Tag Archives: Environmental History St Lucie Canal

Coming to Terms With a Painful Environmental History-St Lucie Canal 1913-1937

-Part of a series leading up to the 100 year anniversary of the St Lucie Canal (built 1916-1924) as we continue to work to understand and heal this waterway…

-Left side of 1913 east coast drainage blueprint, Florida State Archives -Right side of huge 1913 east coast drainage blueprint, Florida State ArchivesTwo days ago was the first day of 2023. As there is always a chance we will once again be tortured by the “C-44 ,” now seems like a good time to review it under its original title: the St Lucie Canal.

The above blueprints are from the Florida State Archives and they are enormous documents. Ed and I visited Tallahassee in order to lay eyes on these remarkable pieces of history. Laid out on a large table in the library one can piece the two pages together to read:

Territory From lake Okeechobee to the Atlantic Ocean,

Between Townships 37 and 43 South,

Showing Routes Examined for Proposed Drainage Canals,

Made Under the Direction of F.C. Elliot,

Acting Chief Drainage Engineer, March – April 1913.

The St Lucie Canal was built by the state of Florida’s Everglades Drainage District from 1916 through 1924 when Martin was Palm Beach County. Over the holiday I read through some of my mother‘s historic newspaper articles. They were sobering.

A 1923 Stuart Messenger headline reads “Wednesday Next is the Day Set for First Flow of Water From Lake to River Through St Lucie Canal.” It sounds a bit like today, fishermen and tourism had major concerns, but the chamber of commerce folk celebrated with visions of expanded inland agriculture and a port of commerce. The truth of the matter is that the primary reason for the St Lucie Canal, since Florida’s earliest fantasies, was drainage.

In fact most bragged about it. An April 29, 1920’s Stuart Messenger article expressed with pride: “The St Lucie is the main control outlet for Lake Okeechobee.”

On July 7, 1923, the same paper wrote: “the St Lucie is the key to the entire Everglades drainage project.” On November 6, 1931, not long after the deadly hurricane of 1928, The Florida Developer printed something that today makes me sick to my stomach:  “The east locks of the St Lucie Canal were closed Saturday, after being open nearly two years. In that time the level of the lake has been reduced from 18 to 14 feet.” 

Unbelievable! Four feet off the lake through the St Lucie!

In 1937, the year the St Lucie Canal was federally rededicated as part of the Cross State Canal to Ft. Meyers -another jaw breaker. In a 1937 February 27 Stuart Daily News article written by famous journalist and horticulturalist Edwin A. Menninger it reads: “…work on the St Lucie had begun when the pioneers realized the that canals through muck lands were unless as they refused to carry water out of the lake. Four of them had been dug and were utterly worthless. The St Lucie Canal was completed in 1924 and for 13 years has been the only functioning outlet from Lake Okeechobee to the sea.”

The St Lucie Canal the only outlet for 13 years?! No! Kill me please!

A Daily News Article of the same day has a title reading: “New Ortona Locks to Alleviate St Lucie Flow.”  According to this article, apparently until made part of the Cross State Canal’s Okeechobee Waterway in 1937, the Caloosahatchee’s drainage of Lake Okeechobee had not been functioning at least since 1924. 13 years! 

Upon reading through these old articles, I just about cried. I drank a lot of wine. I have studied this for years but nevertheless. And there were more articles…

The worst was a Stuart News January 9, 1964 anniversary issue article, the year of my birth of all years. There is a photo is the upper right corner with a picture, it reads again with pride: “Old Aerial View shows the island and lock formerly at Port Mayaca where the canal enters Lake Okeechobee. These works were removed in 1936 to give unimpeded discharge from the lake.”

They removed the structure at Port Mayaca so the most lake water could flow through? What’s wrong with you people?!!!!!! No!!!!!

As I was losing my mind, my husband, Ed, pointed out to me that the lake was not polluted at that time. True, but nonetheless! Fresh water is a pollutant to a brackish system! No! Another glass please!

Excerpt, Stuart News Anniversary Edition 1964.

To think of all the destruction the St Lucie River has experienced! As written in the archive timeline in the hallways of the South Florida Water Management District whose official close date for the St Lucie Canal is 1925:

“Recommended by the Randolph Report and begun in 1916, …unlike other canals constructed at least partially along the alignment of natural creeks or rivers, the St Lucie Canal winds through uplands with no natural drainage patters. Its sole purpose is to channel excess water from the lake to the Atlantic Ocean.”

SFWMD timeline

In closing, there is some good historical news, if you click on the blueprints above and study them you will see that in the design work for 1913 there was a proposed canal from Lake Okeechobee trough the Loxahatchee to Lake Worth. Boy they are lucky that canal was never built.

After a long drive, Ed is reflected while taking my picture in front of the Florida State Archives, 2022.