Members of the U.S. Senate began discussing the Everglades in 1848, three years after Florida became a state, noting that this land was “now nearly or quite useless to the United States; and will so remain until reclaimed by draining by means of canals.” Serious efforts to dredge these canals and build levees began in the early 1880s under the leadership of Hamilton Disston, a wealthy Philadelphian who enjoyed fishing in southern waters, and whose family firm made cane knives and other edge tools. The task was difficult and expensive, and it was only in the 1920s that Florida sugar began to show a profit. In 1929, after a hurricane now seen as one of the worst natural disasters to hit the country—it destroyed fields and mills and killed some 2,000 people—President Herbert Hoover decided that the federal government must get involved. And so the Army Corps of Engineers orchestrated a massive earthen dike along the south shore of Lake Okeechobee. This structure, now known as the Hoover Dike, constrains the waters of the second largest lake (the largest is Lake Michigan) that lies completely within the United States.
In 1948, after hurricanes flooded the rapidly urbanizing areas of south Florida, the Corps of Engineers was given $200 million for an even more ambitious water management project. To the south of Lake Okeechobee, the Corps would create a web of levees, canals, pumping stations, and reservoirs. [End Page 926] And to the north it would reroute the meandering hundred-mile-long Kissimmee River, forcing it into a straight fifty-two-mile ditch.
With her best-selling book, The Everglades: River of Grass, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas brought the ecological problems of the region to public attention in 1947. Yet, for all her energy and eloquence, Douglas could not halt the progress of those who believed that the “Empire of the Sun” must be made safe for agriculture, industry, and human habitation. By the 1990s, however, the reclamation of the Everglades, together with the agricultural and industrial pollutants in the waters, came to be seen as one of the most colossal environmental mistakes in American history. And so Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt initiated a project that would put right the quantity and quality of water flowing into the Everglades National Park. With an eye toward the 2000 presidential election, Congress included this scheme in an omnibus and bipartisan bill calling for the “restoration, preservation and protection of the South Florida ecosystem.” The plan would cost a whopping $7.8 billion, extend over the course of thirty-six years, and be hailed as the largest restoration project in the nation’s history. President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law on 11 December 2000, an hour or so after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Bush v. Gore.
In this exhaustively researched and well-written book, Gail Hollander clearly explains the importance of sugar to the economy and ecology of Florida, and the importance of enormously complex politics—local, national, and international—to the fluctuating fortunes of this commodity. I recommend it highly to all interested in the technological and cultural background to an important commodity and a major environmental tragedy.
Deborah Warner is curator, physical sciences collection, at the National Museum of American History and is writing a history of American sugar and other sweeteners. She published her first book review in T&C in 1970.