The Far Reaching Hand of Hamilton Disston/Our Savannas, and the Indian River Lagoon

Aerial photo over the Savannas, a mosaic of color comparable to one of Monet's most beautiful.
Aerial photo over the savannas.(Photo Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch/Ed Lippisch 2013.)

I learned something recently that surprised me…

Hamilton Disston, the titan-developer and “drainer extraordinaire” who bailed Florida’s “Internal Improvement Fund” out of debt in 1881 owned land right here in St Lucie and Marin Counties. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamilton_Disston)

My first thought upon realizing this, was “what if he’d started draining here? “

Disston instead started along the Kissimmee River and Lake Okeechobee and was the impetus and inspiration for draining south and central Florida which has led to our state’s development but also our environmental destruction.

Disston 4,000,000 acres from the state of Florida in 1881, which included much of the land within the savannas. ( Public map, 1881.)
Disston purchased 4,000,000 acres from the state of Florida in 1881, which included much of the land within the savannas. ( Public map, 1881.)

The above map shows in pink the 4,000,000 acres of land that Hamilton Disston purchased which although hard to see  included much of the land within our savannas.

Plat map of St Lucie Gardens originally part of Disston's lands in the savannas, 1911. (Courtesy of historian Sandra Thurlow)
Plat map of St Lucie Gardens originally part of Disston’s lands in the savannas, 1911. (Courtesy of historian Sandra Thurlow)

Another wild thing I recently realized in relation to Hamilton Disston is that my friend Sam Henderson, of Gulfport, is the mayor of Disston’s first founded city. Gulfport is in Pinellas County near Tampa. Sam is certainly one of the most environmentally oriented mayors in the state; we know one another from our work on the Florida League of Cities’ environmental committee.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gulfport,_Florida)

Mayor Gulfport, Sam henderson and I at a recent Florida League Cities meeting, 2014.
Mayor of Gulfport, Sam Henderson and I at a recent Florida League of Cities meeting, 2014.

So for some reason, before my epiphany last week, I had no idea that Disston’s drainage machine went so far north beyond Tampa, to where Sam lives on the west coast, and so far east, to my home area near the savannas, along the Indian River Lagoon. You’d think I’d know such a thing!

Savanna State Park, Martin and St Lucie Counties. (Photo from their website.)
Savanna State Park, Martin and St Lucie Counties. (Public photo.)
The Savannas today are located  between Jensen Beach Boulevard to Midway Road.
The Savannas today are located  between Jensen Beach Boulevard to Midway Road. (Public map.)

Well my mother Sandra Thurlow did know, and when I ask her about it she told me that in her book  Historic Jensen and Eden on Florida’s Indian River, I could read all about the savannas ecosystem that was once almost 200 miles long and has been reduced to 10 ecologically intact miles between Ft Pierce and Jensen Beach, and how the railway running along its eastern edge ironically protected it.

She also noted that in 1854, a Florida state engineer/geologist proposed cutting a canal from the “Main Savanna” into the St Lucie Sound. This did not happen, but some of the land was developed as St Luice Gardens and development certainly has encroached…

What if they’d drained it all…..

To close, we are fortunate that Hamilton Disston did not start draining around the SLR/IRL and that we have a small remnant of the savannas left. Let’s continue building  friendships with other environmentally water-oriented people our across our state and put the drainage spirit of Hamilton Disston on the shelf where it belongs.

_______________________________

Many thanks to those who worked to create Savannas State Park like former Martin County commissioner Mrs Maggie Hurchalla.

Savannas State Park website: (http://www.floridastateparks.org/savannas/)

 

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