Time Capsule: Canal Threatens Florida's Oklawaha River
Reading early accounts of this singularity scenic journey, one realized how much we have lost, in purely esthetic pleasure, by turning our backs upon our rivers. The old guidebooks give us the practical details. From Palatka Springs to Silver Springs, by Hart Line steamer, took twenty hours; the return trip only fifteen. (after experiencing the current in a canoe, I am surprised that the difference in time was not greater.) The fare, in 1912, was seven dollars, “meals and berths included.” It was an overnight trip, and the guidebook author waxes poetic when he describes, like many before him, the dramatic scene as darkness closes in: “A brazier forward on the upper deck is filled with pine roots and lighted, and the reflections of the leaping flames on the foliage and the water is indescribably weird and picturesque.”
Sidney Lanier wrote the classis account of a trip on the Oklawaha in the opening chapter of his Florida, published ten years after the close of the Civil War. Stricken with tuberculosis contracted in the Confederate Army, fated to due at the age of thirty-nine, the young poet wrote with a “passionate, hurrying eloquence.” To him the Oklawaha was “the sweetest water-lane in the world, a lane which runs for more than a hundred and fifty miles of pure delight betwixt hedgerows of oaks and cypress and palms and bays and magnolias and mosses and manifold vine-growths, a lane clean to travel along…” As the steamer would its way upstream, the cannel narrowed, “the blue of heaven disappeared, and the green of over-leaning trees assumed its place. The lucent current lost all semblance of water. It was simply a distillation of many0shaded foliages, smoothly sweeping along beneath us.” The mysterious shapes in the vine-clad forest formed a procession of poetic images in his mind, and finally, as darkness fell, “after a day of glory, came a night of glory… The stream which had been all day a baldrick of beauty, sometimes blue and sometimes green, now became a black band of mystery.”
Lanier wrote almost a century ago. Like the side-wheelers on theMIssissippi beloved by Mark Twain, like the canalboats and the Hudson River steamers, like a thousand other rivercraft that once combined leisurely travel with aesthetic enjoyment, the Oklawaha steamboats have vanished. Their hulks rot in the mud; their pine-knot flares will never be relit. Yet we can do better than simply looking back at those early days with sad nostalgia. The attitude of the country toward our rivers has changed in recent years. Outdoor recreation has become a recognized need in an urban society. For the first time in our history, concern for the environment, for saving a fraction of our vanishing wilderness, is a popular cause and a political force. Given the wisdom and strength, we have the means today of saving the Oklawaha and other wild rivers, of dedicating the finest of our still undammed and unpolluted waterways to purposes of adventure and creative enjoyment.
A master plan exists. In 1963 word came late from Washington that we must make “adequate provision to keep a small stock of our rivers as we first knew them: wild and free-flowing — their numbers diminish as the recreational need for them grows. It takes but one harness to change a river’s character forever.” A presidential message reminded us that the time has indeed come “to identify and preserve free-flowing stretches of our scenic rivers before growth and development make the beauty of the unspoiled waterway a memory.” A special Wild Rivers Study Team, under the joint direction of the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture, recommended a wild rivers system under either state or federal administration. The first list of rivers included the “Oklawaha of Florida.” The study team report of September 13, 1963, gives it top rating: “This river is of sufficient size and unique character and should be included in any system of wild rivers. It is felt that this use outweighs any other possible functions that have been proposed for the general area.” The report goes on to mention the wealth and variety of the flora and fauna, the aquatic plant communities or particular ecological interest, the archaeological sites and — mirable dictum in present day America — notes the “pollution is apparently non-existent.”
This was in 1963. What has happened? Midway in the study team report lie two ominous sentences. “The United States Army Engineers’ plans for a Cross-Florida Barge Canal includes the Oklawaha Rive.r This will completely obliterate the study area in its present form by inundation of swamplands and bottomland habitat.” Later on: “There are no plans to protect the river… Development by the U.S. Corps of Engineers of the barge canal is a definite threat to the mere existence of the stream.” The same year that study team’s recommendation was published, the Corps of Engineers, whose pork-barrel appropriation bills are almost never noted down, got $5 million from Congress to begin work on the canal.