Florida's Drowned Forest

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photo by Mark Long

Since Europeans first discovered and inhabited La Florida, men have searched for a way to avoid sailing around the peninsula to reach the Gulf of Mexico. A more efficient route to move goods to and from the Atlantic was a dream of many a would-be tycoon. Because the more than 1,300 miles of coastline add considerable time to the journey—not to mention the threat of pirates, coral reefs and bad weather with which to contend along the way—a shorter trip could forever change shipping across the Southeast.

After capturing Fort Caroline, commander Pedro Menéndez de Avilés explored the St. Johns and the west coast of Florida looking for a rumored second mouth of the St. Johns on the Gulf, according to Charles E. Bennett’s October 1966 Florida Historical Quarterly article “Early History of the Cross-Florida Barge Canal.” “Several mapmakers supported this theory of a Florida waterway. One map dated around 1594 shows rather imperfectly the water course across northern Florida… ‘A New and Accurate Map of East and West Florida Drawn from the Best Authorities,’ published in the London Magazine, March 1765, outlines a waterway from the St. Johns to a point just about Tampa Bay; a map made by Juan de la Puente in 1768 plainly shows a channel across the peninsula.” Of course, such maps were wrong.

Dream as they might, eventually all these explorers discovered that there is no easy, natural route across the state. But the strategic and economic advantages that would be offered by such a path were never forgotten. “With the Great Depression of the 1930s, construction began on the Cross Florida Barge Canal as a way to stimulate the economy and provide jobs. As part of his New Deal program, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved a $5 million allocation of federal funds for the project,” wrote Florida Historical Society executive director Ben Brotemarkle in a 2015 Florida Today article. The beginnings of construction were underway by 1935, but rising environmental concerns and lack of funding stalled completion.

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Photo by Lynn Polke

Congress again authorized the construction of the canal in July 1942. Support was sporadic, and the plans went nowhere for some time. Amid national security fears and pressure for job creation, President John F. Kennedy gave the go-ahead in 1963; the next year, President Lyndon Johnson ceremoniously set off the explosives that once again launched the sputtering project. The plan was to use the existing waterways to minimize the amount of excavating required. When complete, the canal would be 107 miles long—more than twice the length of the Panama Canal—12 feet deep by 150 feet wide. It would snake from the St. Johns River to the Gulf of Mexico, with five locks 84 feet wide and 600 feet long, two earthen dams and canal crossings.

"Marjorie Harris Carr led a group of environmentalists who successfully argued that the Ocklawaha River must be preserved and construction of the canal stopped,” wrote Brotemarkle. Stopped it was.

President Richard Nixon signed the order to halt the project in 1971. More than $63 million had been spent, and only 28 percent of the canal was complete. But the relief didn’t come soon enough for the Ocklawaha.

For thousands of years, Native Americans fished and hunted along the river’s shoreline. In the late 19th century, steamboats ferried tourists down the river’s winding length. The construction of Rodman Dam, now called Kirkpatrick Dam, changed all that. “The environmental tragedy… begins with a river that was considered one of the most beautiful rivers in the world,” says UNF curator of galleries Jim Draper. “The failed Cross Florida Barge Canal left a remnant dam and pool that was originally designed as a place for the barges to await the change in elevation through the lock system.” More than 40 years later, the 9,500-acre, 15-mile-long Rodman Reservoir still stifles the Ocklawaha River south of Palatka in Putnam County.

“This pool was stocked with bass and for a brief time became a place for bass fishing. As the pool matures, aquatic plants choke the reservoir, making it benign,” Draper says. “Every four years, the pool is lowered in order for the plants to die off.” When the dam is closed, the Ocklawaha Valley is flooded with about 14 to 16 feet of water. During the drawdown, the river flows freely at its normal level of four to six feet above sea level. Boats are then once again able to navigate it, with the remnants of the canal project on full display. The high waters of the reservoir caused a forest of cypress trees to die and break off at the water line, creating an otherworldly terrain.

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photo by Mark Long

“I could not believe the landscape there,” says artist and activist Margaret Ross Tolbert. “We went into the drowned forest. Thous-ands of acres of dead trees, all broken off the same height. It really looked like something from Mars.”

Tolbert is among those who believe the river and surrounding areas would be better served if the dam were gone.

“So much would be healthier about that river if the water wasn’t dammed up. I would like to see it free-flowing. People love to go there. All of us are hungry to see these places,” she says. “I would like to see the river repaired. Let it dry permanently. There’s no barge canal, so they don’t need the dam.”

Others argue that Kirkpatrick Dam does have a purpose. Preserving the barrier, in their view, ensures the health of plant and animal communities that have scratched out a niche in Rodman Reservoir. It has also become a lucrative sportfishing destination, attracting people from around the country to the Palatka area.

In 1990, President George Bush signed SB 2740 into law, de-authorizing the Cross Florida Barge Canal project and changing the purpose of the lands to recreation and conservation. This action ultimately led to the creation of the Cross Florida Greenway State Recreation and Conservation Area.

In 1998, the Cross Florida Greenway was officially renamed the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, in honor of the woman who led the fight to stop the canal project. The 110-mile Greenway now occupies much of the land formerly earmarked for the canal. Along the corridor’s wide variety of trails and recreation areas, one can see diverse natural habitats of native flora and fauna, as well as abandoned bridge trusses (left) and dig sites—now all-but-forgotten fragments of a dream that lived for some 400 years.

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Margaret Ross Tolbert Cannon Rediviva 2017Gainesville-based painter and activist Margaret Ross Tolbert has painted springs all over the world. But one of her latest projects brought her closer to home.

“I’m so taken with the beauty of Florida springs,” she says. “Man’s relationship to water is crucial. It’s important to learn about people in the past and how they related to water.”

In the upcoming exhibits Lost Springs of the Ocklawaha at UNF’s Lufrano Intercultural Gallery (September 14-December 31) and Lost Springs at MOCA (September 23-December 31), Tolbert’s paintings illustrate the story of the more than 20 springs hidden by the ill-fated Cross Florida Barge Canal.

During the Ocklawaha Valley’s drawdown, Tolbert paddles in with her canvases and paints, capturing places and colors that usually lie beneath the surface.

“The springs are so mysterious, because you only see them every couple years, if then. After a couple months they’re under the water again,” Tolbert says. “[If they remove the dam and] restore it to normal levels, then people can visit the springs. It will be a much healthier river.”

In addition to the paintings, a documentary in which St. Augustine filmmaker Matt Keene followed Tolbert’s visit during the 2015-2016 drawdown will be screened at 7 PM on September 28 and October 3, and at 12:30 PM October 12, in the UNF Student Union Auditorium. Additionally, there will be a panel discussion featuring Tolbert and Keene, in conjunction with the UNF Environmental Center, about the springs from 7-9 PM Thursday, November 2, at the MOCA Theater.