Army Engineers And The Florida Ship Canal

The route upon which the Army engineers agreed as being the most practical and feasible from every point of view was quite different from the one which many of the Florida advo cates of the canal had desired. It did not enter the Gulf of Mexico either at Cedar Key nor in the harbor of Tampa, where there had been, if not great enthusiasm for the canal, at least no material opposition. Instead, the engineers reported that the best western entrance for the Florida cross-state canal would be formed by extending the mouth of the Withlacoochie River, at Port Inglis, 22 miles out to deep water in the Gulf of Mexico by means of jetties, in the same manner that the mouth of the St. Johns River has been extended into the Atlantic and that of the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico.

The canal route approved by the Army connects Ocean and Gulf by way of the St. Johns, Oklawaha and Withlacoochie rivers. The plan calls for the dredging of the channel of the St. Johns to the full depth required, southward to a point above Palatka, where the Oklawaha River, which originates in Silver Springs, enters the St. Johns. By dredging and straightening the bed of the Oklawaha and then, on the other slope of the Ocala limestone ridge which forms the backbone of the Florida peninsula, deepening and straightening the Withlacoochie River from a point near Dunellon, there would remain only about twenty-seven miles of excavation, not already traversed by a watercourse, to connect the two rivers and so complete the canal. Nothing was contemplated until 1935 but a lock canal. The Ocala limestone ridge rises to an elevation of 130 feet above sea-level, so that to excavate through it for a sea-level canal with thirty feet of water would involve digging a ditch one hundred and sixty feet deep across a stretch of twenty miles or more.

Early in 1932, nearly two years before the Corps of Engineers had completed their survey, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation had been formed, having power, among other things, to lend money for self-liquidating public works. On the theory that the Florida Ship Canal would charge tolls which would eventually pay for it, the Association applied to the R. F. C. for a loan to be made to some public corporation such as R. F. C. might approve. This was midsummer, 1932.

Before R. F. C. got into action on the application a new Federal administration came into power in Washington. The Public Works Administration was formed, and the authority of R. F. C. over loans for public works was transferred to P. W. A. In the meantime, the Legislature of Florida had created a Ship Canal Authority, and adopted a memorial to the President urging the construction of the canal. General Summerall was made chairman of the Ship Canal Authority, with four other members representing the four major sections of Florida. The Authority asked P. W. A. for a loan to build the canal.

The Secretary of the Interior, Mr. Ickes, as chief of P. W. A., appointed his own engineers to make a physical and economic survey. On October 19, 1933, they made their report, that the project was feasible, sound economically and from an engineering standpoint, and a public necessity. The P. W. A. engineering board recommended that the loan be made.

The Army engineers made their report on December 30, 1933. Both reports agreed on the feasibility and the benefits of the canal, but the Army’s estimate of cost was $190,000,000 and that of P. W. A. but $115,000,000. The ten Senators from the five Gulf states saw both reports, and all signed a joint petition to the President asking him to appoint a Board of Review to try to reconcile the two conflicting reports.

Both were still talking about a lock canal.

In May, 1934, the President appointed a Board of Review, two Army Engineer Officers, two engineers named by W. P. A., the four choosing the fifth. The Board went to Florida, studied the project, went over the route, set a new group of geologists to study the possible effect of the canal on the state’s water supply, and on the strength of their study reported to the President these conclusions:

1. That it would be cheaper and more efficient to construct and to operate a sea-level canal than the lock canal contemplated by previous surveys and estimates. They fixed the cost at $142,700,000.

2. That there was no likelihood of any impairment of the fresh water supply of any part of Florida, from a sea-level canal, either by possible lowering of the water table or by seepage of sea water into the subterranean fresh water channels.

3. That the economic benefits to the nation as a whole would justify an expenditure of $160,000,000, which would cover interest during construction and all other costs, exclusive of the land required for the right of way.

The State of Florida, in the meantime, having authorized the counties through which the canal would run to bond themselves for the purchase of the right of way, and the entire right of way having been pledged to be so purchased and presented to the nation, the President’s Board of Review recommended on June 28, 1934, that the canal be built.

One question remained, and the President asked it.

“Can the canal collect tolls enough from ships using it to pay the costs?”

The Board got busy on a . new economic survey. It figured that whereas the bulk of traffic through the Florida Straits at present, and for some years to come, is oil tankers, the oil re serves of the United States and Mexico may peter out in the next 15 or 20 years. Therefore, the Board was not willing to predict what might happen to Gulf-Atlantic traffic by the time a 50-year bond issue on the canal matured. It declined to commit itself so far into the future in the supplementary report it made to the President on September 15, 1934.

That report took the canal out of the class of self-liquidating projects, to which the authority of P. W. A, was limited. It left but one official agency concerned with the canal. This was the President’s own Board of Review, which recommended a sea-level canal. But if it were to be built it would have to be done as a Federal project, at “he Government’s sole expense. That meant a free canal. No inland waterway ever built or improved under a Rivers and Harbors appropriation has ever charged tolls. The Panama Canal, lying entirely outside of the United States, is the only important waterway under U. 5, control on which tolls are charged. All others are “general welfare” projects.