We have really killed them. A Google Search will bring up practically nothing, although they were probably the most interesting Everglades’ feature of all. Lake Okeechobee’s “Dead Rivers,” entitled as such as they were “perceived not to go anywhere…” but they did…they flowed out of Lake Okeechobee, running through the custard apple forest, and then disappeared into the sawgrass river of grass, today known as the Everglades.
The engineer of Hamilton Disston stated that there were 17 rivers leading out of Lake Okeechobee. Some of the larger ones were named the Dead, Democrat, Dowell, Forked, Hidden, Copper, Hutchinson, Leatherman, Menge, Pelican, and Ritta. Some were miles long, over 100 feet wide, and many feet deep. These rivers flowed curvaceously through the custard apple/pond apple swamp that extended from the lake’s rim as far as four miles south. Today these locations encompass the cities south of the lake especially Pahokee, Belle Glade, South Bay, and Clewiston.
Presently, the south and eastern shores of Lake Okeechobee are devoid of these once very rich-with-life rivers as they have been cut-off, redirected into canals, filled in, or diked. Apparently it was documented that the “dead” rivers could flow north or south depending on rainfall. We found it more efficient to drain the Lake and to eventually erect a dike destroying all of the wildlife highways.
The Boyer Survey: An Archaeological Investigation of Lake Okeechobee, 2011, by Christopher Davenport and others–from which these images and much of the information in this post comes from, show where some of these ancient and now “dead” rivers flowed. One thing is for sure, they were never really dead, until we killed them. I think it is important to, at least for our memories, bring them back to life; we will learn more about them.
Today I am sharing a very moving and disturbing historic letter written in the days following the hurricane that killed thousands of migrant workers and pioneer farmers south of Lake Okeechobee on September 16th, 1928. It is not an easy letter to read; please be warned. I do not believe it has ever been shared publicly before…
So how did I come upon this remarkable letter?
In January of 2017 I made it my goal to learn more about the communities south and around Lake Okeechobee. At this time, after a discussion with my historian mother, I offered my services as a volunteer at the Laurence E. Will Museum of the Glades in Belle Glade. This made sense as my mother’s friend, and Stuart local, Linda Geary, had opened the museum. Thankfully, present Museum Director Dorothy Block accepted my offer.
For weeks I went through old files and later, myself and a young Pahokee student from Palm Beach Community College scanned hundreds of photographs of the 1928 Hurricane for archival purposes. This was quite the education.
After one of my “museum days,” while having dinner at my parents, my mother, noting my interests in the 1928 Hurricane subject gets up from the table saying: “I do think I have a letter written after the 1928 Hurricane. It was given to me by Iris Wall.” (Some of you know, Iris Wall is a legend of Indiantown and the state of Florida.)
When my mother brought the hand written letter down, I read it out loud at the table, struggling with some of the cursive handwriting of the era. In spite of not getting every word, at one point tears streamed down my face. To think of what Floridians lived through, and reading it first hand almost a century later really puts things in perspective. I have read and listened to many first hand accounts of the storm, but this may top them all…
Letter About the Aftermath of the 1928 Hurricane, transcribed by historian Sandra Henderson Thurlow. Letter was given to Sandra by Mrs Iris Wall of Indiantown in 2003.
We arrived here at four A.M. this morning and tried to sleep for an hour and a half then started to work. This is undoubtedly as bad a mess as I ever care to see. They are bringing in dead people all the time and they are swollen up about as big as cows and stink something awful. The old Dog Fennels are where they are lodged up. The water is about three feet over the farms and deeper in other places. The town is about two feet deep all over. Everything is ruined. Houses look like trash heaps—lot of them are scattered for a mile, just a piece here and there. Dead cows and hogs everywhere. The place smells like a corpse. It is awful but I am about used to smelling it now. Don’t know what I will do when I smell fresh air again. The water in the lake is awful on account of the dead things in it. They will not allow us to even bathe as all the water we get comes in on boats and is used to drink and cook with. We cannot even shave on account of the danger of cutting ourselves and getting it infected and we have to [be] looked over ever so often and any scratch doctored.
