Tag Archives: 1928

Russian Roulette, the Herbert Hoover Dike and the Indian River Lagoon

Statue in honor of the dead of 1928 Hurricane, Bell Glade,  Public Library. (Photos public files, artist not mentioned.)
Statue in honor of the dead – 1928 Hurricane, Bell Glade’s Public Library. (Photo public, artist unmentioned.)

I have written before about the Hurricane of 1928 and the mass grave in its  honor located in Martin County, but today I wish to share my thoughts on a book entitled: Killer Cane: the Hurricane of 1928 by Robert Mykle. (http://www.robertmykle.com/index.html)

The book was written in 2003 and won the Florida Historical Society’s Library Foundation  award for “Best Popular Book.” Mykle interviewed numerous old timers who had been children at the time of the storm and survived. He weaves a  tale of their large poor but honorable families, their struggles, loyalties, dreams, incredible work ethic, and the final disaster. He is able to create characters that resonate. The reader is completely drawn in witnessing the accounts of the dream of Everglade’s riches and then the storm. In the end, Lake Okeechobee’s earthen dike breeches and  its waters rise like a black, vengeful evil,  choking  the splintered homes that have been lifted off their foundations,  while suffocating and drowning the terrified and the praying…

Mykel’s book focuses on the the white families of the tragedy; it is important to note that during this Jim Crow era of American History the rights of black farm workers were close to non-existent. They lived in the isolated  shanty low-lands of the fields.  According to the book, in the storm, three quarters more blacks died than whites. The total for both whites and blacks is estimated now at “at least 2500-3000.”

One of the telling  things for me about reading this story is that it documents the early famers planting their crops inside the lake. Yes, “inside the lake.” The richest soil was there.  In dry times the lake would retreat and the farmers  would play a game of “Russian Roulette,” planting in the richest soil.  If they won, the pay off was huge; if they lost,  and the waters came forward covering their plants, they lost everything.

Today, Lake Okeechobee is one third smaller than it originally was and this is one reason the St Lucie/Indian River Lagoon and the Caloosahatchee are destroyed in times of rain when the ACOE directs water that wishes to go south and fill a lake that is “no longer there.” (Conversations with Engineer, Mr. Tom MacVickars, SFWMD, ACOE)

We took nature’s storage area, diked northward of it and then turned it into the Everglades Agricultural Area, (EAA.)  Obviously, economically we benefit from this today, but ecologically and on a safety level, we do not. Living along the coast is an enormous danger; living south of the lake is  a death sentence.

The Herbert Hoover Dike was built in 1933, after the Hurricane of 1928. Agriulture south of the lake expanded. People got rich and we “feed the world.”  But after Hurricane Katrina, dikes of the US were prioritized, and frighteningly, the Herbert Hoover was listed in the top 10 dikes most likely to fail.

Since that time, the Army Corp of Engineers has been reinforcing many miles of the dike with concrete drilled deep down in the earth and repaired many culverts. Billions of dollars have been spent. Will the dike hold if another hurricane like the one of 1928 visits?

We continue to play “Russian Roulette” and only time will tell…

Original Map/Size of Lake Okeechobee: (http://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/143906)

Historical Photos Hurricane 1928:

(https://www.google.com/search?q=tedder+1928+huuricane+photos&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&hl=en&client=safari),

(http://www.tommymarkham.com/Hurricane/AListPage.htm)

The Almost Great “Port of Stuart,” along the St Lucie/Indian River Lagoon

1911 Seawall's Point Land Company map
Portion of 1911 Sewall’s Point Land Company map showing area off of Sewall’s Point and Stuart where the great “Port of Stuart” was being developed.

The headlines of the South Florida Developer on December 29th, 1925 bragged about a Stuart along the St Lucie/Indian River Lagoon very different than the one we know today:

“Port of Stuart, Florida’s New Gateway. “

“The Opening of the St Lucie Inlet to the commerce of the world will bring to Stuart and all Martin County that belated recognition to which it is rightfully  entitled by virtue of its strategic geographic location.”

“W.B. Shearer, recognized international authority on ports and waterways, makes the positive statement that of all the East Coast’s four hundred miles of waterfront, the harbor at Stuart is the the only port with natural advantages suitable for a naval base…”

“St Lucie Ship Canal Locks- the first link in the chain of waterways that will eventually form a navigable canal from the Atlantic  to the Gulf of Mexico is the “St Lucie Ship Canal” now 95% complete. It’s completion will open up the fertile western portion of Marin County…”

As these headlines show, the “Port of Stuart” was not just a dream, in the early 1920s, it was a becoming reality.  Details of the port still exists in dusty federal, state and local documents. If it were not for the Great Depression of the late 1920s and the difficulty for the ACOE in dynamiting the Anastasia rock from the bottom of the St Lucie Inlet, it could have been a reality.

So how could this be? Today an idea like this would be heresy!

Well, Captain Henry Sewall, for which the peninsula of Sewall’s Point is named, was one of many responsible for this “heresy.”  Not only had he led locals  to  open the St Lucie Inlet by hand in 1892, he had served as county commissioner, and state representative. 

In 1910 Captain Sewall and his powerful business friends, including adventurer Hugh Willoughby, founded “Sewall’s Point Land Company,” as Captain Sewall had inherited the tip of Sewall’s Point and large portions of waterfront and other lands along Stuart through his family linage to the famous Miles-Hanson Grant.

According to Sandra Thurlow’s book: “Sewall’s Point, the History of a Peninsula on Florida’s Treasure Coast,” after the formation of Sewall’s Point Land Company, the men got right to work building the Sunrise Inn on Old St Lucie Boulvard, and miles of roads in today’s Golden Gate; (see map above), government, bonds were held by the county and a turning basin at the tip of Sewall’s Point was dredged; this fill created today’s Sandsprit Park.”

