Florida history: Did you know Sunshine State was almost split for a shipping shortcut?

Cross Florida Barge Canal was only 28% completed when construction was halted

This photo shows the eastern end of the barge canal from the St. Johns Lock in the foreground to the vicinity of Rodman Dam in the background (Florida Department of Natural Resources, Public Domain)

MARION COUNTY, Fla. – A shipping shortcut that would have linked the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico through the heart of Florida wasn’t just a dream – it was more than a quarter of the way completed before being abandoned.

The proposed waterway, called the Cross Florida Barge Canal or often referred to as the Ditch of Dreams, would have cut more than 600 miles off of the route around the Florida Keys using a series of five locks – including one that would lower ships at Silver Springs in Marion County. It was also touted as a flood control asset for the area.

A 1970 map of the Cross Florida Barge Canal Project (State Library and Archives of Florida)

The large-scale project contrivance was proposed in the 1930s as part of the “New Deal” program initiated by President Franklin Roosevelt and again in 1942 as a national defense project.

According to the Florida State Library and Archives, the project was granted funding in 1963 under President John F. Kennedy, and engineers went to work.

“We of the division of geology are convinced that our water resources can be controlled and managed through the construction of the barge canal and no damages will result to these resources,” said Dr. Robert O. Vernon, a state geologist at the time in a promotional video titled “The Case For The Canal” that you can watch below, courtesy of the State Library and Archives of Florida:

A 1970 promotional film that describes the Cross Florida Barge Canal. Courtesy of the State Library and Archives of Florida.

The route would have started in the Palatka area on the St. Johns River nearly 75 miles upstream from the Atlantic Ocean, extending 110 miles southwestward across the state and emptying into the Gulf of Mexico around Yankeetown, according to the United States Geological Survey.

The five locks would each be 600 feet long and 84 feet wide, with the channel being a minimum of 12 feet deep and 150 feet wide.

Steam shovel in action at the Cross-Florida Barge Canal, 1935 (Courtesy of the Jacksonville (Fla.) Public Library.)

The project ran into opposition from environmentalists like Marjorie Harris Carr, who “witnessed profound changes to Florida’s environment during a life that spanned most of the 20th century,” according to an article on Florida Humanities website.

Her activist career is said to have begun when construction of Interstate 75 sliced through her family’s 200-acre farm in Micanopy.

However, Carr is best known for her decades-long devotion to helping the Ocklawaha River, which was dammed during the construction of the Cross Florida Barge Canal.

A photo shows the Cross Florida Barge Canal under construction along US Highway 19 in Inglis, Florida (State Library and Archives of Florida)

According to the Florida Historical Society, by the time President Richard Nixon stopped construction of the project in 1971, $75 million had been spent and it was only about 28% completed. Local citizens and environmentalist groups helped bring the project to an early end.

Finally in 1990, Congress de-authorized the project altogether.

Parts of the unfinished canal – one of the largest incomplete public works projects – was eventually turned into Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway for visitors to enjoy.

The Greenway spans 110 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the St. Johns River and occupies around 70,000 acres of land. It has more than 300 miles of trails that include paddling, hiking, mountain biking, equestrian and paved multi-use, according to Florida State Parks.

Park officials said that the Greenway is also used as a wildlife corridor, with a “land bridge” across a major interstate that both trail users and wildlife utilize. Black bears also use Greenway as a major corridor, especially near the Ocala National Forest.

Carr’s dying wish was that the dam that was built on the Ocklawaha River would be removed, but that has not happened yet.

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About the Author:

Jacob joined ClickOrlando.com in 2022. He spent 19 years at the Orlando Sentinel, mostly as a photojournalist and video journalist, before joining Spectrum News 13 as a web editor and digital journalist in 2021.