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Digging ourselves into a hole

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 1999


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U.S. 19 passes over the canal in Inglis. The state is still wrangling over what to do with the remnants of the $70-million canal.
[Times photo: Michael Weimar]
Built in the wrong century for the wrong reasons with the wrong numbers to justify it, the Cross Florida Barge Canal will forever stand as one of the biggest blunders in Florida history, one that permanently altered the state's landscape.

Imagine the reaction if you proposed it today:

Hey, let's cut a monstrous ditch across the middle of the state to link the Atlantic with the Gulf of Mexico, effectively turning most of the Florida peninsula into a big island, destroying everything in our path and letting seawater taint the underground supply of freshwater!

Oh, yeah, that would fly.

But back in the 1820s, when nature was regarded as an opponent to be beaten, the idea sounded perfectly logical. Hauling things overland was slow and uncertain, so ships were the quickest way to move cargo. Yet navigating around Florida's capes, keys and reefs was time-consuming and sometimes deadly. Wouldn't it be better to slice straight across, a triumph of geometry over geography?

Florida was not yet a state. Much of its interior was terra incognita. Federal surveyors dispatched to plot the canal route reported back that the terrain was too rough and the ports too shallow. Branded as impractical, canal fever faded for a century.

The Depression revived it. By the 1930s, trains and trucks had replaced ships as the main way to move things. But a cadre of canal-boosters persuaded President Franklin Roosevelt to chop Florida in half anyway -- not because the canal was needed but because the project would create jobs.

The groundbreaking ceremony hinted at how ill-conceived the notion was. A special remote hookup allowed FDR to blow the first charge of dynamite at the construction site. He hit the button too soon, and the premature blast interrupted a speech by the canal's loudest proponent.

Despite that bad omen, 6,000 workers assaulted the land, quickly clearing 4,000 acres -- knocking down ancient oaks and longleaf pines, ripping out saw palmetto, driving out bears and other wildlife, digging up 13,000 cubic yards of soil. Then Congress, to teach FDR a lesson about who controlled the government purse, halted funding, idling construction for 30 years.

The last big push came in the can-do, ask-not '60s. In private, John F. Kennedy supported the canal to woo the state's kingmakers. In public he said he backed it because nature had to be subservient to boosting the economy.

The only problem was, the Army Corps of Engineers' calculations showed that the canal was not economically feasible -- until the Army put its thumb on the scale, throwing in a bogus benefit called "land enhancement." In other words, gouging a gigantic hole in the land made it more valuable.

New President Lyndon Johnson traveled to Palatka for the 1964 groundbreaking. This time the dynamite blew on schedule, but the event was as rigged as the Army's cost-benefit analysis: Workers packed the site with peat moss so the explosion would create a satisfying spectacle.

Contractors set to work creating dirt-pile hills and backhoe-bucket valleys where none had existed. Florida's fledgling environmental movement dithered about what to do until ecologist Marjorie Harris Carr realized the threat to the wild Ocklawaha River.

"The first time I went up the Ocklawaha, I thought it was dreamlike," Carr said. "It was a canopy river. It was spring-fed and swift."

Then along came a machine called a crusher-crawler, which flattened thousands of cypress trees along the river, and the new Rodman Dam backed the Ocklawaha up for 16 miles, drowning whatever forest the crusher-crawler had left standing.

Carr saw her mission clearly.

"Here, by God, was a piece of Florida, a lovely natural area right in my back yard, that was being threatened for no good reason," she said.

Pushed by Carr, environmental groups tried to halt the canal. They were sneered at and snubbed by state and federal officials, who contended that the land they wanted to save was worthless scrub.

But in 1971 they won a federal court injunction and persuaded President Richard Nixon to halt construction. Canal-boosters were never able to get the crusher-crawler started again.

The taxpayers had spent more than $70-million for a ragged scar in the landscape. Nearly three decades later, people are still wrangling over what to do with the canal's remnants. Some want to fulfill Carr's dream of tearing down the dam blocking the Ocklawaha; others want to keep it because the bass fishing is good in the stump-filled reservoir.

The state has turned the rest of the old canal route into a 110-mile-long greenway named after Carr. There are trails for horses and hiking. Mountain bikers love the old limestone quarries.

Interstate 75 interrupts the greenway, so the state is building a thickly landscaped bridge across it. That way, trail users can cross without catching even a glimpse of the highway below. After all, you wouldn't want to spoil the experience of communing with nature, so rare in the sea of pavement that the rest of Florida has become.

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[Times art]

-- Information from Land Into Water -- Water Into Land: A History of Water Management in Florida, by Nelson M. Blake, and Some Kind of Paradise, by Mark Derr, was used in this story.

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