Awful does not describe it at all. I saw one man identify his father, mother, and brother and wife in a batch of bodies brought in. Now that was a pitiful sight. He had not closed his eyes since Friday looking and waiting for them and then to find them all downed and they were in awful shape. Hardly any clothes left on them, just rags. One man identified his fifth child this afternoon and his wife is still missing. One old man about eighty identified his wife this morning when they brought her in with hardly a rag on her, that was awful to see the old fellow. Some bodies come in with all the skin and hair gone and their eyes swollen until they have busted and their tongues sticking out and swollen larger than your hand and their faces all out of shape. One man brought in here looked as tho he would weigh about 250 pounds they said only weighed about 110.
They do not embalm them any more, just put them in a box and haul them to Cities Center and bury them. Two trucks have been busy now two days hauling bodies out to the solid ground and two hauling in coffins. I guess they built about 20 coffins out of rough lumber today and they have to wait for boxes –some bodies have to lay on the ground for several hours before they have any thing to put them in.
The State is sending in a bunch of antitoxin to inoculate us with tomorrow to prevent us from getting sick. I saw a paper today but they don’t describe it near as bad as it is.
The town is under Martial Law and they are sending people out of here as fast as they can get a means of getting them out. They have to get them out because there is no place for them to sleep and nothing for them to eat.
I took a second lieutenant in tow this afternoon. He was drunk and just raising sand and Chesterfield told him to quiet down and he was in for getting his gun and he was standing right in front of me. I grabbed his arm and got a “Hammer Lock” on him and believe me he hit the ground like a sack of sand and…I held my holt until a deputy took him over. That is the only fun I have had since I left Arcadia.
I am on guard duty now and have been on for eight straight hours. Got up at 5:30 and it is nearly two A. M. now. How is that for a day. All I have to do is sit here and see that there is no stealing. My orders are to stop them and if they did not stop use my own judgement. Things are pretty quiet so don’t guess I will have any trouble. Most of the people are gone and no one is allowed in here.
There are houses or rather what is left of them, with lily pads on top of them the water was so high. The people say that when the dykes broke the water came in a wall and a lot of people were drowned before they could get out of it. Cars are left in the road right where the water caught them. There is a steel coal care one mile from the track and two big Gul Ref. Co tanks about four miles from town where they were washed. The water just picked up about a mile of the railroad track and just turned it bottom upwards. Now that was some force. The embankment was not washed away either.
Well, Papa, it is time for my relief so will close and try to mail this tomorrow.
Love to you all
No need to write as no mail comes in and I will have to meet a train or find someone who will to mail this as the train does not come closer that 12 miles. DBJ
Since I began my Glades “Road Trip” Series, I have read three books by Lake Okeechobee historian, Laurence E. Will: Okeechobee Hurricane, Swamp to Sugar Bowl, and A Cracker History of Okeechobee.
These books hold amazing stories of the Glades; if Mr. Will hadn’t written, there would be very few first-hand accounts of farming that became a Florida mega-industry just over the first half century of the 1900s. Today, I will transcribe some of his most interesting descriptions of Lake Okeechobee, the magical landscape that was transformed into today’s contoversial Everglades Agricultural Area, for none other than its MUCK.
Close up of small pond apple on Torry Island, by Lawrence E Will.
Florida Memory Project, photo by John Kunkel Small 1869-1938.
Photo from Swamp to Suagrland, showing pond apple with moon vines around Lake O. (Lawrence E Will)
When I was on my recent tour with former mayor of Pahokee, J.P. Sasser, I learned the nick-name for Pahokee is “The Muck,” named so for the “black gold” soil that accumulated over thousands of years under the roots of a custard apple forest that rimmed the lake. (Kind of like fresh water mangroves today in the Indian River Lagoon.)
When one drives deeper into the Glades, one finds similar nick-names or “muck mottos,” that have to do with the muck. For instance, Belle Glade’s motto is “Her Soil is Her Fortune;” Clewiston’s is “America’s Sweetest Town,” and South Bay’s refers to its highways, “Crossroads of South Florida,” named so for its intersection of two major roads, East-West State Road 80, and North-South, U.S. Highway 27, roads that get one into the muck, or out of it….
Will first experienced the Lake in the early 1900s as a boy when his father was developing Okeelanta, located about four miles below today’s South Bay. Okeelanta, today a mill location for the Fanjul holdings, was located not in an apple custard forest, but rather in the miles of sawgrass lying south. Although the soil here is excellent, it is different, more peaty and not as “mucky.” Thus the most productive lands lie closer to the lake, deep in the MUCK.
