The History of Water in Florida

Excerpts from Governor William S. Jennings' address to the 1903 Florida Legislature

From: William Sherman Jennings, Papers, ca. 1900-1916 (M84-30, 65, Box 1)

The following are excerpts from the published edition of Governor William Sherman Jennings' message to the Florida Legislature, transmitted April 7, 1903. The two excerpts illustrate Jennings' views on the possibility of draining the Everglades to open the territory for agriculture.

Excerpts from Governor William S. Jennings' address to the 1903 Florida Legislature

[Title Page]
Governor of Florida

[State Seal]

Tallahassee, Fla. 1903

[Page 67]


From a careful study of the history of our State and its wonderful development and progress, there seems to have been no question that has caused greater research and effort on the part of my predecessors as far as back as the territorial days, and almost continuously since, than the problem of drainage and reclamation of the swamp and overflowed lands of our State. This question was discussed as of national importance as early as 1835 by men of national character, position and reputation. It was the paramount question with our first senators in the Congress of the United States, which culminated in the acts of Congress granting to the State the swamp and overflowed lands in 1850, which was, in turn, granted by the State to the trustees of the Internal Improvement Fund, irrevocably for the purpose of aiding in the drainage and reclamation of the lands of the character designated as "Swamp and Overflowed." You must admit that, notwithstanding strenuous efforts have been put forth to solve this problem, it is today the paramount question before the people of Florida, and is of sufficient importance to invite the attention of the law makers of the nation to accomplish what the forefathers provided for. Notwithstanding the comparatively large acreage of lands, granted by the general government to the State of Florida for the purposes mentioned, it has been a gigantic undertaking-one that will require time, great skill and a large sum of available money to carry out. We must realize that the acreage of lands granted have not been available. They have not been available nor salable for the reason that they are of the character of land designated as "Swamp and Overflowed," not tillable and without commercial value; and, therefore, it has been impossible to utilize such lands to drain and reclaim themselves; and ' thus the State has been placed in the attitude of the man who undertook to lift himself, and, so far, has been almost as helpless in accomplishing the task.

[Page 77]

Observant stock men, and other Floridians familiar with the everglades, all concur in saying that the reclamation of this vast area is entirely feasible and that the cost would, in comparison with the value of the redeemed territory, be a mere bagatelle. John R. Mizell, in a communication addressed to, and published in, the Times-Union (newspaper) January 22, 1902, says: "For a more complete description, we will compare this wonderful formation to a large bowl with two rims; the inner basin consists of Lake Okeechobee, a small inland sea within itself. The normal condition of the glades proper is rarely ever affected as to depths of water on the surface, until the inner basin is taxed by its tributaries beyond its capacity to relieve itself by the flow of water down the Caloosahatchee river which flows to the east through the numerous small rivers and streams into the Atlantic. All the short streams on the Atlantic side have been produced in the prehistoric past by some extraordinary heavy head of water overflowing the inner basin, and being unable to force its way down the Caloosahatchee river, sought the most available places to force its way to the eastward across the outer basin which has a narrow rock-rim in most places within a few miles of the coast."

Buckingham Smith, in a report to the U.S. Senate, June 1, 1848, on the feasibility of draining the everglades, used the valuable information conveyed in a letter written by Gen W.S. Harney, U.S.A., Jan. 23, 1848: "During the Seminole war I was repeatedly in the everglades, and on the rim or margin at different points, and crossed it from Miami to Shark river. Of the practicability of draining them I have no question. That such work would reclaim millions of acres of highly valuable lands, I have no doubt. My plan for doing the work would be to dig a large deep canal from Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee on the west side, and smaller canals from the glades into the head of the Rattones, Little river, Arch creek, Miami, Shark river and other outlets on both sides of the peninsular. I am satisfied that these canals and

[Page 78]

drains, once opened, the glades would become dry. ****

It is my opinion that it would be the best sugar land in the South, and also excellent for rice and corn. It could, in that latitude be made valuable for raising tropical fruits - and it is the only region of the present Southern States in which they can be raised. ***** I do not know of a project that I regard as more calculated to benefit the country than this ***** It affords the Union the best kind of cultivated land that is wanted to render us, to a great extent, independent of the West Indies."

Thus it will appear that, the drainage of the everglades is entirely feasible and practicable, thus reclaiming 3,760,000 acres, a large percentage of which would be available, and the most valuable agricultural land in the Southern states. Again, those who are now undertaking to reclaim, in a small way, the most elevated tracts, and utilize them by cultivating vegetables that grow and mature during the dryest season of the year, and of short crop seasons, hazard their entire year's work and expenses by undertaking to plant and grow crops in the most selected spots under present conditions, as the experience of the past few weeks bears witness. It is reported that from seventy to ninety per cent of the entire crop planted within this region has been destroyed within the past month by high water, which is a loss to the citizenship of that portion of our State, and falling upon those who are not able to bear the loss of their all, amounting to more than half a million dollars in value. This of itself would justify the expenditure of an amount necessary to complete in the drainage and reclamation of the everglades to protect the small acreage already under cultivation. This disaster only emphasizes the great importance of undertaking energetically and determinedly to reclaim this vast and rich territory; and, therefore, I recommend that the Congress of the United States be memorialized for an appropriation of a million dollars to this end.