About The Florida Ship Canal

Around the southern shores of the picturesquely-named Lake Tsala Apopka we return to the northbound trail and reach Dunellon and the Withlacoochie River. Dunellon is the center of the hard-rock phosphate mining district of Florida. While much less extensive than the phosphate mines farther south in Polk County, the output from the Dunellon district is a considerable factor in the world phosphate market.

Dunellon’s major current prominence in the public eye, however, is the position it occupies in the plans for the Florida cross-state Ship Canal as the first point at which ships entering the canal from the Gulf will find a turning basin and supply station. The broad Withlacoochie River flows westward from Dunellon to Yankeetown and Port Inglis on the Gulf, where the western terminal of the canal is to be extended to deep water by means of 22-mile rock jetties.

The route laid out for the canal extends easterly from Dunellon to a point near Ocala, thence northeasterly through the Oklawaha River valley to the St. Johns River and Jack sonville. It is worth the traveller’s time to follow the canal route now to Ocala and see the canal for himself.

All that the tourist can see of the canal is a great gash in the earth, five or six miles long and nearly five hundred feet wide, where excavation was begun in the Autumn of 1935 for a sea-level canal, deep enough and wide enough to permit the passage between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, of ocean-going ships. The excavation and the masonry piers that were built to carry a bridge, which in turn was to carry a trunk line highway across the canal at an elevation great enough to permit the clearance of the masts of the biggest freighter afloat, are all there is of the canal. South of Ocala is a great array of buildings, neatly arranged in a beautifully parked area, constructed to house the headquarters of the corps of United States Army engineers which began to dig the canal, with quarters for officers and barracks for enlisted men and laborers, complete with canteens, mess-halls and all the other appurtenances of an army post, including guard-house.

It all looks as substantial as if it had been built for permanency. It was, indeed, constructed with the idea that the flimsiest of the buildings would be occupied for the six or seven years it would take to complete the canal and that the others would serve the needs of the necessary supervisory and maintenance units indefinitely.

There is still a military air about the reservation, although work on the canal ended hardly a year after it was started. The buildings are occupied, but except for a handful of officers and soldiers left on the ground to see that no depredations are committed on government property, the occupants of the buildings are teachers and classes of adult education courses sponsored by W. P. A. and supervised from nearby Gainesville by the faculty of the University of Florida.

Tourists who view this scene are told that the canal project was financed with $5,400,000 allocated to it by President Roosevelt from his $4,800,000,000 emergency relief fund, in August, 1935, and came to a halt when Congress refused, in the Spring of 1936, to appropriate any more funds to carry on the work. From there on what the tourist will be told will depend in large measure upon the teller. There is no topic in Florida concerning which one can so readily start a controversy or hear so many opinions and diametrically opposite statements of what purport to be facts. The story, as impartially as the authors can tell it, is set down here.

The idea of a canal across the neck of the Florida peninsula is almost as old as the occupation of Florida by the Spanish in 1565. There is said to be still extant a letter written by King Philip II of Spain to Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles, Governor of Florida, asking him to try to find a sea route from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic north of the “Island of Florida.” Sir Francis Drake and his buccaneers were making entirely too much trouble for the Spanish King by holding up and looting his galleons bringing treasure out of Mexico through the narrow Florida Straits and the Windward Passage. General Andrew Jackson, who took Florida from Spain in 1818 and became its miltary governor after its annexation in 1821, urged upon the government at Washington the construction of a canal across Florida for military purposes. In 1825 the residents of St. Augustine, then the principal community in the peninsula, under the leadership of one Colonel John White, made an appearance before Congress, advocating the construction of a waterway with St. Augustine as the eastern terminus and some point near the mouth of the Suwannee River as the western terminus. In 1826 Congress passed an Act directing and authorizing the survey, the Act being approved by the President March 3, 1826. The report was submitted February 19, 1829 and was the first report under the auspices of the Corps of Engineers, U. S. Army, ever made on this project. Subsequently reports were submitted dated March 3, 1832, May 1, 1855, April 3, 1876, April 6, 1880, and June l, 1882, November 9, 1911, December 3, 1924 and the several reports occasioned by the River and Harbor Acts of 1927 and 1930.