Here is a moving account by Will about the land of muck in “Cracker History of Lake Okeechobee:
“Before the dredges crashed through the custard apple woods to start the first canals, the lake most always stayed high and clear, unbroken except for those islands Kreamer, Torry, and Observation. When I first saw the lake it was still wild. Excusing the trifling settlements at Utopia, Ritta, and Tantie, a score of fishing camps, and the openings to four unfinished canals, it’s swampy shores hadn’t changed since Zachary Taylor found the redskins or probably not since DeSoto anchored in Tampa Bay. It sill was just as the good Lord had fashioned it. The lake was lonely Mack, silent and mysterious as well. But I tell you boy, it was beautiful, and sort of inspiring too.”
Will was absolutely pro development, pro farming/agriculture, but he, like most of the old timers, recognized the tremendous awe-inspiring beauty of the place.
Most all the natural beauty the lakeside shoreline in Martin County, where the FPL Power Plant is today, and north to the town of Okeechobee has also been radically altered as well.
Excerpts by Lawrence E. Will:
“Dense forest ringed the lake around. Along its northern half water oak, maple, cypress, potash, rubber and palmetto trees crowded each other on the lakeshore ridge…the south shore and half way up the eastern side was something else… Here were custard apples, a solid belt of tropical trees, blanketed with a moonvine cover, which stood, two miles or more in width, without break or opening, from near Clewiston’s Sand Point, slap around to Port Mayaca. 32,000 acres of custard apple woods there were, the most of these trees, I wouldn’t doubt, on the whole blamed continent of America.”
“…Although the shores were for the most part black muck, low and flat, there were some fine sandy beaches too. Along the east side for eighteen miles lay beautiful East Beach…”
“Now if Zachary Taylor or Hamilton Disston could return to Okeechobee they would find that farmers have exterminated the custard apple woods. Highways, service stations, super markets and housing projects have replaced the cypress, rubber and maple trees along the ridge. A levee occupies the onetime shore and drainage has lowered by half a dozen feet the water’s elevation. Tractors cultivate the former seining grounds, and unless you as old–and no amount, as some of us, your never heard of town of Tantie, Utopia or Ritta. Civilization has re-made the lake and I’d be the last to say it isn’t better so, but the lakeshore’s one time natural beauty is long gone, and man, wasn’t that old lake a fascinating place.”
Well, to the land of Lake Okeechobee! For all she was, and for all she is. It’s enough to make one exclaim:”What The Muck?!!!”
Today we continue our road trip in the Glades atop the Herbert Hoover Dike.
In the short video below you can see my Glades tour-guide, former mayor JP Sasser, driving, –in his hometown of which he knows so much about–Pahokee. On the right lies the city, and on the left is Lake Okeechobee. A precarious position indeed!
Pahokee is actually unusual in that this little town is “high-ground.” According to JP, about 13 feet above ground. This is not the case for most of the Glades.
Interestingly, in the video, JP discusses how the Army Corp recently decided where to strengthen the dike in Pahokee, because if they had extended it out 500 feet as was done along the rest of the eastern shore, the town of Pahokee would have been covered up as it is located right beside the dike.
Lake Okeechobee’s dike and its history are fascinating just as is all our area of the Northern Everglades including the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon that in 1923 became the primary exit point for waters that could no longer flow south after the Herbert Hoover Dike was built.
According to historian and Gladesman Lawrence E. Will:
“…following the floods of 1923 and 1924 water stood over farm lands nearly the entire winter. To protect the farms, the state of Florida had then constructed an earthen dike along the whole south shore. It was some five to eight feet above ground level but this dike was never intended to withstand a hurricane.”
Regarding the expansion of the dike, as the “Herbert Hoover,”after the horrific hurricanes of 1926, ’28 and again in again in ’49, Mr. Nathaniel Reed notes in his writing “Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades: “The Corps of Engineers studied the average size of Lake Okeechobee and designed a dike around it…”
Now this is where things get very interesting.
“The average size of the lake….” what’s that?
Now if we look at this slide taken from a 2016, presented by Jeff Sumner, who was at the time Office Chief State and Agricultural Policy, SFWMD, it shows the size of the lake pre-development. One can see it was about once about 1000 square miles in size and today it is 750.
Of course the size expanded and contracted based on rainfall, but one still gets the point…this lower area was nature’s shoreline, a boggy marsh with rivers leading into a sawgrass “river of grass” bordered by a forest of over 30,000 acres of Custard Apple trees that functioned like mangroves extending up to five miles or more south into what is today’s Belle Glade. As Mr Lawrence Will would have said: “Who wudda thought!” (http://museumoftheglades.org)
This week we will take a look back at Lake Okeechobee, a lake that since 1923–via the C-44 canal, has been connected to the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon.
Information for these posts is made possible through a book entitled “Environments of South Florida–Past and Present,” by Patrick J. Gleason. This text was lent to me by Dr Gary Goforth. I will transcribe portions of this rare and amazing text in order for us to contemplate the changes that have occurred and how those who first documented this once remote area experienced our region.
It continues to amaze me—the ability of the early map makers and surveyors who functioned without today’s technology.
For me it is noteworthy to notice how the original map of the lake “veers off to the south-east.” Looking below one can see that today this area is today’s Bell Glade and South Bay. These lands are the richest in “black gold” as they have the accumulation of thousands of years of muck. Now we can see why. Tremendous amounts of sugar and vegetable products are produced in this area. Also, I believe these lands are most valuable because they are less likely to freeze due to their proximity to the lake.
As we can see, although we must take the Captain’s map with a grain of salt–interestingly enough—this area was once the lake…
Here are the words of Captain Backus for us to ponder as I transcribe:
In 1838 map produced by Captain E. Backus had produced a map of Lake Okeechobee, which for a long time remained buried in the national archives records of the Seminole War. It reveals the knowledge of the lake that time, and his version of the lower Kissimmee River shows graphically how that crooked meandering stream flowed thirty-five miles from Fort Basinger to reach the lake only eighteen miles away– as the crow flies… In a brief statement in the lower left portion of the map, Captain Backus writes: “Many small streams flow into the Okee-cho–bee on the North-East and West side and also on the South- East side, but it is not known that it has any outlet, and probably has none, except at the high water when Grassy Lake (The Everglades) and Okee-cho-bee are united, and probably empties thought some streams into the Atlantic. This is corroborated by the statements of different indians and negroes who profess to have crossed from one side to the other in a canoe at high-water, and to have carried and dragged a canoe many miles over the portage at low tide.”
I wonder how we would have seen the lake had we been there? Would you have crossed it in a canoe? What would you have dreamt it to become?
Published on Oct 16, 2015
This overlay flight shows the following maps:
– 1907 Official Map of the Everglades Patent 137 conveyed to Florida on January 2, 1905
– Map of the Everglades Patent 137 re-recorded in Plat Books of Broward County, originally recorded in Plat Book B, Page 131, Dade County Florida
– 1924-1925 USCGS Maps of the Airplane Survey of Lake Okeechobee
After taking a counterclockwise lap around the shoreline of Lake Okeechobee while viewing the 1925 surveys, we return to South Bay.
Section 2 of Township 44 South, Range 36 East, north of the town of South Bay, was originally under the waters of South Bay. On 12/31/1888 that section was conveyed by TIFF to the Pensacola and Atlantic Railroad Company. The area of the Lake is now sugarcane farms.
Lake Okeechobee used to be a much larger lake. It crested at about 21 feet to fall over an undefined edge of sawgrass and in some areas a pond apple forest.
Since the late 1800s the lake has slowly had its undefined edge pushed back and dammed. The lake perhaps holds about 30% less water than it originally could. Those overflow waters today are plumed to drain into the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon and the Caloosahatchee so that the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) can exist. Watch this amazing historic map/Google Earth video created by my brother Todd Thurlow and see for yourself!
South Bay, for instance…Todd explains: “You can see on Google Earth where the canals and levees follow the old shoreline of South Bay, now 5.8 miles from open water, but 2 miles from the rim canal. That Section 2, which was under the bay, was conveyed to the Pensacola and Atlantic Railroad Company by TIIF deed on 12/31/1888. It looks like there is a little town there called South Bay…”