Medal Champion, Johnny Weissmuller.

Besides winning 5 Gold Medals, Johnny Weissmuller won 52 U.S. national championships, set more than 50 world records and was undefeated in official competitions for his entire career. He was the first swimmer to break the one-minute barrier in the 100 meter freestyle and the first to swim the 440 yard freestyle in under five minutes.

In short, Weissmuller was the perfect Tarzan. Almost superhuman. And, if the public didn’t know who he was before Tarzan, they certainly did afterwards.

Five more Tarzan movies were shot in Silver Springs and Wakulla Springs ending in the early 1940’s. In addition, the classic 1954 horror film, Creature from the Black Lagoon, was shot on location in Silver Springs. I distinctly remember, as a child, watching in fearful suspense the ‘Creature’ emerging from a black spring onto a sandy bank that appeared eerily familiar. Had I known it was Silver Springs, it might not have frightened me so.

The Jungle Cruise

Jungle Cruise at Silver Springs.

People have speculated, with some certainty, that the Tarzan movie connection inspired Colonel Tooey, a business owner operating a “Jungle Cruise” on the river in the 1930’s, to establish a troop of wild Rhesus monkeys on an island in the middle of the river. The monkeys were to enhance the allure of the “Jungle Cruise.” Unfortunately, Tooey didn’t realize that Rhesus monkeys are excellent swimmers and soon after being put on the island, escaped by swimming to the banks of the river. Thus, was born the legend of ‘Monkey Island’ in Silver Springs.

That was 79 years ago. It’s currently estimated that more than a 1,000 Rhesus monkeys may now inhabit Florida. Monkeys have been spotted as far South as Sarasota and as far North as Jacksonville.

I’m LOL. Wild monkeys in Florida! Extraordinary!

Extraordinary, because it is a reality made true by Hollywood and an enterprising, albeit misguided, “Jungle Cruise” business owner.

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