Sunday, October 10, 2021

Draining the Swamp – Florida Everglades


By Suzanne Norquist

I visited the Florida Everglades a few years ago and was surprised at how large they were. Before human activity, they comprised the lower third of the Florida peninsula. Four thousand square miles. Even now, they dominate the southern end of the state.

Who would imagine such a massive swamp could be drained and turned into “useful” land? (Spoiler alert: It didn’t work.) Government agencies and developers attempted this unlikely project for decades. When one thing failed, the people in charge ramped up their efforts and spent more money.

The Sawgrass Prairie fills much of the area. The grass peaking over the prairie hides three or more feet of water and muck below. Not to mention alligators and other critters. Early developers imagined rich soil beneath the water.

Visitors and politicians came up with uses for the abundance of unclaimed land. In 1842, a territorial representative commissioned a study as to how the Everglades could be drained. Research concluded that two or three canals would do the job. Only $500,000. Just like draining a bathtub.

The Swamp Land Act of 1850 said that all the wetlands within a state belonged to the state government. Several states had extensive wetlands. If Florida could drain the swamp, it would own the property and could develop or sell it. The state quickly arranged for funding. However, the Civil War put a damper on those plans until 1877.

Government corruption and mismanagement nearly caused the project to go bankrupt. So, they sold four million acres to wealthy Philadelphia industrialist Hamilton Disston. (“Psst. I have some swampland in Florida to sell you.”)

He offered “Town Lots” for sale and commissioned canal projects. Though the canals lowered the groundwater, they were inadequate in the wet season. The publicity attracted people to Florida and encouraged Henry Flagler to build a railroad along the coast.

After Disston’s failure, efforts floundered until 1904. That’s when gubernatorial candidate Napoleon Bonaparte Broward promised to “drain that abominable pestilence-ridden swamp.” He claimed that “the drainage of a body of land above the sea” was a simple engineering feat. When he won the election, he raised taxes and formed the Everglades Drainage District. A few dredges and canals were built, but the project ran out of money. Again, a developer bought land.

Favorable engineering reports created excitement. However, very little weather data on the uninhabited swamp had been available to the planners, so they didn’t anticipate the significant rainfall amounts.

Developers continued to make promises and sell land. Engineers continued to build canals into the 1920s, until a couple of major hurricanes decimated any progress, causing people to reconsider developing the swamps.

In the late 1920s, the Everglades Agricultural Area was established. The primary crop was sugarcane, though sod, beans, lettuce, celery, and rice were also grown. Unfortunately, significant amounts of fertilizer were required in the nutrient-poor environment. This, of course, changed the ecosystem.

Later in the decade, people blamed catastrophic flooding on the unfinished canal projects. The federal government stepped in to construct the Herbert Hoover Dike. Although government efforts continued for years afterward, no one ever successfully drained the swamp.

In 1947, Everglades National Park was dedicated. Canals and levees still protect the populated areas. But I don’t think anyone expects to drain that swamp anymore. It’s a little more complicated than pulling the plug in a bathtub.


”Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection

Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.

Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist

Rockledge, Colorado, 1884

Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers, and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away?

For a Free Preview, click here: 

Suzanne Norquist is the author of two novellas, “A Song for Rose” in A Bouquet of Brides Collection and “Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection. Everything fascinates her. She has worked as a chemist, professor, financial analyst, and even earned a doctorate in economics. Research feeds her curiosity, and she shares the adventure with her readers. She lives in New Mexico with her mining engineer husband and has two grown children. When not writing, she explores the mountains, hikes, and attends kickboxing class.

She authors a blog entitled, Ponderings of a BBQ Ph.D.



  1. Are the Everglades still as large? I honestly had no idea it covered so large an area!

  2. An interesting article. I had no idea anyone actually tried to drain the everglades.

  3. Thanks for the post! Man and lofty hopes don't always win over the forces of nature!