Progressive Activism’s Growth in Florida via Ditch of Dreams: The Cross Florida Barge Canal and the Struggle for Florida’s Future

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Book Review of Ditch of Dreams

Ditch of Dreams: The Cross Florida Barge Canal and the Struggle for Florida’s Future (Florida History and Culture) is one of many Florida related books that have peaked my curiosity when I’ve seen them on Amazon. This book written by David Tegeder and Steven Noll is one of the best.

The Cross Florida Barge Canal along with the effort to build an Everglades Jetport (the fight over which was discussed in great detail in Michael Grunwald’s epic The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise )   in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s were not only Florida’s environmental awakening, but the dual events that really created the infrastructure for serious activism among progressives and those who cared about the welfare of this state and its land.

Ditch of Dreams also gives a great historical look at the Ocklawaha River a waterway destroyed by the Rodman (now the George C. Kirkpatrick) Dam and the various channelization and canaling schemes that have characterized Florida in the 20th Century. The Ocklawaha, like the St Johns, the Caloosahatchee and other waterways in the state have felt the double-whammy of channelization and over-development nearby straining its natural ecosystem.

Removal of the Rodman Dam, a hot issue when I was a student at the University of Florida was one of the pet causes that got me active politically. Senator Jack Latvala was a vote away from getting the dams removal to the Senate floor in 2000 but Democrats crossing over killed his efforts and no serious legislative effort has been made since to remove the damaging structure. So this book was near and dear to me.

In the introduction to the book the authors state the fight over the Cross Florida Barge Canal represented a new awakening for activists.

“It illustrates the importance of citizen activism, showing how a rag-tag bunch of north Florida residents with little power and influence faced down a formidable
alliance of business interests and state and federal officials—including the Army Corps of Engineers—and won.”

Proponents of the canal saw ironies in the willingness of the state to indulge Disney, something that continues to play out today as opposed to the impact of this project.

“Congressman Charles Bennett, a Jacksonville Democrat who vigorously supported the canal, saw the ironies inherent in those events when he proclaimed that “Walt Disney’s never-never land of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse will damage Florida’s ecology more than the now-stymied Cross-State Barge Canal.” Predicting that the new theme park, especially in comparison to an enhanced waterway, would be nothing but “concrete buildings and asphalt,” Bennett presciently pointed to the prevailing environmental problem facing the Sunshine State today: urban sprawl. With more than a little bitterness, he observed that Disney’s creation near Orlando “will be helpful economically, but it will destroy more ecologically than the canal ever would.”

The idea of a canal cutting across the state to increase commerce began in 1765 when Florida then under British Administration Governor James Grant wanted to build an “east-west river-canal” to be built with slave labor in a short period of time. When the Treaty of Paris deemed Florida’s return to Spain following Britain’s defeat in the (American) Revolutionary War, the canal idea died until the United States took possession of Florida in 1821. The book details how after statehood the momentum for a canal grew but was eventually shelved in favor of railroads. After the Civil War the push began again with even likes of Josiah Walls, Florida’s first African-American Congressman pushing for the canal’s approval as part of the Reconstruction era.

Washington DC became the epicenter of debates about the canal in this era and that continued into the time of US Senator Duncan Fletcher who was able to push through the beginning of canal construction with the support for the Roosevelt Administration after the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. Soon however, anti-New Deal forces led by Senator Arthur Vandenberg (R-Michigan) cultivated anti-canal sentiment in Florida especially south of Orlando to create hurdles for the completion of construction. The canal was shelved in 1936 and Senator Fletcher soon passed away, died of a broken heart perhaps.

But in 1942 during the heart of World War II, Congress authorized the canal and but the battle to get fund appropriated lasted until the mid 1960’s. Finally then, canal funds and construction began. For the rest of the story here is a summary of what transpired and awakening of activists written by Ryan Ray on these pages two years ago.

The political battle over the canal helped define modern Florida. The 1970’s were an environmental decade in the state and the “Golden Age” of Florida politics also saw more emphasis on growth management and restoration of the Everglades. But by the time I became a student at the University of Florida times were changing and environmentalists and progressives were on the defensive as Florida politicians saw every inch of available land as a chance for development. Those fights continue today, with the barge canal victory remaining one of the most notable in the history of the state’s progressive activists.

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