Attempts to Conquer the Florida Everglades are Chronicled in the Dramatic Story "The Swamp"

The Swamp
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

“The Swamp”
Premieres Tuesday, January 15 from 9 to 11 PM ET on PBS
(Check your local Listings)
          The Swamp tells the dramatic story of humanity’s attempts to conquer the Florida Everglades, one of nature’s most mysterious and unique ecosystems. Told through the lives of a handful of colorful and resolute characters, from hucksters to politicians to unlikely activists, The Swamp explores the repeated efforts to transform what was seen as a vast and useless wasteland into an agricultural and urban paradise, ultimately leading to a passionate campaign to preserve America’s greatest wetland. As the world copes with increasingly deadly weather events, The Swamp is a timely tale of the perils of mankind’s abuse of nature.  

          Home to a profusion of plants and animals found nowhere else on the continent, Florida’s Everglades was an immense watershed covering the southern half of the Florida peninsula. But to most progress-minded Americans, the Everglades was a useless swamp filled with deadly diseases and vile reptiles. Entrepreneurs and politicians saw great potential in draining the Everglades and turning the massive wetland into a profitable enterprise.
         Philadelphia industrialist Hamilton Disston was the first to make a serious effort to drain the Everglades. In 1881, he purchased four million acres of swampland from the state, dug canals that opened up dry land, and attracted newcomers, but a season of heavy rains flooded farms and frustrated his plans. Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, who took office in 1905, promised to finish what Disston had started.
The Swamp

Courtesy of History Miami Museum
          Though Broward only reclaimed 12,000 acres while governor, he convinced people that the Everglades could be drained. As he exited office, Broward sold a huge tract of the Everglades to land speculator Richard Bolles to keep his project on track. Promising that the whole of the Everglades would be drained in a year, Bolles sold thousands of parcels sight unseen to would-be farmers and settlers from all over the country. Many new landowners soon discovered that their investment was still underwater. “I have bought land by the acre, and I have bought land by the foot,” said one purchaser, “but, my God, I have never bought land by the gallon.” 
        Other voices began to question the constant call to “drain and develop” the Everglades. Naturalist Charles Torrey Simpson warned of the dangers of despoiling the area’s beauty and biodiversity for the sake of progress. But it was a group of well-connected women who would be the first to protect a piece of this unique wilderness.
The Swamp

Courtesy of the Library of Congress
          As attempts to conquer the Everglades continued to wreak havoc on the environment, efforts increased to preserve and understand this vital ecosystem. Ernest Coe moved to Miami in 1925 and fell in love with what remained of the Florida Everglades. Creating a large national park became his life’s work, and he drew many other influential people into his cause, including Miami Herald writer Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who publicized the national park campaign and would become one of the most passionate and effective advocates for the Everglades. Their efforts paid off and, in 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed a bill authorizing the creation of Everglades National Park. 
         But it would be Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s landmark book The Everglades: River of Grass, which forever redefined the region as essential not only to wildlife but to people. In the decades that followed, the interests of conservation and development continued to compete in an area where boundaries were, and are, fluid. “It really is a moral test,” observes journalist and author Michael Grunwald on the future of the Everglades, “of whether we’re going to be able to preserve a place for people alongside a unique creation of wilderness.”