Miami’s Canals In Books: Michael Grunwald’s ‘The Swamp’

Mar 18, 2013

In an effort to add some perspective and history to WLRN’s Canoe Project, we’re also taking a look at books that add to our conversation about Miami-Dade’s canals.

The Canoe Project was a four-day long journey through Miami’s canals and waterways via canoe.

Pamela Sweeney, an expert on Biscayne Bay and waterways in Miami, gave us a perspective on the cultural and natural history of Miami’s canals earlier this week.

Today, we highlight a book called The Swamp, written by Michael Grunwald and published in 2006. The Swamp tells the story of the beginning of Miami’s canals, which stemmed from early efforts to drain the Everglades in South Florida.

In essence, Grunwald explains that Miami’s canals have been the city’s protection against floods after a large part of the Everglades had been drained.

Guy Martin’s review of Grunwald’s book explained:

Once the industrial age was in full roar, the notion in South Florida was, Drain the [Everglades] for year-round farming. Hamilton Disston, the crosscut-saw heir from Philadelphia, bought the rights to drain 12 million acres from Orlando to Miami and began the Sisyphean task of digging a lattice of canals. Though convinced of his own cause, Disston became the first Florida scammer on a grand scale, marketing not-yet-drained “farmland” through real estate offices in England, Denmark, Sweden, Italy and the United States. Henry Flagler, John D. Rockefeller’s partner in Standard Oil, took his honeymoon with his second wife in St. Augustine and began building hotels and a railroad that extended down the east coast. He founded Palm Beach and begat the continuing Floridian nightmare of mass-scale leisure.

Disston’s plans crashed, but a later push readied millions of acres for sugar cane. The Army Corps of Engineers set to work cutting canals and building levees to control the seasonal floods south of Lake Okeechobee. The problem, Grunwald explains with precision and verve, was that taming the floods desiccated the wild wetlands to the south. The Everglades began to burn.

Below is an excerpt from a 1950 film created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Central and South Florida Flood control district.  It’s meant to promote the good intentions behind the alterations of the waterways.  The movie elaborates on the damage caused by uncontrolled storm water.  You can watch the full film at the Florida State Archives.

For more on the natural history of the Everglades and Miami’s waterways, you can read our interview with Sweeney.