Disston saved Florida from Civil War debt

The Caloosahatchee River was once a shallow river, starting with rapids at Lake Flirt and winding it’s way to the east coast. The deep channeled river of today bears little resemblance to the waterway first seen by Florida pioneers. As with so many things that changed the Florida environment, changes to the river “seemed like a good idea at the time.”

After the Civil War, the State of Florida was deep in debt. The State sought to make money and also attract settlers by using the Swamp and Overflowed Land Act of 1850. This act allowed the state to sell public land cheaply if developers agree to drain the land for development. The state found an investor in Pennsylvania, businessman Hamilton Disston. Mr. Disston, born in 1844, had learned business skills at his father’s firm, the Keystone Saw Works in Pennsylvania.

In 1877, Mr. Disston visited Florida and became fascinated with the possibility of reclaiming swamp land. In 1879, Mr. Disston and investors formed the Atlantic and Gulf Coast Canal and Okeechobee Land Company and entered into a contract with the State of Florida. The original drainage contract called for the reclamation of 12 million acres of land, which would be deeded in plots beginning after the reclamation of the first 200,000 acres alternately to the State and the Land Company.

A Feb. 18, 1881 article in the New York Times reported the reclamation of 12,000,000 acres of land had been undertaken “by a company of Philadelphia gentleman with every prospect of success.”

The plans would change as work progressed. Over the project, Mr. Disston paid about $1 million for 4 million acres of land.

Mr. Disston’s grand plan never achieved his dreams, but he is credited with draining the upper Kissimmee River basin, making it possible to develop the towns of Kissimmee, St. Cloud, Gulport and Tarpon Springs. His crews constructed canals between some of the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, and connected the Caloosahatchee River with Lake Okeechobee.

Lake connection

Before human intervention, the Caloosahatchee River originated at Lake Flirt, approximately 2 miles east of LaBelle, Marshes seasonally connected Lake Flirt, Lake Bonnet, Lake Hicpochee and Lake Okeechobee. In the wet season, water from the Big Lake flowed into the marshes, then into the smaller lakes, and eventually into the Caloosahatchee River. During the dry season, the marsh connections dried up. Before Europeans arrived in Florida, the Calusa Indians dug shallow canals to connect the waterway for easier navigation by canoe. By 1887, Mr. Disston’s company had opened a channel with a minimum cross section of 22 feet by 5 feet from Lake Okeechobee to the headwaters of the Caloosahatchee. The dredges were brought up river from Fort Myers. Along the way, four of the most severe river bends west of Fort Thompson were straightened in order to get the dredges upstream. A four-mile stretch that included the Fort Thompson rapids were dynamited to deepen the channel.

Under Mr. Disston’s contract with the state, the dredged channel was to have been closed and a levee extended north–south just west of Lake Hicpochee. Nearly 2 miles of this levee had been constructed when the company ceased operations in 1888.

Mr. Disston faced many economic problems. Severe freezes in 1894 and 1895 which devastated Florida’s citrus industry, and a nationwide economic panic of 1893 meant land prices plummeted. Back in Pennsylvania, the Saw Works was forced to reduce wages as a result of the 1893 panic. By 1895, it was becoming increasingly evident that Disston’s concept of canals and steamboats was becoming outmoded as the railroads opened up more parts of Central Florida. Many of Disston’s investors would never see their anticipated returns. By the time the project ceased operation, more of Disston’s acreage remained unclaimed than claimed.

Some historians believe Mr. Disston’s death in 1896 was connected to the stress of his failed Florida ventures. According to newspaper reports, he died of heart failure. According to the historians, the former millionaire’s estate was totalled at around $100,000 when he died.

A plan to close the connection between Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee met with opposition from those who wanted to use the waterway for navigation and from those who had developed land. In 1902 the State approved a proposal to close the connection between the Big Lake and the Caloosahatchee but stated that Lee County would be liable for any damages from the result. The connection was never closed. (Hendry County would be created from part of Lee County in 1923.) The winter freezes of 1892 (and again in 1899) had prompted North Florida citrus growers to reestablish their groves south of the freeze line, which brought more citrus groves to the Caloosahatchee Valley. Citrus production increased rapidly in subsequent years and the transport of fruits and shipment of supplies became dependent on riverboat transport.

