We are up to page 10 in our history lesson and today’s photos are some of my favorite. The first is an aerial of the St Lucie Inlet entitled “Stuart on the St Lucie River.” Since its earliest day’s, Stuart has always been defined by its proximity to the river. Below the aerial it boast: “World Famous For its Fishing, Provides an Ocean Entrance for Small Craft.” And by today’s standards, a rather comical or un-comical plug can’t be missed: “Where the Waters of Lake Okeechobee Meet the Atlantic.”
It is also fascinating to note the shape of the south side of the St Lucie Inlet as today it has shifted and filled in. I am sharing my brother’s Time Capsule Flight used in former posts as it is so interesting and shows the various inlets of this area and land shapes as documented on various historical maps. Although today, we try to make barrier islands, beaches, and inlets permanent, by watching my brother’s video the message is clear: “the only constant is change.”
“Sandra Thurlow was a resident of Sewall’s Point for twelve years before she became fascinated by its history. In 1986, the Town of Sewall’s Point commissioners ordered the demolition of a lovely old home that stood on a bluff overlooking the St Lucie River. Queries revealed that it was once the High Point Rod and Gun Club, a wildness retreat for a coterie of politically powerful Philadelphians. Further research uncovered a wealth of local history that needed to the shared and preserved. ”
As you may already know or have guessed, Sandra is my mother and the house was one the children of Sewall’s Point played in and got into trouble having lots of fun….And yesterday, we as a family honored Sandra’s 75th birthday and today she will be featured in my blog. 🙂
Even though she is my mother, it is my opinion that no one has done more for “Stuart’s” local history and no one has written more about the pioneer families who made their way along this wilderness, once known as “Santa Lucia” or the “Indian River Region.”
When I came back to visit Sewall’s Point and Stuart after graduating from University of Florida in 1986, I could tell things had really changed at the Thurlow house. My sister Jenny was getting ready to go off to school, I had been gone four years and our bedrooms were being transformed into offices. –Offices full of shelves and drawers of historic negatives, old maps from my father’s law office, abstracts, camera equipment, historic photos, taped interviews and the beginnings of what would become personal computers.
“Wow, ” I thought, “that’s cool, she and dad certainly will not suffer from empty nest syndrome when Todd leaves in another two years….”
As the years went on, she and my father, dove into the history of our area, and the history of our area is the history of the St Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon. A teacher by early profession and native of Gainesville, by 2008, my mother, with the help of my dad, had written and published four books: Sewall’s Point, the History of a Peninsular Community on Florida’s Treasure Coast; Stuart on the St Lucie; Historic Jensen and Eden on Florida’s Indian River; and together with my sister-in-law Deanna, Gilbert’s Bar House of Refuge, Home of History.
My mother taught me not to brag. But today I am bragging. It’s time. She has inspired and educated not only me but thousands of people. She has given talks, presented slide shows, worked with students in our local high schools, and has won state awards for her work.
I think she has helped make Martin County one of the “best documented histories” of our state. And through it all, whether she is writing about Captain Richards and his daughter Lucy of Eden struggling to grow pineapples in the sandy soil along the Indian River; or the first pioneers of Stuart trading with the Seminoles and calling their new-found paradise, “Stuart on the St Lucie;” or the early fish houses pouring over in Jensen Beach; or the shark fishermen in Salerno; or the lonely House of Refuge Keepers longing for the site of a ship or boat in river or ocean and who sustained themselves from the great riches of its waters; and even the documentation of the great detriment that came to this place through the false hope of canals and connection to Lake Okeechobee, she writes about the relationship of people to the land and the relationship of people to the water. The water is our history and we are the water, as that is why we came to this land….
Thank you mom for all of your work and happy birthday! Stuart is 100, you are 75 and I, your oldest, am 50. Time is flying, and the water that defines this place is still defining it as we fight to bring it back to health so that future generations can have some stories and write some books too.
Sandra’s books are available at Stuart Heritage, 161 Flagler Avenue, Stuart, FL 34994 in Downtown Stuart.(http://www.stuartheritagemuseum.com) and through Amazon and Barnes and Nobel.
The concept that fresh water is a “pollutant” is sometimes confusing as we typically associate pollution with heavy metals, nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen from fertilizer, and muck accumulation, on the bottom of the river, from sediments running off of lands, through canals. Believe it or not, too much fresh water is just as polluting and has dire consequences for the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon.
This is historically ironic as well, as when the Ais Indians lived in this area, the St Lucie River was a large fresh water “stream.” Throughout history, most of the time, the “St Lucie,” was not connected to the ocean. The natural inlet at what was later called “Gilbert’s Bar” by the Spanish was sometimes open, sometimes not, but never for too long, and the inlet opening was much smaller and shallower than today’s St Lucie Inlet.
Yes, we are going back, before we go forward, but history is important to know!
The “St Lucie Inlet” was permanently opened by hand using shovels, in 1892, by local pioneers who wanted access to the ocean for trade and communication. They had no idea that by doing this they would create “the most bio-diverse estuary in North America.”
