Funding Of The Florida Ship Canal

That Winter of 1934-35 Congress appropriated $4,800,000,000 for the Works Progress Administration, over the functions and expenditures of which the President had exclusive personal control. To the President personally the Florida Ship Canal Authority applied for an allotment from the W. P. A. fund, pointing out that there was no requirement that W. P. A. projects must be self-liquidating. On August 28, 1935, the President accordingly signed an executive order, allotting $5,000,000 of his Emergency Relief Fund to begin work on the canal and directing the Army Engineers to proceed. The date of that order is unimportant except that it explodes the myth that there was some relation between the Florida Ship Canal project and the accident to the steamer Dixie. The Dixie was blown upon a reef near the eastern entrance to the Florida Straits, and for a while her 350 passengers were in peril. It has been represented that this incident was the compelling argument which induced the President to order work on the canal begun. That might be plausible except for the fact that the Dixie grounded at midnight on September 2, 1935, more than five days after the President’s action had been taken.

The Corps of Engineers began work on the canal immediately. With the original $5,000,000 and two additional allotments of $200,000 each they established the headquarters and set 4,000 men at work on the actual digging, a little south of Ocala.

Up to the time when work on the canal actually began, no serious opposition to it had publicly developed anywhere in or out of Florida. As soon as work started a flood of criticism was let loose, based chiefly, so far as a motive is publicly avowed, upon the belief that a sea-level canal cut through the Ocala ridge would so seriously affect the underground watercourses of the entire peninsula as to impair the water supplies of cities, lessen or shut off entirely the pressure of the artesian wells upon which the citrus growers and other farmers depend for their existence, and permit the infiltration of salt water into the present sources of fresh water.

The opposition based upon this belief found expression on the floor of the United States Senate in the Spring of 1936, when the War Department, in submitting its estimates for the annual Army appropriation bill, included an item of $12,000,000 for the continuance of work on the canal. The original allotment by the President from W. P. A. funds had been exhausted, and he had declined to apportion any more from the same source to this purpose. He had turned the job over to the Army, however, and the Army wanted to finish it. Suddenly the Florida Ship Canal became an issue in party politics in a Presidential election year. So vigorous were the attacks upon it from the minority party in the Senate that the proposed appropriation, although the Senate voted by a majority of ten to authorize the construction of the canal, was stricken from the Army Bill, and work on the canal came to a complete standstill.

There the matter lay until May, 1937, when the Rivers and Harbors Committee of the House of Representatives, after a series of exhaustive hearings, presented a report recommending that Congress authorize the completion of the canal and appropriate the necessary funds. From the report of the Committee the following extracts are taken:

“Evidence submitted to your Committee shows a widespread public support for the project. This includes the endorsement of the Governors of a large number of states, representatives of organized labor, civic and commercial bodies and national associations, especially those located in or representing the Mississippi Valley and Gulf states and those of the Atlantic seaboard. The evidence also includes objections to the project from some communities in Southern Florida, from a number of railroads, and from certain shipping companies, as well as from organizations interested in wild life and ecology. With the exception of the railroad and steamship companies, these objections are stated to be based solely upon a fear that the construction of the canal will damage agriculture, plant and bird life of Florida through overdrainage of its fresh water supply . . . The Secretary of the Navy has advised the Committee that the project will be of material aid in the National Defense. . . .

“The area within the United States which should benefit directly by reduced transportation costs if the canal is constructed extends along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and well into the interior . . . This area includes forty-five percent of continental United States, with seventy-four percent of the population . . . It is not probable that any such distribution of benefits over the nation as a whole can be shown by any other Federal project. . . .

“The Committee has had evidence presented to it which demonstrates conclusively that as a protected route for the movement of troops, munitions and supplies between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic seaboard, and as a safe alternate route to the Panama Canal, compared with the potentially hazardous route via the Windward Passage, ordinarily used, the Atlantic-Gulf Ship Canal will serve as a major element of National Defense in time of war.”

