Florida's Boondoggle: FOX 13 investigates the Cross Florida Canal Part 1 of 4

TAMPA - One of the most wasteful civil works projects in American history was canceled and abandoned years ago in Central Florida, and we are still dealing with the effects of it today due to the long-running controversy of the Kirkpatrick Dam in Palatka.

The failure of the Cross Florida Ship Canal and its successor, the Cross Florida Barge Canal, started nearly 90 years ago.

In 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt approved a plan to dig a major shipping canal through Florida as part of his New Deal program. The plan was to make a shortcut for large ships in the Gulf of Mexico so they wouldn’t have to curve around Florida to reach the Atlantic Ocean. The idea had been floated around for hundreds of years. Engineers said it would take a lot of work and did not make economic sense (they called it impracticable). But during the Great Depression, Roosevelt keyed into the part about it requiring a lot of work. The U.S. government put down a $5 million down payment, and initially planned a $146 million budget.

University of Florida Professor Dr. Steven Noll is a leading expert on the series of follies that would follow. He wrote a book about them called Ditch of Dreams.

There are great stories of people who thought that once Florida separated, that the part south of the canal would float away," said Noll. "That’s the kind of absurdity we have here from opponents and proponents."

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The workers built a base camp south of Ocala called Camp Roosevelt. Thousands of men made 30 cents an hour digging the first leg of the canal. On the West Coast of Florida, they started slashing and digging near Yankeetown, dumping large piles of sand in the Gulf. That’s what created the shoals and bird islands off the Citrus County coast.

"The spoil islands in the Gulf that birds nest on today are relics of the failed canal in the 1930s," Noll said.


And as they tracked East, they did much of the work by hand and used mules instead of readily available machines.

"It would have been the smarter way to do it, would have been the quicker way to do it, but the idea here is to give people jobs," Noll added. "Deliberately inefficient designed to ensure people had jobs."

And it was tough, unpleasant work, which compelled an organizer named George Timmerman to try to form a labor union. He drew fierce pushback and appeared to have survived a crucifixion. According to press reports, he was found by a cross in the woods with his lips sewn shut and nails through his hands and feet.  Ocala’s police chief dismissed it as a publicity stunt, and claimed he must have done it to himself (or had an accomplice do it). Timmerman left town, chilling organized labor attempts.


While the engineers had drawn several potential paths for the canal, the government picked one which ran through the middle of a thriving African American township called Santos.  It was the home of a proud baseball team, and a hub for Negro league games—forcibly bought and wiped out for pennies on the dollar.

A couple of blocks away, work crews also built stanchions for a tall highway bridge to cross the ship canal. The bridge was never built, but the stanchions remain in the woods near Ocala. And if you look at a satellite map of Florida, you’ll see the scars the fiasco left behind.

The first attempt to build a canal through Florida failed as lawmakers realized a 40-foot canal would pollute the Floridan Aquifer with salt water. This aquifer is Central Florida’s primary source of fresh drinking water, and farmers in the Tampa Bay and Orlando areas warned federal lawmakers it would spoil their water and ruin their crops.

The plan to continue funding the Cross Florida Ship Canal failed in the U.S. Senate and the project stalled. However, nearly 30 years later, President John F. Kennedy revived it with revised plans to spare the aquifer. This triggered a second wave of digging and clearing that caused substantial damage to Florida’s environment.

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