Sunday, August 28, 2016

Ocklawaha: A Reversible Tragedy

In 1860, 32-year-old mail carrier Hubbard Hart proposed a steamboat service on the Ocklawaha River. People thought he was crazy. Common wisdom had it that this tributary to the St. Johns was too narrow and twisting for paddle wheelers. But, several months and a lot of channel clearing later, Hart piloted a small steamer, James Burt, on its maiden voyage to Silver Spring.

By the end of the decade, steamboats of Harts new Hart Line company were making regular trips up the Ocklawaha to the river’s head at Lake Griffin and up Silver River to Silver Spring. It seemed Hart was all out of surprises when, in 1869, he introduced his newest boat—the Panasofkee. But, it wasn’t the boat that set the rumor-mill spinning, it was the name. Panasofkee is the name of a lake that lies a dozen miles west of Lake Griffin and flows into the Withlacoochee river—a tributary of the Gulf of Mexico. Hart’s intentions were clear. He was planning to dig a canal to connect the Ocklawaha to the Withlacoochee. It wasn’t a new idea.

Beginning with Pedro Menendez de Aviles, the Spanish explorer/commander who founded St. Augustine in 1565, a parade of schemers and visionaries dreamed of finding a way to cross Florida by water. At first they hoped to find a natural connection. When it was eventually proven that a natural crossing didn’t exist, they contemplated digging one. No river felt the brunt of this enterprise more than the Ocklawaha. It seemed like the perfect choice.

In its natural state, the Ocklawaha flowed northward from its source at Lake Griffin as a slow, tannin-stained blackwater stream. After passing through several miles of open marsh, the river entered one of the most beautiful, species-rich, floodplain forests in the state. Twenty-five miles below the marshes, the river took on new life as the crystal clear water of Silver River joined from the west. This added an incredible 650 million gallons per day of artesian spring water to its flow.

From here, the clearer, swifter river continued north though a mile-wide swamp forest of cypress, red maple, ash, tupelo, hickory, water elm, swamp dogwoods and other water-tolerant trees. With no real “banks” to direct its course, the river carved a twisted path northward. After another thirty miles, having received the flow from Orange Creek, the river curved eastward toward the St. Johns River. As it approached the St. Johns, the channel widened, as did the adjacent swamplands, where a maze of braided creeks could confound even seasoned woodsman.

The importance of this abundant river and forest was made apparent by the presence of many archaeological sites. The scant remains of ancient villages gave quiet testament to countless generations that occupied these sites. Discarded pieces of broken pottery and mollusk shells could be seen in the hard, compacted matrix of large refuse middens. Less common were sand burial mounds. Many middens and mounds can still be seen along the river’s banks.

By the time European explorers arrived, Ocklawaha was home to a tribe of Timucua speaking Indians called the Acuera. Spanish explorer, Hernando De Soto was the first white man to encounter these fierce warriors and, after watching them riddle his dog Bruto with nearly fifty arrows, was the first to realize they were best left alone.

After the demise of the Acuera and all of north Florida’s Timucua tribes in the 1700’s, Creek migrants moved into the Ocklawaha region. Soon they were being called by a new name—Seminoles. It was they who gave the name Ocklawaha, the “crooked river.” Several generations of Seminoles called this area home, living in relative isolation while other, more ‘hospitable’ parts of the region were over-run with settlers. But with the cession of Florida to the United States 1821, a new wave of white pioneers poured in from the north and tensions escalated. Within two years, the situation forced the creation of a large reservation in central Florida. The Indian Agency, headquartered at Ft. King near Silver Spring, would be the seed from which the later town of Ocala would grow. Predictably, the reservation boundary proved untenable.

In 1835, war broke out. For nearly seven years, the Second Seminole War kept Florida in constant turmoil. In the early years of the campaign, the Indians found safe refuge in the dense forests of the Ocklawaha river basin. But, eventually, like the Acuera before them, the Seminoles were forced out.

With the Seminoles reduced to a manageably small population in the Everglades, white settlers moved in. North and west of the Ocklawaha, plantations and orange groves were established, while to the east, only the most determined pioneers were willing to eke a living in the high, sandy ‘scrub.’ Along the river, the ancient forest echoed with the sound of loggers axes and the thunder of virgin cypress trees crashing to the forest floor. Bucked and dragged to the river, the giant logs were lashed together and rafted to one of several river-side sawmills. It was hard work maneuvering log rafts down the twisted channel of the Ocklawaha. So too was ‘poling’ a barge loaded with cut lumber down to the St. Johns. But, it was the only way. Everybody knew you couldn’t get a steamboat up the Ocklawaha. Everybody, except for Hubbard Hart.

In Hart, Menendez’ 300 year old dream had found a new champion. But it had changed a bit. Where the early Spaniards had believed there was a natural passage, later visionaries, now aware that no such waterway existed, considered digging a canal. In 1826 and again in 1832, Congress authorized surveys to determine the feasibility of such a project. Both concluded that the idea was impractical. But, they left the slight germ of hope for future schemers by concluding that “if” such a canal were to be dug, the best route would be up the Ocklawaha and across to the Withlacoochee.

