Friday, September 23, 2011

Florida History: Hamilton Disston and the first attempt to drain the Everglades

Hamilton Disston, 1844-1896
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By Jane Feehan

Draining the Everglades, a project often associated with Broward County’s namesake and former Governor Napoleon Broward, was launched by Philadelphia millionaire Hamilton Disston in 1881. Disston, overshadowed by railroad barons Henry Flagler and Henry Plant in Florida history, played a significant role in the development of the state.

The son of the nation’s largest saw manufacturer, Disston first visited Florida in 1877. Florida, as other states in the South, struggled financially after the Civil War.  The Internal Improvement Fund of the State of Florida, holder of 14,000,000 acres, was in receivership. In 1881, 37-year-old Disston bought 4,000,000 acres for 25 cents making him the nation’s largest individual landowner. He saved the state from insolvency.  With the purchase, Disston entered into a contract to drain and reclaim acreage in the Everglades at his own expense. Compensation was to be half of the lands he managed to drain.
Disston set up headquarters for his work at a small trading post named Allendale. Later named Kissimmee, the site was also used by the new land tycoon to build steamboats for canal travel. The first canals, from three to nine miles long, were dredged off Lake Okeechobee, one to Lake Hicpochee.

The success of the drainage work depended on lowering Lake Okeechobee water levels; ultimately Disston was unable to accomplish this. His drainage operations ended in 1889.  Disston is also credited with establishing the state’s first sugar plantation near Kissimmee, leading to the founding of St. Cloud.

Disston died suddenly in 1896 at 51. Some say he committed suicide because of financial difficulties; an obituary in The New York Times claimed he died of heart disease. The same obituary also said his $1 million dollar life insurance policy was the second largest on an individual in the nation at the time.

Unsuccessful in draining the Everglades, Disston ignited dreams of those who saw agricultural promise in its mucky earth. Perhaps his attempts to tame Florida encouraged Henry Plant and Henry Flagler to build their Florida railroad empires.

For more on Napoleon Bonaparte's Everglades initiative, see:
Palm Beach Post, Nov. 30, 1919, pg. 4
Miami News, March 10, 1923, pg. 6
Miami News, Oct. 20, 1962, pg. 17
New York Times, May 1, 1896

Tags: Florida history, Everglades drainage, Napoleon Broward, Florida canals, Florida steamboats

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