The report goes at length into the opposition based upon the argument that the construction of the canal will have adverse effects on the underground fresh water supply of the state. Its conclusion on this point is stated thus:

“After a very careful consideration of all the evidence submitted, both pro and con, your Committee concludes that the findings of the Chief of Engineers in this matter are cor rect and supported by ample data, evidence and authoritative opinion. It regards the assertions that ground water supplies in Southern Florida will be adversely affected, to be wholly beyond the realm of reason.”

The majority report of the Rivers and Harbors Committee concluded thus:

“Your Committee, after an unusually extensive examination of all phases of this project, concludes that the opposition is not well founded; that the project is of unusual merit; that its economic justification is beyond question; that its benefit will increase with time and will accrue to a larger portion of our country and its population than those of almost any other Federal Public Work; and that its construction is needful and in the public interest.”

Three members of the Committee, Representatives Beiter of New York, Mosier of Ohio and Schulte of Indiana filed a dissenting report indicating their disapproval of the canal project. They stated their reasons as follows:

“The undersigned members of the committee conclude that: Damage will occur to a portion of the State of Florida, north and south of the canal, and that such damage, the amount of which cannot be predetermined, must be compensated by the United States Government.

“The initial cost of such a canal would be from $197,921,000 plus about $18,000,000 interest during construction, about $215,000,000 total, to $263,838,000 plus about $25,000,000 interest during construction, about $288,000,000 total. That the ultimate cost would be about $288,000,000.

“That the benefits would be enjoyed largely by the petroleum industry with some benefits to most water shipping in the Gulf but that the annual cost of maintenance and operation would be greatly in excess of the benefits to be derived.

“That such a canal would not decrease hazards of navigation between the Gulf and Atlantic ports.

“That the proposed canal would not be an aid to national defense.

“These members of the Committee for Rivers and Harbors of the House find there is not sufficient justification for undertaking the project.”

Six other committee members, Representatives Segar of New Jersey, Carter of California, Culkin of New York, Short of Missouri, Dondero of Michigan and Bates of Massa chusetts, filed a minority report opposing the authorization and appropriation on the ground of their disapproval of further expenditures by the Federal government in view of the Treasury deficit and the size of the National Debt.

That was the legal status of the Florida Ship Canal when the first session of the 75th Congress adjourned in 1937. The Senate of the 74th Congress had authorized the appropriation of Federal funds for its completion; the Rivers and Harbors Committee of the House of Representatives of the 75th Congress had made a favorable report on the bill to authorize an appropriation. As this is written, in the Autumn of 1937, no one can foretell with certainty when work will be resumed on the canal.

The physical effect of the canal upon the topography of Florida will be to make an island of nearly seven-eighths of the Florida peninsula, an island separated from the mainland by a watercourse a quarter of a mile wide and thirty-five feet deep. Highways and railroads are to be carried across the canal on bridges, most of them 135 feet above the surface of the water, necessitating the regrading of these thoroughfares for distances of from two to eight or ten miles on each side of the canal, depending upon the natural elevation of the terrain at the point of crossing.

Under these bridges and across the state of Florida there will flow, if the expectations of the canal proponents and the estimates of the Army engineers prove accurate, a continuous stream of sea-going ships moving in both directions. The Army Board figures that ninety percent of the present traffic between Gulf and Ocean will move through the canal rather than continue to follow the longer and more hazardous route. This would mean, on the basis of the volume of traffic as it was in 1937, a ship passing in one direction or the other every fortyeight minutes.

The economic effects of the Florida Ship Canal are quite unpredictable in detail, but seem certain to be profound. Among these probable consequences are the elevation to greater commercial importance of the three little cities of Palatka, Ocala and Dunellon. The plans for the canal provide for docks and turning basins at those points, any or all of which may become an important warehousing and distributing center for incoming freight and a shipping point for outgoing cargoes.