The Controversial History Behind the Rodman Reservoir

February 13, 2015 32 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Metro Jacksonville takes a brief look at the history Cross Florida Barge Canal. A project that created the Rodman Dam and Reservoir while also becoming the largest public works project in America to halted in the middle of construction.

Recently, and in days past, there has been quite a bit of controversy over the dredging of the river for JAXPORT and getting rid of the George Kirkpatrick Dam (Rodman Dam). However, outside the what is known about the dam today, lies the forgotten history of a failed attempt to create a “Panama Canal-style” waterway across the state.

Drawing of the Eureka Lock and Dam. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

The Cross Florida Barge Canal was a project with two separate “beginnings.” The first began in 1930 as a ship canal; the second in 1960 as a modest barge canal.

The vision for a canal across Florida dates as far back as the early 1800s, when Secretary of War John C. Calhoun proposed a canal as a way to reduce shipwrecks and piracy.

Commitment of the idea only increased over the several decades that followed. Not only was the project was backed by several legislative allies, but it had federal connections, too.  The construction itself relied heavily on government funds, and the Army Corps of Engineers was an integral part of the planning and development.

Construction work on the Cross Florida Barge Canal. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

In 1932, a path was decided. This path, called Route 13-B, was the most cost-efficient and practical course across the state—beginning in Jacksonville, along the St. Johns River, following the Ocklawaha River, cutting westward right under Ocala, and then along the Withlacoochee River into the Gulf.  The route would be nearly two-hundred miles and thirty feet deep and would cause significant altercations to the St. Johns River and would result in a twenty-foot-deep dredge in the Gulf of Mexico, too.

Construction began in September of 1935, as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal following the Great Depression.

This would not last long, though. Opponents to the project began protesting the canal. They soon gained allies like Senator Arthur Vandenberg, who thought the project was nothing more than frivolous spending by Roosevelt.  Construction would stop soon after.

SR 19 bridge construction over the Cross-Florida Barge Canal near Inglis, Florida in the early 1970s. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

Congressional supporters and locals refused to let it die, though, as a new proposal came that would be less destructive to Florida’s waterways. The proposal also appealed to national defense possibilities, and after a German attack on the SS Gulfamerica off Jacksonville's coast in 1942, Congress would pass a bill authorizing construction. The canal would be downsized significantly, being a barge canal that was only twelve feet deep and had locks and dams.

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