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Draining the Everglades 

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Bass fishing on Lake Okeechobee.

The first industry in the Glades was fishing for catfish. Men such as William L. Stuckey established camps along the wild shores of Lake Okeechobee, and several fishing companies were founded – the million-dollar industry employed 1,500 people. At its peak, the business shipped out an amazing 6.5 million pounds of catfish each year. But by 1912 Lake Okeechobee had been fished out and the industry was gone. Today the lake supports sportfishing and has been called the “Bass Fishing Capital of the World.” After the fishing industry died, farming took its place. But to create farmland, the swampy Everglades had to be drained. 

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Hamilton Disston

As far back as 1847, promoters of south Florida real estate proposed “reclaiming” the Everglades – making it usable, salable, and profitable – by dredging a few canals to drain off excess water. In 1881 Hamilton Disston purchased 4,000,000 acres of land from the State of Florida for $1,000,000, or 25 cents per acre. Disston planned to drain the land, which stretched from Orlando to south of Lake Okeechobee, to expose the fertile muck that was perfect for growing crops. This purchase started wheels turning that did not stop through lawsuits, government resolutions, land grants, studies, and contracts made and cancelled. The many players included several determined Florida governors, the railroad companies of Henry Flagler and others, and a series of government groups formed to be stewards of the land or to monitor the others who were involved.  

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Florida Governor Napoleon Broward

Although the U.S. Congress had granted the Everglades land to the State of Florida in 1850, it wasn’t until 1903 that a patent solidified their title. The governors believed in their obligation to drain the wetlands for cultivation and settlement, and each one contributed to its progress, beginning with William Bloxham in 1881, although Napoleon Bonaparte Broward is most often remembered for beginning the actual drainage. 

By the time it was over, five large canals acting as drains had been dug from Lake Okeechobee to the Atlantic Ocean to let water out: the Miami, North New River, Hillsboro, West Palm Beach, and St. Lucie canals. For each mile of canal that was cut, about 900 acres of land was drained. 

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Map of south Florida showing canals.

The canals also supplied a new means of transportation. Settlers used them to reach their new land, and farmers used them to ship their produce to the eastern towns with larger populations and connections to the railroad. However, the canals easily got clogged with silt (dirt), so when roads and railroads connected to Lake Okeechobee, travel on the canals stopped. Canals continue to serve an important function today by holding the overflow of rainwater. Draining the swamps created rich farmland, but also left the area prone to flooding. 

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A barge at Canal Point.

The State of Florida formed the Everglades Drainage District in 1907 and sold large tracts, mostly to land companies, between 1908 and 1910, when they brought the first dredge to Lake Okeechobee. Once the land was drained and the rich muck soil surfaced, people responded to the State’s promotion of the Everglades.

 

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