The hurricanes of 1926 and 1928 brought a demand for flood control in South Florida. As part of the 1930 flood control project, the St. Lucie River and Caloosahatchee were dredged and channelized as part of the Cross-State Ship Channel which links the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean. The dredging included construction of a series of canals, locks and pumping stations. In the mid-1950s the channel was enlarged to a width of 250 feet and a depth of 8 feet. Bridge crossings were either replaced or relocated. Construction of the W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam, originally known as the Olga Lock, began in 1962. The main purpose of the dam was to assure a fresh water supply for much of Lee County and to prevent salt water intrusion into upstream aquifers.

LaBelle history

In an interview for a 1985 history project, river boat captain Alva Burke explained he had lived in Hendry County since 1914 when he got a job on a boat running from LaBelle to Fort Myers and back every day.

“It was a beautiful river, but it was crooked as a snake,” he recalled.

“The river got pretty low sometimes. I’ve seen 18 inches of tide water here at the bridge (in LaBelle).

“We used to come in at night on the high tide. The next morning, the tide would be low, so we had to dig through the sandbars to get out every morning.” Mr. Burke said at that time the only way in and out of LaBelle was by water. “There were no roads, and no automobiles either!”

The boat left LaBelle at 6 a.m. and usually arrived in Fort Myers between 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. The boat left Fort Myers for the return trip at 2 p.m. “I’d overload it coming out of Fort Myers. I’d have the cabin filled, all the seats used, there’d be just as many on top of the boat as we could get up there. I’d have people standing out on the bow and on the stern, just as many as we could get on the boat. “Of course, they wouldn’t all come all the way to LaBelle. They’d get off along the way at Alva and the other stops. Sometimes, when I got back to LaBelle, I didn’t have any passengers,” he recalled.The passenger boat service was still in business when Mr. Burke enlisted to serve in World War I. When he returned from the war, roads and automobiles had taken over the passenger business. Mr. Burke stayed in the transportation business and became a bus driver. In another 1985 interview, LaBelle native Glenn Dyess recalled helping to survey the Caloosahatche River, and explained that while the river was important for transportation in the early days, the widening and deepening of the Caloosahatchee River in the 1930s “had nothing to do with boat traffic.” Mr. Dyess said he worked his whole life on the river, as his father and uncles were lockmasters, and he was a surveyor. He said the primary purpose of the channelization of the river in the 1930s was water control. “We used to have flood here all the time,” he said. “The last bad one was 1936. “Not many people had homes on the river, so it didn’t affect many people. Those who did, either moved the houses or tore them down. I guess they just started building houses on the river after it widened,” he explained. “The river widening took a long time. They started it in 1930, and wound up in 1936. That was on the first widening. Then they came back.  “The second time they widened, I thought maybe they had a reason, maybe the people who had purchased land on the river wanted some more land they could sell. People were buying up right-of-way to sell to the government,” he said. Mr. Dyess said the people who lived in the area at the time were in favor of the 1930s project because they wanted relief from the flooding. He recalled standing on Bridge Street in LaBelle during the 1936 flood. He said the water was waist high. “I think the project did more harm than good,” Mr. Dyess said in the 1986 interview. “Now we have these dry spells because the river drains the water off. It can rain today, and tomorrow it’s dry. This whole area used to be marsh.”

River needs lake releases

The changes to the hydrology of the system over the years means the Calooshatchee River now needs some flow from the lake year round to prevent saltwater intrusion. But heavy releases from the lake during the wet season send too much freshwater into the estuaries, disrupting the salinity. When there is heavy flow from the Kissimmee River basin, the Corps releases water to the Caloosahatchee River and the St. Lucie in order to prevent the level of Lake Okeechobee from rising too fast, which can endanger the aging Herbert Hoover Dike. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan calls for construction of the Caloosahatchee River (C-43) West Basin Storage Reservoir Project. It will help store water during the rainy season and provide needed freshwater to the estuary during the dry season. Located on 10,700 acres of former farmland west of Labelle, the C-43 Reservoir will hold approximately 170,000 acre-feet of water, with the maximum depth ranging from 15 feet to 25 feet across the expanse. When complete, the restoration project will provide storage needed for the estuary by capturing and storing local basin runoff as well as Lake Okeechobee regulatory releases. As of the SFWMD report issued in April 2016, $118 million had been invested to purchase the land, construct/monitor the test cells, complete the project design and begin construction.

Sources: “The Life and Influence of Hamilton Disston” by Louis M. Iataola; FloridaHistory.org; Florida Department of Environmental Protection; NOAA National Sea Grant Library; “How has the Caloosahatchee River/Estuary been altered?” by Michael Parsons, Florida Gulf Coast University; “LaBelle, Our Home, A special historical publication of the LaBelle Leader.”

Reach Katrina Elsken at kelsken@newszap.com

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