Canoe Trip

Long before 1901 - the year Miami's first canal was dug from the Miami River to present-day Allapattah - social progressives and capitalist greedheads alike had fantasized about a bigger, drier Miami. Not only were the vast western swamplands unprofitable in their natural state, they were an affront to the mind of nineteenth-century man, a challenge to Manifest Destiny. The sense of fear and claustrophobia the Everglades conjured was not helped when U.S. forces fought an exasperating, Vietnam-style war in their midst from 1835-1842. "No country I have ever heard of bears any resemblance to it," an exhausted member of a seek-and-destroy team wrote toward the end of the Seminole Wars. "It seems like a vast sea filled with grass and green trees, and expressly intended as a retreat for the rascally Indian."

At first the solution to the problem of a waterlogged paradise seemed easy: cut a channel through the rock ridge that runs along the coast of Biscayne Bay, and let the Everglades drain out into the sea like water from a bathtub. By 1912 the Furst-Clark Construction Co., subsidized by a new round of state taxes, had finished work on the Miami Canal, one of four principal artificial waterways in South Florida that link Lake Okeechobee with the Atlantic Ocean. The project destroyed the scenic rapids at the natural headwaters of the Miami River (near present-day 29th Avenue) and met with only limited success.

It soon became clear that only water in the immediate vicinity of the eight-foot-deep canal would flow into the channel. More and more canals, and deeper ones, would be needed to conquer the swamp - and despite the mammoth problems of finance and engineering, more canals were built. The rage to reorder chaos in the image of a neat Cartesian grid had captured not just Miami's but the entire nation's imagination, and more people continued to bet their lives, or at least their livelihoods, on the success of the plan. By 1920 23,000 people were living in what had been the Everglades, most of them along canals on the outskirts of Miami, Palm Beach, and Fort Lauderdale, and 34,000 acres of reclaimed land was under cultivation. Seven years later the population and the land figures had doubled.

Within a couple of decades, however, a new problem had begun to devil the vision of a dry Miami. During the wet months, the canal system was succeeding in draining the swamps. But during the dry months, saltwater from the bay crept up the canals and newly dredged rivers, infiltrated the porous limestone beneath them, and contaminated the city's shallow water table. In the days when the broad basin of the Everglades was full and pristine, one could dig a well on the edge of Biscayne Bay and expect to find good drinking water. But as the wetlands were gradually pushed west, it became progressively easier for sea water to seep into the subterranean oolite, especially by way of the artificial drainage channels being cut as fast as dredges could do the work.

In the season of drought that preceded the two hurricanes of 1947, hazardous levels of sea water had traveled up the Miami River and the Miami Canal all the way to the drinking wells near the municipal water plant in Hialeah. In the Little River Canal near NW 79th Street, saltwater had flowed as far west as Red Road, eight miles from the bay. The problem of saline intrusion had reached a crisis. Miami, a city whose identity has always been inextricably bound up with water, faced the ironic prospect of not having any to drink. To some, the drainage program looked more and more like a misguided juggernaut that had been doomed from the start, a piece of vain alchemy gone spectacularly awry. "The longer I live here, the more I am impressed with the necessity of stopping this infernal ditch-digging," wrote Stuart News publisher Edwin Menninger in proposing the radical new notion of water conservation.

Folks in Miami didn't take kindly to such ideas. After the hurricanes and resulting floods of 1947, they put together a collection of photographs depicting the damage and sent a copy to President Harry Truman. (The volume came to be known as the Weeping Cow book because its cover photo showed a forlorn cow standing shoulder-deep in water.) Then, along with other South Florida voters, they overwhelmingly approved a scheme to build 492 miles of new canals, with financial help from the federal government.

By 1965 the Everglades Drainage District had been renamed the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Districts (in the 1970s it would become the even more vague-sounding South Florida Water Management District) and had spent $174 million creating and operating eleven pump stations, 1300 miles of canals and levees, and 60 major spillways and dams. In addition, they built salinity barriers to protect drinking water in all South Florida canals. In the course of this impressive engineering activity, the emphasis on land reclamation declined, replaced by the more conservative goal of "flood control." And South Florida boosters gradually gave up the dream of turning the Everglades into a giant tomato farm stretching from Miami to Tampa; or a mammoth suburb, a Kendall at the end of the mind, rolling on into the sunset all the way to the Gulf Coast. Dikes were built along the western edge of Dade County. The demarcation between man and nature, civilization and chaos, was drawn. A truce with the monster swamp was declared.


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