Satellite view of South Florida and Everglades National Park. Courtesy of NASA/NOAA.
By Robert Sanchez
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the publication of a tiny woman’s little book that eventually altered the trajectory of Florida history. To appreciate why, however, it’s helpful to look back a few years to a time when many of the sparsely populated state’s communities promoted growth at all costs.
Although the phrase “drain the swamp” has recently come to mean “shake things up in Washington, D.C.,” for most of the 20th Century those words had a literal meaning. Indeed, they accurately described the business practices used by many of Florida’s sellers of undeveloped land.
Their creative sales techniques soon gave rise to the pejorative term “swamp peddlers,” which unfairly stigmatized Florida’s legitimate developers of raw land. The swamp peddlers lured prospective buyers south during the winter months, when Florida’s weather was not only warmer than up north but – even better – coincided with South Florida’s extended dry season. As a result, land that was mostly underwater during summer’s rainy months often appeared to be high and dry.
Eventually, when word of this deceptive practice began to get around, inventive developers found a different way to make use of the flood-prone land that had languished undeveloped after the people who had bought it gave up hope.
The prevailing technique, which entailed literally draining the swamp, became this: Dig up the muck and the underlying rock on some of the land, then pile this material upon the rest of the land. The result: Voila! Hundreds of acres of waterfront property bordering newly dug lakes, ponds, and canals.
This satirical cartoon appeared in Puck humor magazine in 1886. Courtesy of Florida Memory.
This reclamation technique eventually enabled developers to engage in a kind of pincers movement from both sides of the Everglades. At first they primarily edged into the western reaches of Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Broward cities such as Sunrise, Pembroke Pines, and Weston are mostly built on drained swampland, as are the Miami-Dade cities such as Sweetwater and Doral.
Later, as the Gulf Coast city of Naples finally began to grow, developers barreled into the seasonally marshy Everglades area along the eastern reaches of Collier County, with ill-advised projects such as Golden Glades Estates belatedly illustrating the folly of this practice.
Through much of Florida’s history, the state government was complicit in the drain-the-swamp activities. The most telling example occurred way back in 1881. That’s when the cash-strapped state — still reeling from the impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction — sold 4 million acres of land for 25 cents an acre to a Philadelphia industrialist named Hamilton Disston.
Portrait of Hamilton Disston. Courtesy of Florida Memory.
Notice of land sale by Hamilton Disston in 1881. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Disston solemnly promised the state that he would drain the land for agriculture and development – a promise he mostly kept by constructing a network of canals to dry out the Kissimmee River Valley and much of the land around Lake Okeechobee.
Six decades later the canal construction was to go into overdrive in 1947, when a category 4 hurricane hit Fort Lauderdale and caused disastrous flooding throughout much of Southeast Florida. The flooding was especially destructive in the low-lying western areas of Miami-Dade County.
Indeed, former Governor Bob Graham, whose family operated a large dairy farm on Northwest Dade property that the Grahams later developed as the planned community of Miami Lakes, recalls seeing some of his family’s cows struggling to swim to higher ground.
The damage from the flooding soon led to the creation of the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control District and a flurry of construction overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The District – later renamed the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) – now operates a vast system of canals and locks designed to prevent the flooding of the urban areas, portions of which were built on what was formerly a portion of the Everglades.
Ironically this effort to regulate South Florida’s recurring cycles of wet and dry weather began in earnest the same year as the dedication in 1947 of Everglades National Park. President Harry Truman attended the ceremonies, as did Miami Herald reporter Jeanne Bellamy.
Bellamy, whom Governor Graham appointed many years later to serve on the SFWMD’s governing board, said one thing that impressed a great deal about the event was that President Truman took the time to greet all of the workers at the site, including the African Americans who toiled in the kitchen of the nearby lodge. In the Jim Crow Florida of 1947, that was unusual.
President Truman speaking at the dedication of Everglades National Park in 1947. Courtesy of Florida Memory.