A turning basin at Sewall’s Point? You’ve got to be kidding.

They were not.

Even poetry was written for the dream, ironically by beloved environmentalist,  Ernie Lyon’s father: 

Just One Place for the Harbor
by Harry Lyons
1924

“Brave sailors in Atlantic storms, 
A harbor need for aid.
 They skirt the coast of Florida,
Lest commerce be delayed.
When hurricanes sweep o’er the deep,
And ships grave perils face,
‘Tis the duty of all mariners,
To seek an anchorage place.
You’ll find the place for a harbor here,
Where the old St. Lucie flows.
There is room for ships at Sewall’s Point,
Where the Indian River goes.
No where else is there such an inlet,
Down below or up above.
There is just one place for the harbor!
Stuart the town we love!
From Stuart to Fort Myers at last,
We’ll have a waterway,
When the canal is finished,
And they’re hastening the day.
Across Lake Okeechobee,
From the Gulf of Mexico,
Oil and phosphate, fruit and lumber,
Into Stuart soon will go.”

Sewall died in 1925 and the bottom fell out of the real estate market around 1926. Around the same time, two devastating hurricanes put the nail in coffin of the Stuart Port at the St Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon.

It is interesting to note that the St Lucie Canal, C-44, between Lake Okeechobee and the St Lucie River was completed not only for transportation and trade, but for flood control of agriculture and people working south of the lake. The prosperity associated with the canal for the local people of Stuart never came and the canal ended up being a major factor in the destruction of their beloved waterways…

Well time goes on, new dreams come and go; new fortunes are made and lost. But for old times’ sake, one can stand at  Sandsprit Park, and look out to Sewall’s Point remembering  perhaps Stuart’s biggest dream, the lost dream, and for many, a dream well lost, the dream of the “Great Port of Stuart.”

*Thank you to my mother, Sandra Henderson Thurlow,  for sharing her historic articles to make this write up possible.

St Lucie River’s Demise/How Did We Get Here?

Town of Sewall's Point, Martin County Florida, 9-13 surrounded by polluted waters released from Lake Okeechobee
Town of Sewall’s Point, St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon, Martin County Florida, 9-13, surrounded by polluted waters released from Lake Okeechobee

You may wonder, “how we got here,”to this polluted Lake Okeechobee sewer running  through the  St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon and the Calooshahatchee?

In order to do so, we must go way back.

In 1845, Florida became a state, and even before this time, there had been discussion about “draining the Everglades and reclaiming the swamp lands for productive use.”

Florida was poor and the legislature wanted to build its coffers, so when the “Swamp Land Act of 1850” transferred twenty million acres from the federal government to the state of Florida, of course the state legislature had dollar signs in their eyes.

From 1851 to 1885 the Internal Improvement Fund, overseen by the Florida Governor and his cabinet, sold swamp lands, and others, to the railroad companies ; with the money the state made, it built canals and drained more lands,  an endless and helpful cycle for  building the state’s immature economy.

By 1864, at the end of the Civil War, Florida was broke and it wasn’t until 1881 when Hamilton Disston entered the picture that draining the land started again. Disston paid for the land and started draining it by running a canal through the Caloosahatchee River on the west coast to Lake Okeechobee in the interior as well as parts of the Kissimmee River. The lake dropped substantially; Florida would never be the same. Disston ended up committing suicide due to the Panic of 1893, but he inspired generations of drainers to come.

As early as the mid 1800s, the legislature had discussed draining Lake Okeechobee through the Caloosahatchee and the St Lucie rivers . By 1923, this had been accomplished, on a shallow level, creating a water way across the state through Lake Okeechobee. At the same time, agriculture south of the lake excelled in the the rich soils that had been reclaimed from the great swamp. The state was happy and “feeling rich.” However, within only a few years, the country had fallen into the “Great Depression” and Mother Nature brought Florida to its knees.

The hurricanes of 1926 and 1928, together, killed thousands of  agriculture workers when the water of Lake Okeechobee went  south, as nature intended.  The outcry from the local and state governments of Florida made it  to Washington DC, and the true dependency on the the Army Corp of Engineers began.

By 1938 the Herbert Hoover Dike had been built around the once magnificent lake until another hurricane, in 1947, flooded the agriculture south of the lake again.

As it had done after 1928, the Army Corp dug the canals of St Lucie and the Calooshahatchee  deeper and wider. Eventually, the Central and South Florida Flood Control Project was formed by the state and federal government for seventeen counties; its headquarters was placed in West Palm Beach, today the headquarters of the South Florida Water Management District -which the flood agency eventually morphed into.

More canals and pump stations were constructed and by the 1960s most of what was eventually called the Everglades Agriculture Area, 700,000 acres south of the lake,  would grow primarily sugar. These sugar families became very powerful and influential in government  and remain so today.

It wasn’t until the 1970s, under Governor Rubin Askew, that the environment and natural resources became “important,”  as the conservation movement of the time demanded such.

The South Florida Water Management District now received  an expanded mission that went beyond flood control and water supply for agriculture and other users;  this mission now included  an “ecological mission.”

To this day, the environment is certainly last in the mission of Florida’s government and today’s sick and polluted waters of the St Lucie, Indian River Lagoon, and the Caloosahatchee attest to this.

For 168 years the state of Florida has protected agriculture above all others. In light of the state’s history and prior poverty, this makes sense. Nonetheless, a lot has changed in 168 years. We’ve had a civil war, slavery has been outlawed, women can vote, children are no longer used as common labor, and we have an African America president.  Don’t you think it’s time to change how we drain and destroy our rivers?

I do.