Time Capsule: Canal Threatens Florida’s Oklawaha River

There are two Oklawaha Rivers today. There is the twisting, unspoiled black-water stream of the Florida Wilderness. And there is the dammed, straightened, Army Engineered desolation of the unfinished Cross-Florida Barge Canal.

Five miles meandering with mazy motion

Through wood and dale the sacred river ran…


Samuel Taylor Coleridge, so far as I know, never paddled in a canoe, but in “Kubla Khan” he caught the dreamlike quality of Florida’s spring-fed rivers as only a poet could. Alph, the sacred river, was of course conceived in a dream, (so rudely interrupted by “a man from Porlock”) but it was firmly based on factual description by one of America’s earliest and greatest naturalists, William Bartram, in his classic Travels. That the journal of a botanist in the Florida wilderness should have inspired one of the greatest poems of the English language is of more than purely literary significance. It is a dramatic symbol of the change in the attitude toward wild nature that took place quite suddenly in the closing years of the 18th century. Wilderness, hitherto considered alien and hostile, entered into our culture as a source of inspiration and a road to truth. In conquering a continent, Americans have lost that road more often than they have followed it back. But we a finally finding our way back, seeking out and preserving where we can the fragments of natural beauty that remain.

One of the finest and rarest is the area in northern Florida where the traveler can still look down into the “mighty fountains” willing up from limestone springs, and drift through a place “as holy and enchanted/ As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted/ By woman wailing for her demon-lover.” Though the demon-lover has alas, gone the way of the ivory-billed woodpecker and the Carolina parakeet, the enchantment is still there. On the clear “runs” where for miles one can see every inch of the river bottom; in the pine-lands and hammocks and cypress swamp; on the lakes, and above all, on that famous “black water” river, the Oklawaha — the Ockli-Waha, or Great River, as the Indians call it, — one can recapture the sense of wonder that gives an almost religious quality to the writing of early naturalists.

The Oklawaha is not a familiar rover to most Americans today; less so, I imagine, that in the last century, when visitors from the north rhapsodized over the wonders of travel by excursion steamer on Florida’s inland waters. Today’s tourist, driving at eighty miles an hour through a bill-board jungle, has little ideas of the beauties that like hidden in the softly rolling country between the harsh ribbons of cement. One of the most enchanting oases in this desert of progress is the so-called Marjorie Kinan Rawlings country. It lies in north-central Florida, southeast of Gainsville (seat of the University) and east of Ocala and the north-south freeway. It is an area of rivers and lakes and crystal springs bubbling up from the underlying limestone aquifer know to geologists as the Ocala dome — the largest single water storage in the United States. It is a country of orange groves, hugging the lakes as insurance against frost; of stock farms with hundreds of acres of neatly fenced pasture, here and there shaded by great live oaks; of hardwood hammock (a few virgin stands remain); of pineland and scrub forest, famous for its abundance of game. The latter flourishes in Ocala National Forest, an area approximately twenty by forty miles in extent, bordered by the St. Johns River on the east and the Oklawaha on the west. The scrub country is the scene of Mrs. Rawling’s Novel, The Yearling; west of the Oklawaha lies the town she made famous in Cross Creek.

The Oklawaha River itself rises in several large lakes near the central of the Florida peninsula. It flows north along the edge of the national forest and then turn abruptly eastward at Orange Springs to join the mighty St. Johns. A third of the way along its northward course it is swelled by the outflow from the most fabulous of fountains, Silver Springs, which “with ceaseless turmoil seething/ As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing…” pours forth some 500 million gallons of water a day, so clear that the blue catfish on the bottom sixty feet below seem almost within arms reach. Now commercialized and vulgarized, Silver Springs was at one time the Mecca for travelers on riverboats that made the steamer trip upstream from Palatka on the St. Johns.

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.

As the fatal impact of the project became evident, conservation organizations wrote in protest to the President, who had been so concerned that the beauty of unspoiled waterways “might become only a memory.” A typical reply cane from the Bureau of the Budget: “The values of preserving the river in its natural state must be weighed against the benefits of developing a more economical transportation route. During the course of many years, the congressional and other representatives of the State of Florida have strongly supported the Cross-Florida project. They must have seriously weighed the alternatives and decided that the benefits of the project outweighed the adverse impacts on the beauty of the river.” They “must have” but they didn’t. An alternative route which would have saved the Oklawaha was recommended by the conservationists but there is no evidence that it was ever “seriously weighed.” As for the “benefits” — benefits to whom? To a small group of shippers, to real estate speculators, and other local business interests profiting from the taxpayer’s money. The Oklawaha was scratched off the wild rivers list without a fight.

