Historic Photos of Mosquito Control Along the Indian River Lagoon

Mosquito Ditch Digging, c.1920

The photograph above is one of those rare images that tells you everything even without a caption. This photo, shared by my mother, historian, Sandra Henderson Thurlow, (http://www.sandrathurlow.com) was given to her by Mrs. Elizabeth Early, a pioneer of Stuart, “Stuart on the St Lucie.” The photo is entitled “Mosquito Ditch Digging,” and the subjects are unidentified. My mother believes the photo was taken in our region around 1920.

Mosquito truck, Florida Memory.

Mosquitos…such an integral part of Florida ~as is our war against them. Some have even gone as far to call the mosquito our “state bird.” As a kid, growing up in Sewall’s Point, in the 1970s, I remember having to run in place at the bus stop so as not to be attacked. Forever it seemed, I had white scars covering my tan scrawny legs. Another classic mosquito tale is gleefully riding my bike, along with my friends, behind the fog of the mosquito trucks. When we heard the trucks coming  we ran from our houses, meeting in the street, quickly negotiating who got to be first behind the blower.

In any case, the mosquito ditches, the mosquito control districts, and the small green and white metal markers along Indian River Drive reading “MC” for Mosquito Control are not something we think too much about anymore, but for the old timers, mosquitos, and our war against  them, and thus against Nature, defines this place.

My mother’s photos from her “Mosquito Control” file tell part of our local Martin County tale below. The lands are almost unrecognizable. In 1948 when the “Bridges to the Sea” were constructed over the Indian River Lagoon onto Hutchinson Island’s beaches – everything changed. The wetlands, the scrublands, and the old bean farms from early pioneers were ditched and diked, laced through and through like a pearl necklace. The government and owners organized with the goal to control those pesky mosquitos so the land would be fit for fill and for sale.

Over time, the mosquitoes lessened, and more and more people came to replace them.

According to my mother,  some of the very early mosquito control worked by allowing fish  into ditches to eat the larva; this not-so-intense mode was later replaced by other more stringent methods, including chemical means using DDT. As so often is the case in Florida, we are “successful,” successful at the expense of the environment.

Today we drive over the the Indian River Lagoon and forget the wars we’ve waged to live here, and instead, we wage a war to put our environment back into place.

Like little pearls, dragline scoops of white sand are deposited along the sides of freshly dug mosquito ditches, the idea being for the fish to come in from the lagoon and eat the mosquito larva. In this photo the Stuart Causeway is being constructed form Sewall’s Point to Hutchinson Island. This area is where the Marriott’s Indian River Plantation and Marina are located today. (Thurlow collection, photo by Arthur Ruhnke, Ca 1948.)
10-16-57 photo Aurthur Ruhnke, Thurlow Collection.  Athough one cannot see the piles of sand as well, they are there. This broad aerial shows all what is today’s Marriott, Indian River PlantationMarriott along Ocean Boulevard, Stuart Beach, The Elliott Museum, Florida Oceanographic and Publix.
Mosquito ditches Hutchinson Island, 1952, (Thurlow Collection, Aurthur Ruhnke) In the 1980s this area was developed by Mobile Corporation as Sailfish Point. Note natural ponds. After the mosquito ditches dug were, over the years, red mangroves already growing along the shoreline would move into the interior of the land via the dug canals. Note visible lush seagrass beds inside of Indian River Lagoon, this area was the epicenter of our SLR/IRL being the most diverse estuary in North America. This information is rooted in a conversation my mother had with, Grant Gilmore, an expert in area fisheries and in the IRL itself.
Mangroves -1956, Hutchinson Island, Thurlow Collection, Aurthur Ruhnke. Note straight lined mosquito ditches. Today this area is in Jensen Beach just north of Jensen Beach Blvd., were a large swath of mangroves has died that inspired my mother to share these photos today.

Links:

“Large Swath of Dead Mangroves, but Why?” Blog that inspired toda’s post: https://jacquithurlowlippisch.com/2018/09/11/large-swath-of-dead-mangroves-but-why-slr-irl/

“Human Eradication of Mosquitoes, San Francisco, and the Destruction of the Indian River Lagoon: ” https://jacquithurlowlippisch.com/tag/mosquito-stuart-history/

UF/IFAS: http://mosquito.ifas.ufl.edu/Florida_Mosquito_Control.htm

Smithsonian: http://www.sms.si.edu/IRLSpec/Impoundments.htm

Martin County: Mosquito Conrol:https://www.martin.fl.us/MosquitoControl

Dept of Ag. & Consumer Services: https://www.freshfromflorida.com/Consumer-Resources/Health-and-Safety/Mosquito-Control-Directory

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