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Florida Internal Navigation

The Semi-Tropical


There is no state in the Union, that nature has done more for in the way of natural water communication, than Florida. It has upward of one thousand miles of sea coast, with navigable rivers permeating it, running from all points of the compass. The Western coast has many harbors and bays, in which the largest vessels can enter with perfect safety. Pensacola Bay, St. Josephís Bay, Tampa Bay, and Charlotteís Harbor, to say nothing of the harbor at Key West, will admit these vessels drawing upwards of twenty feet of water. Into all of these harbors and bays, with the exception of St. Josephís, flow rivers and streams that are navigable for quite a distance into the interior. The eastern coast is not as highly favored; the harbor at Fernandina is the only one upon the eastern coast, that will admit of vessels drawing more than twelve or thirteen feet of water.

The bars at the mouth of the St. Johnís and at the entrance to St. Augustine and New Smyrna, and the other inlets along the Atlantic coast, are ever shifting and changing, and there is no possibility of ever making any permanent improvement in the entrance of these harbors. The bars are not formed from the debris which flows down from the interior, but from the ocean sands, which are thrown upon the coast by heavy northeast gales, together with the polar current which washes the entire Atlantic coast, consequently the jetty system, which has been adopted for the improvement of the Danube and Mississippi rivers cannot be applied successfully to the improvement of the harbors upon this coast. No system of engineering can be adopted to overcome the force of the northeast gales, and prevent the outlet of the channels from being filled with the ocean sands.

The St. Johnís River and its tributaries; Indian River and the streams lying adjacent to the eastern coast and flowing into the Atlantic, are mere inland waters which should be connected with the harbors of Ferdandina and Key West. In fact, a general system of canals should be inaugurated for the improvement and development of the state.

Florida is more highly favored by nature for a system of canals and inland navigation than any other state, both by climate and the natural topography of the country. Water communication has the advantages of not being controlled by a monopoly, as railroads are, and freights by water are always cheaper per mile than by railroad. It will cost no more to construct a canal through Florida per mile, than to build a first class railroad. A few miles canalling, and a slight improvement of the natural water courses would give to the Peninsula of Florida about fifteen hundred miles of inland water navigation, most of which is now unavailable, and connect all parts of the peninsula with steamboat navigation.

The following series of canals and river improvements are worthy consideration. The opening and deepening of the inside passage between the St. Maryís and St. Johnís rivers and the connecting together the following streams by canals, to wit:

Pablo Creek with  North River, distance
Matanzas River  with Halifax River
Mosquito Lagoon  with Indian River
Indian River with  Lake Worth
Lake Worth with  Hillsboro Inlet
Hillsboro Inlet with  New River Inlet
New river Inlet with  Biscayne Bay

By improving and dredging the Matanzas, Halifax, and Indian Rivers, Mosquito Lagoon, and the passage between the keys and mainland, from Biscayne Bay to Key West, which will not exceed in the aggregate fifteen miles of dredging, a continuous inland water communication will be made from Ferdandina to Key West, a distance of six hundred miles, without a single lock as the canals will be fed from the ocean.

Julington Creek should be connected with North river by a canal which will not be over ten miles in length. Dunnís Lake should also be connected with the Halifax River; this would require one dam and three locks, and would make water power as well as navigation, which would be of value to that section of the state.

The St. Johnís River should be improved by straightening the channel from Lake Harney to Lake Washington, and a canal cut from Lake Washington to Indian River, a distance of five miles; this canal would require one lock and create a fine water power. A canal from Lake Washington to Lake Monroe, a distance of eighteen miles, makes a water communication with the Kissimmee River and Lake Okeechobee; the Kissimmee is navigable from Lake Okeechobee to Lake Tohopokalaga for steamers drawing four feet of water, and by dredging a few rods only, steamers can run into Lake Tohopokalaga. The line of the canal between Lake Washington and Lake Marion passes through a savanna, with the exception of a narrow belt of flat piney woods, and is perfectly feasible and will require no locks.

A canal connecting Lake Okeechobee with the Caloosahatchie River makes a connection with Charlotte Harbor, a distance of about ten miles intervening; this canal would be mostly through a savanna with some rock cutting, not exceeding half a mile through a soft oolitic limestone, A canal connecting the Myaka River with Sarasota Bay, a distance of about eight miles, will make a continuous steamboat navigation from Tampa Bay, via Charlotte Harbor, Lake Okeechobee and Lake Washington, to the mouth of the St. Johnís. This system of canalling and River improvements will reclaim much valuable land upon the upper St. Johnís, Kissimmee, and Myaka Rivers, as well as in the vicinity of Lake Okeechobee, and tap the fountainhead of the Everglades, and be the means ultimately of reclaiming the Everglades from inundation.

The Everglades are a mere expansion of Lake Okeechobee during the rainy season; the Kissimmee River and Lake Okeechobee have no outlets excepting through the Everglades. Lake Okeechobee in its ordinary stage is only about five feet above tidewater. A canal should be cut from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucia River, both for the purpose of drainage and navigation; this canal would be about twenty-five miles in length. A canal should be cut from Withlacoochee to the Charlapopka lakes, a distance of four miles; this will not only introduce steamers into the lakes, but drain much rich hammock land laying between those lakes and the Withlacoochee River.

A canal should be cut from lake Pansofka to Lake Okahumkee; this canal would be about eighteen miles long, and connect Cedar Keys with the St. Johnís River by the additional improvement of the Ocklawaha and Withlacoochee Rivers. The Ocklawaha River should be improved by straightening its channel and putting its two or three locks above Silver Spring run; this will make an outlet and a water communication into the Central Lake region of the Peninsula. The stream flowing from Orange Lake into the Ocklawaha should be dredged and straightened, and a lock placed at the outlet of the lake; this would afford an excellent water-power, which would be a great benefit to the surrounding country.

These improvements are all feasible, and when once perfected will give to Florida a system of inland navigation, and a cheap method for marketing its products, unequalled by any State in the Union. This makes the system of inland navigation for the Peninsula of Florida converge to its natural seaports, Jacksonville, Ferdandina, Cedar Keys, Tampa, Key West and Biscayne, and giving to those living in the interior of the Peninsula a choice for their market town; this foots up an aggregate of inland navigation for the peninsula of Florida of about fifteen hundred miles, not including the present navigable waters of the St. Johnís river, most of which is now unavailable.

To complete and perfect this system of internal navigation for the peninsula, will not require over one hundred and fifty miles canalling and less than twenty-five miles of deepening and dredging for the purposes of making a navigation sufficient for steamers drawing three and a half feet of water. These canals should all be constructed of a uniform width of sixty feet.

Aside from the advantages of navigation and communication in bringing the different sections of the peninsula together, and affording a means for marketing its products, vast bodies of lands which are now nearly worthless and subject to overflow are made available, as the locks during the rainy season can be used to let off the surplus waters, and by draining the lands add to the healthfulness of the country.

Florida has thus far paid too little attention to the improvement of its natural means of transportation and paid too much attention to railroads and neglected to improve its water facilities; this is owing partly to the fact that many of its citizens are from States where canals and river navigation is impeded by snow and ice. It costs far more to keep railroads in repair in Florida than in the Northern and Western States, as timber rots and decays with greater rapidity, and railroad ties soon rot out and have to be replaced.

W. H. Gleason

Excerpt from Gleason, W. H., "Florida Internal Navigation" The Semi-Tropical, July, 1877, pp. 419-421.


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