As the salt water came in and mixed with the fresh water of the St Lucie and the “fresher than today’s water” of the Indian River Lagoon, one ecosystem, a freshwater ecosystem was destroyed by the salt, and another was born.
Over time, more fish and critters entered the St Lucie/ Southern Indian River Lagoon than at any other time in known history. The forks of the St Lucie, north and especially north, remained more “fresh” as the salt water usually did not go up that high into those areas. Perfect! Salt and fresh water fishing! It was a unique situation and as mentioned in the day before yesterday’s blog, presidents and other famous people swarmed to the St Lucie for its amazing fishing during this era, and all enjoyed.
Then things changed. In the late 1920s and early 30s, due to flooding of agricultural lands and bad hurricanes killing people living and working in the southern area surrounding the lake, the Army Corp built the C-44 canal from Lake Okeechobee to the south fork of the St Lucie River. Then in the 50s and 60s they built canals C-23 and C-24 as part of the Central and South Florida Flood System, another “flood protection project.” Although all of these drainage programs helped agriculture, especially the sugar industry south of the lake, and citrus, in mostly St Lucie and parts of Okeechobee counties, as well as greedy developers, it did not help the St Lucie River. In fact, these drainage canals have been slowly killing the St Lucie and Indian River Lagoon ever since.
Through many things, but believe it or not, mostly through fresh water.
Once the estuary (St Lucie/IRL) became brackish, a mixture of fresh and salt water, this delicate balance was important to the fish, mammals and others critters that made the river/lagoon their home in this new found paradise.
Briefly, I will summarize some of the killer effects of fresh water on its residents:
1. Fish: When there is too much fresh water the fish get lesions. This is from a fungus that only can live and operate in a fresh environment. The name of the fungus is Aphanomycesinvadans and its spores get into fish skin when temperatures are low and water is fresh causing horrible lesions. More lesions have been reported over time in the St Lucie River that any other site in Florida according to the FDEP report at the end of this blog. The worst outbreak was in 1998 after the ACOE had been releasing fresh water from Lake Okeechobee in the winter months due to heavy rains. Thousands of fisherman were reporting fish with lesions; it is well accepted in the literature of our state agencies that this outbreak was connected to the gigantic releases of fresh water from Lake O.
2. Bottle nosed dolphins: Dr Gregory Bossert formerly, of Harbor Branch, has done extensive research into lobo-mycosis, an awful skin disease, in dolphins of the SLR/IRL. The highest number of dolphins with lobo in the entire 156 mile Indian River Lagoon system from Jupiter to New Smyrna Beach, are in the Stuart to Sebastian area. Dr Bossert’s 2009-20014 “Application for a Scientific Research Permit” to NOAA states on page 59:
“Water quality in the central and southern segments of the lagoon, is influenced by infusion of water from flood control drainage canals, e.g., in particular, run-off form agricultural watersheds and fresh water releases from Lake Okeechobee. (Sime, 2005.) Discharges from these sources introduce higher amounts of nutrients, metals, pesticides and suspended solids into the system (Woodward-Clyde, 1994). Analysis of spatial distribution of presumptive cases showed that the highs rates occurred in the IRL segments 3 and 4 confirming our earlier observations.” (Mazzoil, 2003/Rief, 2006).”
(Sections 3 and 4 are the “south central” and “south” IRL/SLR-from-south of Sebastian Inlet, to Stuart’s St Lucie Inlet. IRL dolphins are “site specific” staying usually in a 30 mile range. The St Lucie River is considered part of the southern IRL.)
3. Seagrasses: Seagrasses are the basis of health for the entire SRL/IRL. Seagrasses that live in an “estuary” need sunlight and brackish (part salt/part fresh) water to survive. among other problems, the fresh water releases cause turbidity in the water so the grasses can’t get light and they die. Mark Perry of Florida Oceanographic states that during the Lake Okeechobee and canal releases from 2013, that lasted five months, up to 85 percent of the seagrasses died around the St Lucie Inlet. All nursery fishes are affected by this and of course it goes right up the food chain. Manatees, an endangered species, that live exclusively off of seagrasses, are very affected and reduced to eating drift algae that in some cases kills them. Dolphins are swimming around saying: “Where are the fish?!”
4. Near shore reefs: The reef system in our area is the northern most of a tropical reef system that goes all the way south to the Keys. It cannot survive with fresh water dumping sediment on its delicate system and altering the salinity of the St Lucie Inlet. Insaine. These reefs are supposedly “protected.”
I could go on and on, but I will stop here. I’m sure you get the point. Salinity is a delicate and important part of a healthy estuary. Generally short lived fresh water releases during heavy rains by our local canals are bad enough, but long term dumping of Lake Okeechobee releases on top of that, is certain death. It must stop. Send the water south.
