Florida’s “mother swamp,” the Everglades, is an immense, shallowly flooded region, where countless minor hills become islands. While part of the south Florida ecosystem has ancient limestone as its foundation, the Everglades, formed only during the past 5,000 years, as sea levels rose from the lows of the Ice Age to present levels. Its slow-moving waters allow dense mats of algae to grow, which form the basis of an extensive food web. Like on a coral reef, the presence of so many tiny organisms attracts small animals, which in turn attract larger animals. Seemingly endless fields of sawgrass provide shelter and nesting sites for snakes, alligators, turtles, birds, panthers—and mosquitoes.
This abundance of life, although still remarkable, is not what it was in 1896, when Mary E. Woodward described a boat trip on the Upper Miami River:
Everything was quietness and repose, broken only by the cry and flight of many large water birds. The river wound around among the trees, deeply bordered with water plants and tall grasses, until we saw before us an ocean of grass, as far as the eye could reach: rising out of it here and there clumps of mangrove and islands of pines. I am told that after penetrating the Everglades ten or fifteen miles, there remains only a grassy sea, broken occasionally by a plant or shrub peculiar to the region, and although small, showing above the grass for a long distance. The water is deep and clear as crystal, seeming like air as we looked down on it when unrippled.
Courtesy Florida State Archives.
Although it is not visible in Woodward’s account, alteration of the Everglades’ natural ecosystem by humans had already begun in 1847, two years after Florida was granted statehood. From the late 1800s into the early 1900s, knowledge and technology greatly increased in the field of drainage engineering. Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward used this progress in 1907 to begin a state effort to reclaim the wetlands under an Everglades Drainage District.
Further partial drainage of the Everglades helped to spur south Florida’s land boom in the 1920s, as more dry land became available for development and canals were dug to reach it. When the boom turned to bust in 1929, in part because of devastating hurricanes in 1926 and 1928, all drainage activity in south Florida was stopped. By then about 400 miles of canals had been constructed.
Courtesy U.S. Gelogical SUrvey South Florida
Construction of the Herbert Hoover Dike began in 1938, inspiring confidence that the Glades were safe from further flooding. After a pause for disastrous floods in 1947 and 1948, activity resumed and led to creation of the Central and Southern Florida Project for Flood Control and Other Purposes. At the same time, 700,000 acres of wetlands south of Lake Okeechobee were designated for draining as the Everglades Agricultural Area. The rest was cut up by a maze of highways, canals, levees, and dams that completely changed the water’s natural flow. A 100-mile levee separated the Everglades from urban development, effectively eliminating 160 square miles of Everglades east of the levee that had reached all the way to the Atlantic Coastal Ridge.
Making Florida a civilized place to live was hard work for early settlers as well as those who built on their foundation, but the toll on nature was also heavy. By far the most damage has been done to the Everglades, because people saw it as an obstacle to progress.