The idea of a canal across Florida is not new. It originated during the administration of Thomas Jefferson, as a means of eluding the pirates who roamed the West Indies, and of facilitating the transportation of mail from Washington to New Orleans. (Neither of these concerns is pressing today.) For more than half a century the scheme lay dormant, then during the depression of the Thirties is was briefly but unsuccessful revived as a make-work project. During World War II it was unearthed again as a means of protecting shipping from submarine attack on the passage from the Atlantic to the Gulf. Studies have showed, however, that a “ship canal” deep enough to accommodate the draft of seagoing vessels would raise havoc with the water table. But the Engineers now had a congressional authorization (passed in 1942) and they were not going to give it up. So they switched to a shallow “barge canal” and went ahead, proceeding under an authorization obtained more than twenty years earlier—voted during the war for a different purpose and at a time when almost no one realized how quickly our wilderness resources were going to disappear. And having picked a route that would destroy the river, having promised but failed to study alternatives, the Corps falsely claimed that it has no authority to change this route without a vote of Congress.


The route of the projected canal runs from Palatka on the St. Johns River to Yankeetown on the west coast. The impact of the western section on the Gulf Coast’s remaining wilderness is alarming, but the stretch we are concerned with here lies along the Oklawaha River valley upstream to Silver Springs—the classic scenic voyage of riverboats in times past. Two dams will completely kill this stretch: Rodman Dam near the mouth, already in operation; and Eureka Dam, built but not yet functioning, which will impound the river as far up as the Springs. In the circumstances, is the battle already lost? Must the canal be pushed ahead, despite the evidence that it will be (in the words of the leading biologist) “an environmental disaster?” The Secretary of State of Florida says that it must: “Both intelligence and, for those of you who wish, The Bible dictate that man is to have dominion over all the resources of the Earth. Since most of us either believe in our own intelligence and/or in the Bible, let us be about the task of exerting our dominion over these resources.” An admirably clear statement of the philosophy that is bringing our world to the brink of ruin. 

Even in purely economic terms, the folly of the canal has been demonstrated again and again since its inception. When the project was reactivated in 1963, a former Army Engineer, using the Corps’ own figures, showed that costs would far exceed so-called “benefits.” Since then costs have gone up, and borrowing rates on money have soared. By the Corps’ own admission, at the present long-term government interest rate, the return on the investment today would only be 92 cents on the dollar. It is far less if one includes honest figures for weed control (estimated at about $8 million a year) and omits that imaginary asset, “recreation.” The two are closely linked. Once the cool, fast-flowing Oklawaha has been turned into a series of warm, shallow lakes, nurients will accumulate and water weeds take over. Poisoned, they will rot on the bottom, taking oxygen from the water. In the words of a Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission’s report: “The ecosystem which formerly supported high-quality fishing, hunting, and esthetic values is in jeopardy because the new system is a nutrient trap and functions similarly to a sewage treatment polishing pond.” Recreation? No one who studies the balance sheet can disagree with the comment of Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin: “Pure blubber in the pork barrel.”

“But we can’t stop now,” say the promoters, “after so much money has already been spent.” The same was said about the Everglades jetport. There a national park was threatened with extinction. Here it is a wild river valley which, under protection by the federal government, could become a superb wildlife sanctuary and recreational area. Much of the Oklawaha remains untouched. Even the lower stretch of the river will eventually recover if the water is released from Rodman Dam; wounds heal more quickly here than they do in northern climes. To get an impression of what is at stake, my wife and I decided to take a look for ourselves—first from the air and then, more slowly and intimately, on the river itself.

There is no vantage point like a low-flying plane for comparing the works of God with the works of Man. The drainage of the Oklawaha is note, of course, a well-defined “valley” running between hills. Rather it is a mile-wide belt of mixed cypress and hardwoods; a deep-green jungle, now in November washed with pastel shades of red and purple and rusty brown. All but hidden by the tall trees except from directly overhead, the river—as one follows it downstream—is a meandering black thread, joined here and there by almost invisible tributaries, twisting and turning in ever-wider loops as it approaches its mouth. Here, in the heart of Florida, lies an oasis of pure wilderness. As Marjorie Carr, one of the leaders in the fight to save the Oklawaha, has written: “The role the valley forest is serving, as a reservoir of wildlife for the adjacent lands, is most evident when seen from an airplane…to the west lie open pinelands, and the dry low forest of the Big Scrub spreads out to the east. Clearly, the valley forest serves as a safe highway and sanctuary for wildlife over an enormous area.” Here, we learned, are found deer and bear, raccoon and otter and wildcat. And here are some of the finest flocks of that indicator of true wilderness, the wild turkey.

