"OKEECHOBEE" means "BIG WATER" in Seminole, and big it is. As viewed from space it is the largest body of fresh water within the boundaries of the lower 48 states, save for Lake Michigan. Just how did Lake Okeechobee, the headwaters of the Everglades, become part of the path that thousands of boaters use to transit from the Atlantic coast to the gulf coast of Florida every winter?
It is a history that involves the drainage dreams of one-time Florida governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, businessman Hamilton Disston, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Looking at a chart, water pours out of Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers and into the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico respectively. It was not always that way. In 1881, the same year Thomas Edison first visited the frontier town of Fort Myers, Hamilton Disston formed the Atlantic and Gulf Coast Canal and Okeechobee Land Company with the express purpose of draining and improving four million acres west of Lake Okeechobee. The following year, as the first dredge made its way up the Caloosahatchee River ever so slowly from Fort Myers, Broward was working on a tugboat on the St. Johns River near Jacksonville, and getting ready to marry the captain's daughter. Almost 25 years later, Broward was elected Florida's governor with a speech that promised to drain the Everglades. A boom in Everglades land prices just before World War I fueled the demand for more drained swampland to sell. During the war, a contract to carve out the St. Lucie Canal, east from Lake Okeechobee to Stuart, was finalized. South Florida's first housing bubble began soon after, in the early 1920s, and started bursting on the morning of September 17, 1926 when a Category 4 hurricane blew through Miami. The Tamiami Trail, linking Tampa and Miami through the Everglades, opened up to automobiles that same year. That hurricane also whipped up Lake Okeechobee, and its waters flooded Moore Haven on the southwest side of the lake. Two years later, almost to the day, a Category 5 hurricane raced across Lake Okeechobee. At least 2,500 people died, making it the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history since the Galveston Hurricane of 1900. In response to this devastation, demands for the future safety of the survivors still living around the lake increased. Florida soon created the Okeechobee Flood Control District. After President Herbert Hoover inspected the damaged areas of the lake, he tasked the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers with creating levees and floodway channels along the lake. This was the birth of the Okeechobee Waterway. With the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Canals already in place, the Army Corps spent the next 50 years constructing additional locks on these canals and a grand dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee. The Okeechobee Waterway officially opened on March 23, 1937.
When the last lock, at Port Mayaca, was finished in 1977, boaters had a reliable and well-protected inland waterway on which to cruise from one coast of Florida to the other, without having to sail around the Florida Keys. The OkeechobeeWaterway runs 150 statute miles from the Atlantic IntracoastalWaterway at St. Lucie Inlet to the Gulf IntracoastalWaterway at San Carlos Bay. It contains five locks, two on the Atlantic side of the lake and three on the gulf side of the lake. Since Lake Okeechobee is higher than sea level, the St. Lucie Lock to the east of the lake and the W.P. Franklin Lock to the west of the lake control the release of fresh water into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers estuaries. At the St. Lucie Lock, a boat is lifted an average of 14 feet to enter the St. Lucie Canal. Each year 10,000 vessels lock through at the eastern side of the waterway, and 91 percent of them are recreational vessels. At the W.P. Franklin Lock, on the western end, 15,000 vessels lock through there annually, and 97 percent of those have recreation in mind. While many boats are just using the OkeechobeeWaterway as a shortcut to their final destination, it is well worth a boater's time to slow down and enjoy the journey, as there are delightful things to explore all along the way.
Historic downtown Stuart is filled with quaint shops and art galleries that deserve a visit. While the St. Lucie Canal may not offer much scenic variation, for a taste of Old Florida dock at the Indiantown Marina and spend the afternoon. Once you cross Lake O to Clewiston, spend the night at Roland Martin Marina behind the Herbert Hoover Dike. Clewiston is known as America's Sweetest Town since the major employer is U.S Sugar. Having dinner at the Clewiston Inn, built in 1926, is a must for any boater. Continue on to Fort Myers through the Caloosahatchee Canal and past the Ortona Lock to La Belle. From La Belle west the canal turns into the Caloosahatchee River. Take advantage of a picturesque oxbow by spending the night at Rialto Harbor Docks, built right along the curve of one of these river features. Downtown Fort Myers offers a newly renovated River District with a monthly evening ArtWalk, when all the galleries stay open late and bands play live music. While a recent three-year drought and the effects of fertilizer runoff have stressed the Okeechobee Waterway ecosystem, local citizens action groups, marine laboratories, and the water management district are devoting enormous amounts of time and energy to researching ways to keep Lake Okeechobee and its two major rivers healthy.
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