We are getting down to the edge of the Everglades, and at the little town of Stuart, long popular with sportsmen as a fishing rendezvous, at the mouth of the St. Lucie River, we come upon the eastern terminus of the cross-state canal, which traverses the heart of that vast region. Thousands of pleasure craft and cargo boats pass through Stuart annually on the voyage between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, by way of Lake Okeechobee, many of them cargo boats carrying the rich products of the agricultural lands around the lake.
The St. Lucie drainage canal was first excavated as a part of the Everglades drainage project. Lake Okeechobee, the largest body of fresh water lying entirely within the boundaries of any single state, has many inlets but no natural outlet. In seasons of heavy rainfall the flood waters from the Kissimmee Valley caused Lake Okeechobee to overflow and inundate hundreds of square miles of land which, when freed from surplus water, is the richest and most prolific agricultural soil in the world. That is the Everglades country.
Roughly, the Everglades comprises the whole lower third of the Florida peninsula, flat, low-lying land with so little natural slope as to make the problem of drainage one of the most difficult engineering tasks ever attempted. Lake Olceechobee itself is so low that its waters, when the lake is bank-full, are only 18 feet above sea-level; but the richness and productivity of the Everglades muck-land, once drained, is so great that no cost seemed too high a price to pay for a system of drainage and flood control which would make possible the utilization of this fertile soil.
The key to the Everglades drainage problem is Lake Okeeehobee, the catch-basin for the run-off of 20,000 square miles of highlands to the north. By the late 1920′s, after nearly a quarter of a century of digging canals and ditches extending in every direction to the sea, the problem seemed to have been solved. Hundreds of thousands of acres of Everglades muckland was reclaimed and thousands of farmers were coining the wealth of the black muck into gold, with their winter crops of vegetables for the northern market. Prosperous little towns grew up around Lake Okeechobee-Okeechobee City on the north, Port Mayaca, Canal Point, Pahokee, Chosen, Belle Glade on the east, South Bay, Ritta and Clewiston on the south, and Moore Haven on the west. Even in the seasons of heaviest rainfall the drainage system worked; the new farm lands were not flooded.
Then, in the autumn of 1928, the greatest tragedy in Florida’s history occurred. Torrential rains had filled Lake Okeechobee to its brim. Every flood-gate was wide open and the drainage canals, east, south and west, were flowing like millraces. Then the hurricane struck.
Sweeping in from the Atlantic, the full force of the wind swept over the Everglades from east to west. It scooped up the waters of Lake Okeechobee and poured them over the land. Without warning the little city of Moore Haven, on the edge of the lake where the westernmost drainage canal leads to the flow-off of the Caloosahatchee River, was swept away as if by a tidal wave. Many of its inhabitants and those of the adjacent farm country had no time to escape, and most of them no place to escape to, for there were no hills, nothing but the low-lying swamp around them. The only high point was the dyke which had been built to divert the lake waters into the Caloosahatchee canal. A few managed to reach the top of the dyke and so saved their lives, but an uncounted number perished. Some estimates of the number of dead run as high as 2,000.
No such flood catastrophe had occurred in America since the Johnstown flood of 1889. To prevent its recurrence nothing would serve, it was obvious, but to surround the entire lake with a dyke as high and strong as that which had proved a safe refuge for those who had been fortunate enough to reach it. That work was begun by the United States Army Engineer Corps under a Congressional appropriation in 1930. It was finished in 1937. The original estimate of cost was $3,000,000; but the actual expenditure before the gigantic task was finished was $20,000,000; for there was a great deal more to be done than merely to build a dyke. The St. Lucie drainage canal, largest and most efficient of all of the outlets from the lake, had to be deepened and widened. So, too, did the Moore Haven canal leading into the Caloosahatchee River, and that crooked, shallow stream had to be straightened and deepened.
With those things done and the bottom of Lake Okeechobee lowered around three-fourths of its rim, where the sand was dredged out to be piled up into a dyke, here was a deep channel running clear across Florida. All it needed to make it navigable from Ocean to Gulf was locks to lift and lower vessels through the 18-foot difference in water level between the lake and the sea. Those were installed, and the Florida crossstate canal, eight feet deep and from 80 to 200 feet wide, was opened to traffic in March, 1937.