As we flew on downstream, we were suddenly jolted by the sight of the high white arc of a concrete bridge at the crossing of the Eureka road. Near the bridge rises the great mass of the Eureka Dam, still on dry land, waiting for the moment when the channel wll be diverted and the last wild stretch of the valley drowned forever.

Below Eureka lies a graphic history of how the wildest river can be broken and put between shafts. Dead water from the impoundment above Rodman Dam has replaced the running stream. A wide straight swatch, its borders black against the forest edge, cuts the S-curves of the river like the strokes of a dollar sign. This is the route of the still unfinished canal. More and more drowned trees, and more and more waterweeds and debris; then the large expanse of the “reservoir” itself. The river has disappeared, though here and there its old channel can be detected, a green blanket of water hyacinth among the truncated trees. Scattered far and wide over the surface of the impoundment, looking from the air like handfuls of jackstraws, lie vast numbers of dead trees, some solitary, some in solid rafts. Crushed into the mud before the reservoir was flooded, they continue to float up through the ooze: gigantic corpses that refuse to lie quiet in their graves.

Though the scene from the air was bad enough, a closeup view was worse. The following day an outboard motorboat (no point in canoeing here) took us over the “Rodman Pool.” We threaded our way among the floating snags, occasionally striking a sunken log with a jarring crash. In a thicket of standing trees, an airboat was drenching the carpet of hyacinth with poison (2, 4-D, mixed with fuel oil); the weeds in the open water had already been sprayed from helicopters. On a barge flying the ensign of the Army Engineers, a crane was lifting one tree after another out of the water, piling them on an island to be burned. At the head of the reservoir, on the line of the  future canal, stood the tree-crusher—or the “monster,” as it is locally known—which had created such expensive havoc. Resembling an oversize tank, with a crossbar in front to knock down the living trees and two enormous tracks to crush them into the ground, it was an obscene symbol of man’s war with wilderness. We left the scene of carnage with relief. There still remained a long stretch of wild river. For the next two days we would explore it by canoe.

To launch one’s canoe on a wilderness river is to realize a new dimension in space and time. A heavy morning mist was just burning off when we put in as Moss Bluff, the upstream limit of the free-flowing Oklawaha (there is a new dam just above). After the fall rains, the water was high and the current strong; we were soon out of sight of human habitations, though not yet in wild country. We could hear a chain saw cutting the slash pines that flourish in the sandy soil along the east bank; for some perverse reason, Ocala National Forest does not include the edge of the river which forms its boundary. To the west lay a flat pasture with a herd of beef cattle accompanied by cattle egrets. A flock of killdeers, flying low upstream, split on either side of our canoe; phoebes darted over the water; scrub jays shrieked among the pines. The shores here were bright with the orange-red of the maples and deeper crimson of the sweetgum; glimpses of cardinals and mockingbirds and the song of a house wren suggested that we were still in open scrub country, as did the black vultures and turkey vultures wheeling far above us in the sky. Then to our delight a pair of sandhill cranes, recognizable at a distance by their outstretched necks and purposeful flight, flew directly overhead. For a moment we were back on the Yukon Flats in Alaska, another great nursery of birdlife that the Army Engineers would like to destroy with a needless dam.

As it entered the true cypress swamp, the character of the river changed. No longer did it have definable limits. Though the main channel was as clear as ever, the current ran not between banks of solid earth but through a winding avenue of trees knee-deep in the water. Instead of the occasional cypress tree standing alone, they extended far back from the river as far as the eye could reach through the tangled undergrowth, their boles arrow-straight, their branches hung with Spanish moss. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote of spring on the St. Johns River almost a century ago: “The long swaying draperies of the grey moss interpose everywhere their wavering outlines and pearl tints amid the brightness and bloom of the forest, giving to its deep recesses the mystery of grottoes hung with fanciful vegetable stalactites.” As the brush country birds diminished, the waders became more abundant. One old cypress, heavily buttressed at the base, bare now but for delicate, feathery patches of russet needles, bloomed like a giant flower stalk with white blossoms of snowy and American egrets and the blue-gray of the great blue heron. Another was black with a canopy of boat-tailed grackles.