The first mention of a ship canal, in those terms, was made by Lieutenant M. L. Smith, in a report made pursuant to the Act of Congress of August 30, 1852. The report appears to have been dated October 30, 1852. The next mention was made in a report of December 30, 1876, submitted by Brevet Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, of Civil War “Swamp Angel,” Charleston Siege fame.

A ship canal in those days meant less than it does now, for there were a large number of ocean-going sailing vessels drawing only 12 feet of water, and a considerable portion of the commerce of the world was carried in such ships.

The next reference of significance to a ship canal was made by General W. H. Bixby, then Chief of Engineers, in a report dated August 9, 1913. At that time he had under consideration a possible barge canal, but expressed the view that “the Chief of Engineers believes that, although before many years it may be considered desirable to have a canal across the northern portion of Florida capable of use by boats of 10, 12, or more, feet of draft, yet if the cost is to be as great as sixteen million dollars for a 10-foot canal, it would be better to pay a moderate amount more for a much greater depth than 12 feet.”

The next mention is in a report dated December 9, 1924, and subsequent to the River and Harbor Act of 1927, Major General Harry Taylor, the former Chief of Engineers, and others repeatedly advocated a survey for a ship canal with a view to determining the facts. The result was an appropriation in the Rivers and Harbors Act of that year, for a survey for a ship canal by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Congress of 1930 made a further appropriation to complete the survey. On December 30, 1933, the War Department reported that the survey had been completed. Twenty-eight possible routes had been explored at a cost of $400,000 and six years of time.

In the meantime the National Gulf-Atlantic Ship Canal Association had been formed at a meeting held in New Orleans in 1932. Called at the instigation of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce and the city government, the meeting was attended by representatives of business interests in all five of the Gulf states, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. General Charles P. Summerall, retired, former Chief of Staff of the U. S. Army, was chosen as president of the Association, a post which he still holds.

This organization was the culmination of several years of effort on the part of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce. That organization’s attention had been directed to the project by the many inquiries made by the Army engineers for information on which to base an estimate of the economic value of the proposed canal. The World War, among other things, had impressed upon high officers of the Army and Navy the desirability of more traffic facilities running east and west, between the Mississippi Valley and the Atlantic coast. South of the Great Lakes and their easterly extension, the Erie Canal, there is no freight route between East and West which does not have to carry its load over one or more mountain ranges, until you get down to Florida. Since the war the water traffic between Gulf ports and the Atlantic coast has increased enormously. The tonnage passing through the Florida Straits annually is the largest volume of salt water traffic through a restricted passage anywhere in the world; the 40,000,000 tons of cargo carried in and out of Gulf ports every year is more than passes through the British Channel or the Straits of Gibraltar. More than 10,000 ships are engaged in this traffic, two-thirds of them oil tankers. The home port of the largest American sea-going fleet engaged in foreign trade is Tampa, whence ships ply between the Gulf of Mexico and African, Mediterranean and East Indian ports. If ships could cut straight across Florida instead of having to go around the Keys and through the Florida Straits, they could save 360 miles of steaming and a corresponding amount of time. Moreover, they would not be so liable to attack by enemy submarines.

The Army and Navy wanted a ship canal across Florida, but to get public funds appropriated to build it they had to show its economic justification, and in this they asked the help of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce in gathering the trade statistics and facts necessary to demonstrate the economic value of the canal.

The Chamber of Commerce decided to put an end to the repetition of such requests by engaging engineers and economists to go into the facts and definitely establish what merit, if any, there might be in the project. Since such a canal would naturally have its eastern terminus at or near Jacksonville, it was apparent that its construction would be of benefit to that city. The Chamber of Commerce, therefore, enlisted the interest of the City Council and City Commissioners, and obtained from them the necessary funds to finance the initial economic survey. The Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce has been, in fact, the main driving force behind the canal project, obtaining financial support for its efforts not only from the city government but from the County Board of Commissioners of Duval County.

The contract between the City of Jacksonville and its engineers and economists contained a stipulation that the latter should have a free hand to find the facts, whatever they might be, whether or not favorable to the project as a whole and whether or not favorable to Jacksonville as a terminus. At that time the persons in the City of Jacksonville responsible for the movement practically pledged themselves without reservation to support the findings of the U. S. Engineers as to location, route and all other details. The Army Engineers, after considering not less than twenty-eight possible routes through Georgia and Florida, finally selected the route which they designated Route 13-B and it is this route upon which construction has been begun.