In the end, Hart failed to get government approval and abandoned his plan. But, the steamboat route he created had opened the area for commerce and, more importantly, tourists. By the late 1800’s, there were few “wild frontiers” left in the country. But, compliments of the Hart’s steamers, tourists could embark on an adventure into the Florida wilderness. Writers, artists, politicians and well-heeled Northern socialites, stood alongside backwoodsmen and naturalists at the railings of Harts small steamers as they turned off of the broad St. Johns and headed up the dark, mysterious Ocklawaha.

In his 1875 travel guide, writer Sidney Lanier suggested that travelers on Ocklawaha steamers hike their feet up onto the railing, lean back in their chair and, looking up into the tree canopy overhead, “ sail, sail, sail through the cypresses, through the vines, through the May day, through the floating suggestions of the unutterable that come up, that sink down …and so shall your heart forever afterwards interpret the Ocklawaha to mean repose.”

By the end of the 1800’s, railroads had all but eliminated the need for steamboats on the Ocklawaha. Gone were the writers and artists. Gone were the days of romance. And into the void returned the canal developers.

As the 20th century dawned, industrial age technologies and Victorian ideals of conquering nature had joined forces and were wreaking environmental havoc throughout the world. In Florida, a statewide campaign, of ditching and damming wetlands, both for land reclamation and water transportation, built to a crescendo which, predictably, led once more to the banks of the Ocklawaha. In the 1930’s, construction began on a cross-state canal. After only six months, public support and funding dried up and the project was terminated with relatively little to show for the effort. But the idea still smoldered.

The project resurfaced during World War II and gained legislative approval. But, again, it laid mired in a funding and logistical quagmire. Finally, in 1964, construction of the Cross Florida Barge Canal began. But at the same time the long dreamed-of canal was finally becoming a reality, so too was a growing understanding of the complexities of natural systems. Organizations Like the Audubon Society and concerned citizens to spoke out passionately in defense of the river. A leading champion of this cause was Marjorie Carr, whose unprecedented determination and concern for Florida’s natural heritage led to the founding of the Florida Defenders of the Environment.

In 1969, just as it was beginning to look like Menendez’ 400 year dream would be realized, and with a 9,000 acre reservoir in place, the steam roller of ‘progress’ came head to head with Marjorie Carr, the FDE and the swelling ranks of impassioned environmentalists. The project was halted by Richard Nixon in 1971, pending further studies. In 1991, it was officially de-authorized.

The partially-completed canal remains in limbo. With deconstruction already approved, 21st century Floridians watch and wait as a handful of local politicians cling desperately to 19th century values and continue to hold the river hostage by blocking funding for the rivers restoration. At issue—good fishing. In the final decades of the 20th century, while researchers researched and politicians wrangled, the fish living among the submerged snags in the artificial Rodman Reservoir were growing fat and happy. Fishermen stuffed their wells with lunker bass, boat manufacturers, tackle companies and tournament organizers stuffed their wallets. And all these people stuffed their hands into the hands of campaigning politicians.

Today, most Floridians don’t realize they are paying nearly a million dollars per year to maintain this big, artificial fishing pond or that they are financing the continued destruction of one of Florida’s finest natural treasures; a river formed along an ancient fault line from a massive earthquake millions of years ago, making it one of Florida’s oldest and most unique rivers. They don’t realize the ecology of the Ocklawaha and Silver Rivers have been drastically altered by this reservoir they are paying for. They don’t know that the majority of this river’s flow comes from one of the largest springs in the world—Silver Spring. They don’t know that several species of fish and eels and even Florida’s beloved manatees are blocked from migrating up and down the river. They don’t know that the people operating the dam—on behalf of the Florida taxpayers—make no attempt to regulate the output of water through the dam to mimic the natural water cycles necessary for the health of the river and forests downstream from there. They don’t know that organizations like Audubon Society, Florida Defenders of the Environment, Putnam County Environmental Council, Adventure Outpost and others are working hard to have this dam removed and save this natural treasure that belongs to the people of Florida.
Unlike so many natural tragedies that are changing the face of Florida's natural landscape, this one is easily reversible. All it will take is an end to the apathy that has settled over this issue. Every year, the citizens of Florida continue writing the checks to maintain this artificial pool that serves no real purpose. The dam generates no hydro-electric power. The reservoir is not a holding facility for water to be used later. Rodman Reservoir is simply a artificial fishing pond in a State brimming with natural fishing ponds, being maintained and funded for the benefit of a handful of fishermen and the huge boating and fishing lobbies who outfit them.

Most Floridians don’t know there is a bitter battle being fought on their behalf. When they boat and fish in other parts of the river, they see nothing to indicate that part of the river is being held hostage. Upstream and downstream from Rodman Reservoir, Ocklawaha flows on, seemingly undaunted by the turmoil that surrounds her. There she remains, as Sidney Lanier proclaimed, one of the “sweetest waterways in the world.”

For more about efforts to remove Kirkpatrick Dam and restore the Ocklawaha, visit the Florida Defenders of the Environment website at:  "