Compared to the bright flowering of spring, the autumn colors along the river were subdued, but they had their own subtle beauty: the head-high masses of pale purple asters climbing over the shrubs along the sunny edge of the channel, the dark shiny leaves of the magnolias, the red berries of the water holly leaning out over the river. All signs of civilization had vanished hours ago. The only sounds were the plop of a turtle as it dropped from its log, the squawk of a heron, and now and then a wave of mingled songbird chatter so loud and various as to remind us of the “dawn chorus” in a New England spring. And, of course, the woodpeckers. A common note in this forest is the loud churr of the misnamed red-bellied woodpecker, a bright little bird with a zebra back and red crown, forever darting from one dead snag to another. But the great sight for the birder is the pileated. The cock of the wood of New England is, according to Mrs. Rawlings, known at Cross Creek as the “Lord-God.” “The woodpecker was enormous,” she wrote, “swooping from trunk to trunk of the orange trees, he appeared the size of a half-grown turkey. He was brilliant in black and red and white, and gave a loud clapper-like cry.” This cry is the signature of the cypress swamp, as the weird quavering call of the loon is of the North Woods. 

Though even at high water there remain a few spots along the Oklawaha where one might pitch a tent, the nights in November are too long for camping out. We made our trip in two stages, leaving a car at the end of each day’s journey. By midafternoon of the first day we had reached the junction with Silver Springs, where state route 40 crosses the Oklawaha. Next morning we put in there for the somewhat larger run to Eureka, down the stretch of the river that will be wholly destroyed if the Cross-Florida Barge Canal is ever finished.

After the previous day’s experience, we feared an anticlimax, but we need not have worried. This “continuous river swamp or hydric hammock habitat,” as a biologist describes it, is wilderness from start to finish: a self-contained world of water, trackless and inviting exploration, where even the casual canoeist (ignorant, as we were, of so much hidden life around us) cannot but share the sense of discovery that was felt by the first white men to see it, two centuries ago. We often put down our paddles to drift and watch. There was plenty to look at: a water turkey—“the most preposterous bird within the range of ornithology” in Lanier’s opinion—drying its outspread wings in the sun; an alligator stretched out on a log; a pair of buffleheads, most stylish black-and-white ducks, scampering ahead of our canoe like mergansers on a northern river; a barred owl that allowed us to drift silently beneath the low branch where it perched; a limpkin, oblivious of our presence a few feet away as he extracted a snail from its shell with his down-curved bill. “The Oklawaha,” we read in Cross Creek “is one of the two or three remaining haunts of the strange brown crane who cries before the rain.”

The forest seemed ever more exotic and tropical, perhaps because of the abundance of tall cabbage palms and the spheres of mistletoe on the treetops. “Along the immediate edges of the stream,” as Lanier noted from his steamboat, “every tree-trunk, sapling, stump or over projecting coign of vantage is wrapped about with a close-growing vine.” Bright-green plumes of wild rice, with tiny yellow flowers, grew in the shallows, Here too were familiar butterflies: monarchs, tiger swallowtails, and the delicate, silver-spotted Gulf fritillary. As the river writhed in ever-growing oxbows, our main job was not so much to paddle ahead as to keep the canoe in the main channel, away from the swirling eddies and the occasional sawyer bobbing in the current. When we stopped to explore one of the side streams leading back into the swamp—which gave a sense of utter remoteness in a vast jungle—the main river on our return seemed like a highway.

Dusk was but an hour off when we reached Eureka. We pulled up our canoe below the high bridge spanning an expanse of dry sand, the bed of the future canal. Midway in the center span, a light had already been fixed to guide the barges of tomorrow. On the lightpoles leading to the dam perched two red-shouldered hawks. Tracks of an otter marked the sand. Beside us flowed the river, dark and clear and free, as it had for a thousand years.

Must the Oklawaha, in the President’s words, become only a memory? A year or two ago the answer might have been yes. Not so today. Thanks to the extraordinary group, Florida Defenders of the Environment, the public has been awakened to the crisis. The attempted rape of the Oklawaha has been denounced in the national press. The Department of the Interior would like to see it returned to the wild rivers system; the Forest Service is prepared to buy back the valley from the state and add it, as a recreation area, to Ocala National Forest. A lawsuit, based on the people’s right to save their environment, has been brought against the Army Engineers. Owing to cuts in congressional appropriations, construction has virtually ceased. Eureka Dam remains high and dry; the tree-crushing “monster” lies rusting on the shore; and the river beloved by William Bartram and Sidney Lanier, though sorely injured, is still alive. Future generations may yet enjoy, as Coleridge wrote in his Note Book: “Some wilderness-plot, green and fountainous and unviolated by Man.”

This story originally ran in the July-August 1970 issue as "Oklawaha: 'The Sweetest Water-Lane in the World'"