Origins of the Everglades

“There are no other Everglades in the world.” So begins her book The Everglades – River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Grand Dame of the Everglades and one of the ardent group of activists who succeeded in having the lower part of South Florida declared a National Park in 1947.

The Everglades Region encompasses a huge area, from Lake Okeechobee South to the Bay of Florida, and spreading East to the Atlantic coastal fringe, and West to the edge of the Big Cypress swamp.

Prior to the mid twentieth century, water from a chain of lakes (just South of present Orlando) made its way into what is now called Lake Okeechobee. All this water was supplied by rain as there is no snow melt or underground sources. From there it seeped through the natural walls of the Lake, East until it met the coastal rocklands of Palm Beach, and West until it met the slightly elevated ground of the Big Cypress, and South in a widening arc until it widened out to both coasts South of Miami and exited at the Bay of Florida.

Although only a few feet deep, and less or more in some places this sluggish movement of water really was a river 50-80 miles wide, dropping only at a rate of one inch per mile except after heavy rain. Then it could rise as much as ten feet deep in places and flow more strongly and faster. Its Eastern banks were formed by the rockland coastal belt running down the Atlantic coast, and separated by rock and sandy ridge from the ocean’s incursion. About 20 miles South West of Lake Okeechobee an upland area called the Devil’s Garden rose only a few feet above the Everglades, with growth of Pines and other trees and palms, while to the South and West of it was the Big Cypress Swamp which stretched to the Gulf and consisted of a mix of dry and wet land – mostly dry then becoming swampy in the rainy season. Only dropping at a rate of one inch a mile it travelled very slowly, but in times of heavy rain it could rise as much as 10 feet deep in places and flow more strongly and faster. It was and still is inaccessible to man except by shallow boat or canoe, as besides being mostly waterlogged it is saw grass over its entire length and width and can cut a person to pieces. Fringing the Southernmost coastline was the largest mangrove concentration in the Western hemisphere. This river of grass originally covered an area of 11,000 miles.

Lake Okeechobee, or “Big Water” lies at the beginning of the Everglades. Live Oaks grace its rim to the West, while in places, Cypress trees festooned with Spanish Moss parade its Eastern shores. Its glittering waters are so shallow in places that a fisherman can wade to his boat out of sight of shores hidden by its 750 square miles of empty water. It cannot be seen from the roads which circle it and connect with both coasts, but a short climb up the earthen slope of its protective man-built rim will reveal an ever changing panorama of great shallow islands, masses of reeds and perhaps a glimpse of its natural inhabitants. Wild pig darting through the reeds, deer, an alligator sunning itself, or a kite dipping and circling above the green water lettuce strewn shallows. This is where the miles of saw grass begin their widening swathe in a thick, curving river of grass 50, 60, 70 miles wide to the Southern tip of Florida, and a hundred miles to the Gulf of Mexico. It continues on South, pausing to surround tree islands of Cabbage Palmetto, cocoplum, redbay, wax myrtle and swamp holly. Here deer, panther and other creatures make their home. On the Western fringe large tracts of Cypress forest and tangled sun tropical jungle hide orchids and bromeliads found nowhere else in the United States. This is the Everglades Region.