THE “DITCH OF DREAMS”
The Cross-Florida Barge Canal
The Cedar Key Historical Society's 2017 program of Coffees got off to a fine start on January 19 with a presentation of the “Ditch of Dreams. The Cross-Florida Barge Canal and the Struggle for Florida’s Future”. As presented by Dave Tegeder, Associate Professor at the Department of Social and Behavioural Science in Santa Fe College, and Steve Noll, Professor at the Department of History in the University of Florida, the genesis of this scheme and its extraordinary history (even back to the Spanish conquest) are of relevance to the development of Florida and perhaps especially to the city of Cedar Key. Thus, David Levy Yulee’s Florida Railroad running from Fernandina to Cedar Key and the parallel “ditch” between the St John’s River and Yankeetown were based, at different times, on the vision of a trans-Florida link that would provide an essential cog in a global transportation system linking the eastern and western worlds.
Cedar Key lost its railroad in 1932, however, while the canal, “vampire-like”, has survived two starts and three stoppages since reaching the high-spot of its fortunes in 1929, and has never died. In this time, the canal has suffered all the usual problems facing project development in Florida, whether economic, environmental, financial, legal or political but, according to the co-presenters, perhaps with a greater than usual element of irony and “David and Goliath” confrontations.
Army Corps of Engineers, was at the time of the Great Depression, to be a ship canal four times the size of the Panama Canal; 220miles long and 30ft deep serving the boom town of Ocala, and as such was inaugurated by President Roosevelt in 1935. But it took no more than a year for a gathering of competing interests to get the work stopped, of which the most significant pointer for the future were the voices, looking back to the pristine enchantment of Nineteenth Century Florida, now being raised about the need to preserve nature and specifically to the effect of damaging the Florida Aquifer.
And so, the fortunes of the canal have continued to roller-coaster until today, despite the cut being redesigned in 1942 as a mere 12ft barge canal, and despite the machinations of the Army Corps of Engineers, always willing to build, build, build, inventing the “Crusher” to destroy more trees than ever, and dreaming up whatever cost-benefit ratios seemed to be required to justify construction. Senator George Kirkpatrick and Cedar Key's own Senator Randolph Hodges were amongst the “boosters” but honor to the protagonists has to go to Marjorie Carr of Gainesville, known as “Our Lady of the River” or as “the mere Micanopy housewife” depending on one's stance on the issue. (Other unlikely players included Reader's Digest and Sports Illustrated!)
Now, 27 years after Mrs Carr's untiring efforts secured the de-authorisation of the canal, after more legal actions, and 20 years after her death in 1997, the Rodman dam and various other structures are still blocking the Ocklawaha River and the story is most definitely not over yet. This reviewer fervently hopes that the co-presenters might return to Cedar Key sometime in the future when there are more developments in this never-ending story; meantime they have told the story of the canal in their book “Ditch of Dreams. The Cross-Florida Barge Canal and the Struggle for Florida's Future”, which can be obtained from Amazon.
For your diaries, the next Coffee will be held at the Community Center at10am on Thursday February 16, when Bob Wooley will be making a presentation on the Civil War.