Sugar, the Indian River Lagoon, and the Changing Hurricane Winds of 1928

Historical marker of mass burial site, 1928 hurricane, Indiantown, near Port Mayaca. (Photo by Evie Flaugh)

Historical marker of mass burial site for  Florida’s 1928 hurricane, near Port Mayaca, Indiantown. (Photo by Evie Flaugh)

If you drive west from Stuart, on Highway 76  towards Port Mayaca,  you’ll eventually see a large graveyard on the left hand side of the road. It is well kept and reminiscent of an old Florida, a Florida of pioneers, the Klu Klux Clan, and the Indian Wars. Large oak trees line the property and the unusually massive grave stones stand like sentinels to a time long past.

At the entrance is a memorial sign dedicated to the approximately 3000 people who were killed in the Florida hurricane of 1928. An earthen dike, barely holding back the waters that had naturally flowed south for thousands of years, breeched, killing mostly black agricultural migrant workers, while flooding sugar, vegetable farms, and personal property built in the  path of the natural flow way south of the lake. Thousands of bodies were  laboriously  buried in mass graves, one in Martin and another in Palm Beach County. (

African American, Etonville writer, Zora Neale Hurston, writes in her classic novel, Their Eyes were Watching God, about migrant workers “looking back” as they were running to escape the furry of the 1928 hurricane. 

“Above all the drive of the wind and the water…and the lake. Under its multiplied roar could be heard the almighty sound of grinding rock and timber and a wail….people trying to run in raging waters and screaming…The monstropolous beast had left his bed. The two hundred miles an hour winds has looses his chains. The sea was walking the earth, with a heavy heel.”

All work for blacks during the late 1920s was difficult and filled with the prejudice and hardship of the Jim Crow Laws. In the sugar industry  there were complaints of “controlling” black harvest labor, aided by law enforcement, debt peonage, forced labor and even killings.

Today when people speak about the hurricane of 1928, the death of the workers south of the lake is credited as the source for pushing for “flood protection.”  This is not full disclosure. 

The truth of the matter is that the storm was also an opportunity for the struggling sugar industry, south of Lake  Okeechobee, not only to “protect” their poorly treated laborers, but to rally local, state and national government officials to support legislation to “invest” in  the area against future flooding for the benefit of their fields, and the future riches of the industry.  (Source Raining Cain in the Glades, Hollister,

This was no easy feat and insanely expensive in a time around the U.S. Great Depression. Politicians and businessmen were creative and put emphasis the  Okeechobee Waterway for “navigation, “rather than focusing solely on “flood protection.” At the time, navigation funds were much easier to get from the federal government than funds for “drainage” or flood control of the newly created Okeechobee Flood District.

These funds came to fruition in the construction of the  “Cross State Canal,” also known as  the “Okeechobee Waterway, “which links the Caloosahatchee River to Lake Okeechobee,  to the St Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon and conveniently doubles as a giant drainage canal for the sugar industry, diverting as much a 92% of the flow of water south of Lake Okeechobee.  

You may have seen an arch in Rio that says “Gateway to the Atlantic.” That arch was built in celebration of he Cross State Canal…

Local people at the time had no of idea the greater repercussions of such to their greatest local resource, the St Lucie River, Indian River Lagoon. We still sit open mouthed today when S-308 at Port Mayaca is opened by the Army Corp of Engineers, and our area’s river resources are destroyed. Certainly we have our own local canal and runoff problems, but Lake Okeechobee’s tremendous waters, all the way from Orlando, are most destructive. 

It’s exhausting. The Cross State Canal was completed  in 1937, and we in Martin County have been fighting ever since, the changing winds of Florida’s hurricane of 1928. 


4 thoughts on “Sugar, the Indian River Lagoon, and the Changing Hurricane Winds of 1928

  1. So true and many people (including the original supporters) right after its completion in the 1930s knew it was a major mistake.

  2. Jacqui – I am familiar with most of these facts however, thank you building a great resource library for those who are not and our children.

  3. And now we (some of us) celebrate little “crumbs,” those tiny water projects that, if ever completed, really will not reverse the big mistakes made way back then.

  4. Comments from Facebook: Inez Frid …and in the beginning.
    March 5 at 8:04pm · Unlike · 1

    Don Voss always love to learn more about Florida history, but I though what is now our present sugar industry…. US Sugar did not start up here until 1932? It was smaller home grown sugar places in 1928.
    19 hours ago · Unlike · 1

    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch Hi Don Voss Yes you may have noticed I wrote “the struggling sugr indutry” ….sugar cane had been planted south of the lake in the early 1920s but not until Borg Dahlberg of Chicago created Dahlberg Corp. of America did sugar really take off and by 1929 there were 130,000 acres owned by the company. Unfortunatley for Mr Dahlberg his company went into “receivership” officially by 1930 —with great problems before that even with all his business and political savvy. US Sugar bought out the Southern Sugar Company in 1931/32 at a good price and restructured under Mr Mott of General Motors to become what we know today as US Sugar. Mott was a corporate paternalist but certainly black labor struggled in Florida for years–eventually the FDA and the federal gov’t changed legislation so Bahamian and other African heritaged foreign labor could work the fields as the American blacks did not fit their mold for laborers….. (Raising Cain…..Hollister…)
    11 hours ago · Edited · Unlike · 1

    Don Voss Thank you. I think I was in the Senate building in Tally and the history of Florida is all over thsoe walls in B&W and I remember seeing this. I find this whole thing so fascinating. It actually started for me two years ago when I was watching a movie about the Phillipines and thay talked about the Sugar Wars that actually extended WWI by 6 months. I began believing they meant WWII… and there it was. This state just has so much to offer and so much history. Last month you posted the oldest map of Florida I had seen. Like it was before we fixed it so badly. I can’t wait for more. TYVM
    13 hours ago · Unlike · 1

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