Portrait of Jeanne Bellamy. Courtesy of Florida Memory.
Fifty years later, in 1997, Bellamy attended the ceremonies marking the park’s 50th anniversary. The topic of the day: “Saving the Everglades.” Vice President Al Gore was on hand to pledge the Clinton Administration’s support for projects that included building a huge reservoir to store rainwater.
That Floridians were intent on saving the Everglades – or at least what remained of the Everglades – was a tribute to Marjory Stoneman Douglas and her book The Everglades: River of Grass. First published in 1947, the book not only gave readers new insights into the nature of the area – a wide, shallow stream rather than a stagnant swamp – but it also highlighted the vital roles this vast area played in securing the welfare of the region.
Portrait of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, ca. 1940s. Courtesy of Florida Memory.
First edition of The Everglades: River of Grass. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Not only was the slow-moving flow of the water through a shady overgrowth of grass and sedge essential to replenishing the aquifer underneath on which hundreds of thousands of Floridians now rely for potable water, but the quality, quantity, and timing of the water reaching coast at the southern tip of Florida also had a major impact on estuarine sea life and the nearby coral reefs as well as the plants and animals the stream passes along the way.
As a columnist and editorial writer for The Herald, Jeanne Bellamy – Marjory’s lifelong friend – was an influential voice articulating the newspaper’s strong support for preserving and protecting the Everglades – and, not so incidentally, for endorsing political candidates who shared that vision.
It may have helped shape the newspaper’s point of view that there was a plaque honoring Marjory’s father Frank Stoneman in the One Herald Plaza hallway leading to the Editorial Board’s suite of offices, an area the newsroom drudges sometimes derisively dubbed the “ivory tower.”
Frank Stoneman was the founder of the newspaper that became The Herald, and Marjory, as a young woman worked there, first as a reporter and later as a columnist championing progressive causes such as women’s suffrage and urban planning.
Portrait of Frank B. Stoneman. Courtesy of Florida Memory.
Miami Herald employees (including Frank B. Stoneman). Courtesy of Florida Memory.
Sadly, neither of these influential women lived to see much progress toward saving what’s left of the Everglades. Douglas died in 1998 at the age of 108. That’s when The Herald finally was able to update and publish a Douglas obituary that had been on file and waiting in the wings for 30 years or so.
In 1997, Jeanne Bellamy, one of the few people to attend both the park’s 1947 dedication and the 1997 ceremonies marking its 50th anniversary, contributed a guest column to The Herald in which she recalled the fond hopes kindled by the park’s creation. Bellamy died in 2004 at the age of 92.
In recent years many of Florida’s political leaders have paid lip service to the goal of “saving” the Everglades, but they generally have recoiled from finding ways to cover the huge costs of “re-plumbing” the region. Worse, little has been done about the deteriorating condition of the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee. A collapse of the leaky dike could pose a threat of catastrophic flooding and potential loss of life.
The need to avert this very real risk has led to a policy of keeping the lake’s water levels low in order to ease pressure on the dike. That, in turn, has led to massive discharges of polluted water through canals linking the lake with the Atlantic to the east and the Gulf of Mexico to the west. That practice, in turn, recently contributed to massive algae blooms that killed fish, damaged tourism, and caused a stench in the canals and in the lagoons and bays into which the lake water flowed.
Finally, in 2017 – nearly two decades after the death of Marjory Stoneman Douglas — the Florida Legislature took a small step forward, approving money to begin work on a reservoir in which to store excess water. It won’t “save the Everglades,” but it may mask the stench – and the real problems that remain unsolved afflicting Florida’s unique “river of grass.”
Flier promoting a talk by Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Miami. Courtesy of Florida Memory.
U.S. postage stamp commemorating the creation of Everglades National Park in 1947. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Florida Everglades at dawn. Courtesy of C.P. Ewing/Flickr.
View of sawgrass marsh in Everglades National Park. Courtesy of Diana Robinson/Flickr.