Imagine setting eyes on the surrounding lands of the beautiful St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon, in virgin form, the year 1883. You are a surveyor, and your job is to create a map, a map showing the topography of the area. It’s a jungle, the insects are singing, animal life is everywhere, there are even remnants of the Seminole Indians that appear and disappear cutting back the palmettos so they can see you. There is venison, bear and many kinds of delicious fish. But there are also seven foot rattle snakes and mosquitoes in the saw grass ponds that will cover your face and make you jump in the river! Nonetheless, this Eden is a place of beauty.
How did I come upon this survey? Surveyor, Mr. Chappy Young, GCY Inc. of Palm City, has known my family for many years and recently sent me a copy of this original hand written part of the 1883 topographical survey completed by Chief B.H. Colonna and his men. What an incredible thing to read, a first hand account of this area from over 120 years ago! It is a treasure.
I will choose some highlights to quote and some I will summarize. My excerpts come off a bit choppy but the accounts are still incredible.
The twelve page report is hand written in cursive and documents the “East Coast of Florida from Eden Post Office, or Richards, southward, to Peck’s Lake, including the St Lucie River.”
“On the west shore of the Indian River the ground rises from five to eighty feet above the level of ordinary height of the water in Indian River, the higher ridges give quite a pretty landfall when seen from four or five miles off shore, quite outcropping the land, and found between Indian River and the ocean.”
Colonna talks of standing on the highest point of the west side of the Indian River, “Blue Hill,” and “looking westward to see a number of parallel ridges of sand, with intervening saw grass ponds;” he describes the yellowish-white Conchina sands and the roads as marine conglomerates.
“The vegetation is thick,” he writes, and “the many hammocks rise above the flatlands recognized by their palmettos (sable palms), mastics, rubber trees, live oaks, iron wood and crab-wood along with a great variety of other trees.”
The St Lucie and Indian River Lagoon are filled with life. He describes a great number of coots and ducks on the rivers; as well as quail, partridge, and wild turkeys in the surrounding woods, and many small birds, just about everywhere, daring about. The waters are filled with luxuriant eel grass the favorite food of the manatee which also is abundant.
He talks of giant sawgrass with blades in the ponds and fresh waters three to ten feet long and very sharp. And further west soft, sweet, moist grasses attracting deer.
You can image, Chief Colonna was camping for many months, maybe years with his team; so he was able to document watching river waters rise 2-3 feet during rainy season, and the lands being inches deep/sometimes feet deep, in water…
In 1883, the year this survey was taken, the inlet, Gilbert’s Bar, next to today’s Sailfish Point, was closed. He explains, mentioning fish on the reef that I have never heard of…
“The old Gilbert’s Bar entrance, now closed, is shown on the sheet. Whenever the salt and fresh waters meet, the mangrove flourishes and such has been the case at Gilbert’s Bar. Once fine oysters grew there and all kinds of fish belonging in these waters were abundant, but sine the inlet closed the oysters have died and the fish are gone except a few bass and catfish. Just outside and along the old Gilbert’s Bar, (Conchina Reef). There are lots of fish, Barracuda, Pompins, Blue fish, Cavallis, Green Turtles, Mullet, Sea Bass, and a beautiful fish, much resembling our spanish mackerel, but it has more beautiful colors and is very tame. Trolling there I have seen them take the hook and bound 5-10 feet clear of the water. I had thought the blue-fish game, and the taking of the fins for sport, but one of these beauties far exceeds anything I ever saw for pluck, rapidity of motion and beauty of form and color…”
According to Colonna, the “House of Refuge was the best dwelling on the sheet,” and “Dr Baker’s house (in today’s Indialucie) was the only place that looked like a home.” This is interesting to me because I grew up there. His account of my former playground:
“In this area the rattle snakes are the largest I have ever seen being from 6-7 feet” but there are not many; alligators are no longer numerous and have become shy; but raccoons and opossums are so thick it is impossible to raise fowl; “wild cats are 4′ 6″ from tip to tip,” and Black Bears come in June across the lands to comb the beaches for turtle eggs…”
I think I would have had fun living in the area in 1883, but I would have worn boots for sure!
And now the grand finale. On the final page of the handwritten piece, Chief Surveyor, Colonna proclaims:
“The prettiest land on the sheet is the peninsula laying between the St Lucie River and Indian River, from Mount Pleasant south, to the the point. It is high hammock land with Cochina foundation and covered by a heavy growth of Hard Wood and underbrush with now and then a pine. This country had quite a population in it once, just before the Seminole outbreak and for a times after it, the settles had oranges, lemons, and limes, some of the old trees are sill to be found in the vicinity of Eden P.O. and the limes are very fine but the oranges are bitter and the lemons not bearing..”
(Mount Pleasant is Francis Langford’s former high river property.)
So congratulations to Sewall’s Point, the “prettiest” piece of land surveyed in 1883 and still known for her beauty today. All of our area around the Indian River Lagoon and stretching westward is beautiful, a changed but modern Eden. Let’s protect it for the next 120 years.