Broward County's Watery Relationship With The Everglades Over A Century

Dec 2, 2014

HIS LEGACY: Gov. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, as lampooned by a contemporary cartoonist. His drainage attempts were small-scale and ineffective but they built his reputation.
Credit WLRN filew

Broward County is a few weeks into a year-long run-up to its centennial in October of 2015, a century since Florida's second-biggest county was manufactured from pieces of Palm Beach and Dade counties.

In the early 20th century, what we now call Broward County was little more than a few hamlets scattered along the central coastal ridge on land just high enough to keep people's feet dry most of the time. "Dry" was important in early Broward. Residents had already voted to prohibit the sale of alcohol to the annoyance of the rest of Dade County. So, as Broward historian Dan Hobby recounts, when early Broward sought its independence, Dade's position was… let 'em go.

"As the residents contemplated a new county in the north, Dade did not oppose it because they hoped they would get rid of all the teetotalers," said Hobby, who runs the Pompano Beach Historical Society.

A few decades later, all those teetotalers would be hosting Spring Break in a town that had already earned the nickname "Fort Liquordale."

But a real name for Broward was an issue well before that. When it was born in 1915, the early favorite was "Everglades County." That would be like naming it Ebola County today because the Everglades was Florida's big problem: a huge, stinking, pestilential swamp that rendered most of the Florida peninsula unusable and uninhabitable.

"Have you gone up to Everglades National Park in the summer?" rhetorically asks University of Miami Florida history lecturer Jeff Donnelly, who knows where to find traces of the original Everglades. "Have you been eaten by the mosquitoes? Have you ever gone off the trails and tried to walk through the muck of the Everglades? They're pretty inhospitable to most human occupations."

So they named the new county instead for the governor who had tried to fix the problem, a former river boat captain, soldier of fortune and Jacksonville sheriff named Napoleon Bonaparte Broward. He had run for governor in 1904 on a promise to drain the Everglades, to puncture its natural barriers and let the water run to the sea in canals.

"What he was thinking was it was going to be a way to improve Florida. He saw the possibility of a drained Everglades as an example of habitable land that yeoman farmers could occupy and produce mostly semi-tropical products," Donnelly said.

Broward's plan was timely, popular and -- according to Tom Van Lent, director of science and policy at the Everglades Foundation -- completely oblivious.

"There was very little concern about the environment, and if he was concerned, it was centered around plume hunting," Van Lent said.

The plumes were the popular big feathers for ladies' hats, a market so big and demanding that it threatened Everglades bird populations. But about the critical hydrology of the Everglades, nobody had a clue. Not even as Gov. Broward's new canals began to suck the fresh water away, allowing salt water bubble up to take its place. Van Lent said that was a clue.

"What happened was the city of Miami lost all of its well fields when saltwater intruded because canals drained all the water off."

Broward was in office only four years. His Everglades drainage projects were mostly small-scale and ineffective. But the pressures of development and politics kept the dream alive, and installed Gov. Broward as the godfather of Everglades drainage, perhaps spoiling the reputation of a man historian Jeff Donnelly counts among Florida's four great governors.

"It's unfair to him because, as many are saying today, he was no scientist. He was acting in a context where most people agreed with him. Most knowledgeable people about the Everglades and the environment of South Florida agreed that this was the best thing to do," Donnelly said.

In the 1940s, after a major storm flooded much of Florida, Congress passed the Central and South Florida Flood Control Act. In the spirit of Napoleon Broward, it built the levee that now separates the Everglades from South Florida and finally destroyed its natural water flow. According to Van Lent of the Everglades Foundation, that was the end of the Everglades as it had been and the making of Broward County as it would become.

"Without the Central and South Florida project, most of Broward would be wetlands, marsh, so, in a very real sense, Broward County owes its existence to the system of flood control, system of canals and levees," he said.

And to the powerful, flawed vision of Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward.