In January 1971, a forward artillery observer serving with American forces in Cambodia exulted in good news from back home in Florida. “I was excited for my mom,” he remembered in an interview years later. “But nobody in my unit had any idea why I was so happy. I had to explain to them about the Cross Florida Barge Canal.” That observer was Stephen Carr, whose enthusiastic response was fueled by the reports that President Richard Nixon issued an executive order 50 years ago — on Jan. 19, 1971 — mandating that construction on the canal be halted.
While Stephen was thrilled, his mother, Marjorie Harris Carr, was positively ebullient. No one had done more or worked harder than Marjorie Carr to see canal construction ended. Half a century later, the path of the would-be canal is a swath of green conservation land across the Florida peninsula — a 107-mile linear park named in honor of Carr — the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway.
The Cross Florida Barge Canal was an idea years in the making; as Floridians dreamed of cutting a passageway across the state — to cut time for ships traveling between East Coast ports and those on the Gulf of Mexico and also to make Florida the center of U. S. waterborne trade and commerce. That dream reached fruition in 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression when federal and state authorities started the Florida Ship Canal. A year later, concerns about profligate government spending as well as issues of salt water intrusion into Florida’s water supply halted the project.
But dreams die hard, and canal boosters and the Army Corps of Engineers re-envisioned the project as a barge canal and pushed Congress to fund it. Finally, in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson came to Palatka, and in front of a cast of state dignitaries and a crowd of 10,000 people, announced the start of construction of the Cross Florida Barge Canal along the same path of the ill-fated Florida Ship Canal. Yet, less than seven years later, his successor, Richard Nixon, announced the halting of building. The Cross Florida Barge Canal became the largest public works project in American history stopped before completion.
Upwards of $50 million had already been expended and the total cost of canal completion had been estimated at somewhere between $200 and $400 million ($3.2 billion in today’s dollars). How did this happen? What transpired in the intervening years to allow Nixon, never known as a friend of the environmental movement, to announce that he was halting construction “to prevent a past mistake from causing permanent damage” to the Ocklawaha River?
By calling the river “a national treasure” and a “uniquely beautiful, semitropical stream, one of a very few of its kind in the United States, which would be destroyed by construction of the Canal,” Nixon echoed the words of Marjorie Carr. Carr, wife of famed University of Florida biologist Archie Carr and an esteemed scientist in her own right, had for years been talking about the damage the canal would do to Florida’s environment in general and the Ocklawaha River valley in particular. It was her vision, her dedication to both science and emotion, which more than anything else led to the changing view of the necessity of the canal itself.
“Why fight for the Ocklawaha?” she asked. “The first time I went up the Ocklawaha, I thought it was dreamlike. It was a canopy river. It was spring-fed and swift. ... A lovely natural area, right in my backyard that was being threatened for no good reason.” And fight she did. Organizing a group of concerned scientists and environmentalists, she wrote letters and petitions, gave public talks and interviews, and marshalled scientific evidence to convince both ordinary citizens and Florida politicians that the canal would destroy the Ocklawaha (often spelled in the 1960s as Oklawaha).
With the help of such stalwart allies as David Anthony, Bill Partington, John Couse and Margie Bielling, she orchestrated the 1969 establishment of the Florida Defenders of the Environment (FDE), organized specifically to fight the completion of the canal. That year, FDE, in conjunction with the national Environmental Defense Fund, sued the Army Corps of Engineers in federal court to halt canal construction on the grounds that it was destroying an irreplaceable river — the Ocklawaha. Nixon based his executive order on the pleadings of that legal action.
Nixon went even further, however. He concluded his statement with this powerful statement about the intrinsic value of a natural environment like the Ocklawaha. “The step I have taken today will prevent a past mistake from causing permanent damage,” he announced. “But more important, we must assure that in the future we take not only full but also timely account of the environmental impact of such projects-so that instead of merely halting the damage, we prevent it.”
But do not assume Richard Nixon had become a dedicated environmentalist. Four months after halting canal construction, he traveled to Mobile, Alabama and oversaw the groundbreaking ceremonies of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. But Carr and her allies could take solace in the fact that the Ocklawaha had been saved from the channelization of the Barge Canal.
Now, 50 years after Nixon’s order, and the similar decision reached by federal judge Barrington Parker that same month, we see the positive results of the transition from canal to greenway. In December 2019, a greenway user commented, “I have seen eagles, as well as many other kinds of birds, dolphins, and fish jumping. ... A must do for all! Great fun!”
And yet Marjorie Carr’s vision of a free-flowing Ocklawaha is still spoiled by the remnants of the ill-fated Cross Florida Barge Canal. Nixon’s order to halt construction did not allow for the removal of the Rodman Dam on the Ocklawaha. Completed in 1968 as part of the canal construction, the dam (now known as Kirkpatrick Dam, named after George Kirkpatrick, its most avid supporter) created a 17,000-acre reservoir behind it known as Rodman Reservoir, Rodman Pool, Lake Ocklawaha or simply “the impoundment.”
The dam and reservoir have been points of contention since Richard Nixon halted canal construction 50 years ago. It would be an appropriate golden anniversary present for Marjorie Carr, who died in 1997, and those who followed in her footsteps to remove the dam and let the Ocklawaha flow fully freely again.
Steve Noll is a master lecturer in the history department at the University of Florida where he teaches, among other things, Florida environmental history. He is the co-author with Dave Tegeder of “Ditch of Dreams: The Cross Florida Barge Canal & the Struggle for Florida’s Future.”