Raising the dam-nable road that ruined Florida’s Everglades

‘America’s funkiest road’ gets lifted to let the water flow again

August 19, 2021 7:00 am

The one-mile raised section of the Tamiami Trail. Credit: National Park Service

Much like all the Florida men and women who drive on them — usually while yakking on their phones, fixing their makeup, and reloading their guns — Florida’s roads tend to have a, shall we say, “interesting” backstory.

For instance, Interstate 4, the deadliest highway in the nation, is supposedly haunted by the ghosts of an immigrant family buried beneath its pavement. Alligator Alley motorists used to have to beware of attacking vultures that would crash through their windshields. State Road 710, so straight it was once known as “the Beeline,” was built by an uncouth developer named William “Fingy” Conners who was the model for the uncouth character of Jiggs in the long-running comic strip “Bringing Up Father.”

But nothing tops the tale of the Tamiami Trail — or of the remaking of a big chunk of it to help restore the Everglades.

This month, work crews pulled out the last slab of the Old Tamiami Trail roadbed, an event that state officials celebrated by patting themselves on the back so hard I’m surprised local hospitals didn’t report a wave of shoulder injuries

While they all crowed about how this particular project was finished six months ahead of schedule — which, to be fair, is pretty cool — nobody mentioned the people who started this particular ball rolling years before.

In particular, no one credited the scientist whose research showed that the Tamiami Trail was blocking the flow of the River of Grass at a time when nobody in charge wanted to hear it. He used to be a state employee — until our previous governor decided to gut the state’s water management districts.

“America’s funkiest road” is a dam

A hundred years ago, there was no way to drive from one side of Florida to the other. Swamps, forests and mosquitoes galore stood in the way, not to mention the occasional moonshiner. Around 1915, a group of ambitious business executives on the state’s Gulf Coast began plotting a way to reach the rich suckers — er, I mean customers — waiting in Miami.

One group wanted to build something called the Cross State Highway, which would run from Tampa to Arcadia, then pass through a score of small towns as it headed southeast to Miami. Another group touted a route that ran south from Tampa along the coast to Naples, where it would turn sharply to the east, cutting through the Everglades muck to reach Miami. That one would be called the Tamiami Trail, a joining of “Tampa” with “Miami.”

Aerial view of the Tamiami Trail at Miami in 1947. Credit: State Library and Archives of Florida

Backers of the two highways battled it out but, ultimately, the southern route won out, not because it had a more imaginative name but because it was supported by a wealthy New York advertising and real estate mogul named Barron Collier. He contributed $1 million to the cause and got a whole dang county named after him.

Building a road through the Everglades required construction workers slogging through water up to their waists while ox-drawn carts hauled dynamite to blast through the underlying rock.

When the project stalled in 1923, an adventurous group of motorists — one of them a member of a religious cult that believed we live inside a hollow Earth — mounted a drive across the unfinished portion to prove it could be completed.

The two-lane Tamiami Trail officially opened in 1928, becoming, as my former colleague Jeff Klinkenberg once put it so well, “America’s funkiest road.” He called it that because as the route runs from Tampa to Miami, the trail “marries shell-lamp Florida with the Florida of pinky rings and dry martinis.”

The completed highway included a few culverts beneath its asphalt to let water flow from north to south, but they were inadequate to handle everything that normally poured through the Glades sawgrass. Originally, the peak flow was 4,000 cubic feet of water per second meandering across a 10-mile wide stretch. The culverts allowed less than half that much to go through, and at times it shot out of those metal cylinders as if being sprayed out of a garden hose.

The loss of so much fresh water would prove catastrophic for Everglades National Park, created in 1947. Over time, plants that depended on that steady flow died and the population of wading birds decreased between 70 and 90 percent.

The only occasions on which the park got any relief was when the culverts became overwhelmed. During one 1940s flood, people saw so many fish swimming over the road that they pulled out guns and began shooting them, according to Chris McVoy, a Ph.D. in hydrology who started working at the South Florida Water Management District in 1995.

McVoy’s job: figure out how the Glades worked before humans came along and messed it up. After all, how can you restore the Everglades if you don’t know what it used to look like? No one had taken any measurements prior to the alterations, so he had had to piece it together from historical resources.

“I used to lay out a bunch of these old aerial photos all over the floor,” he told me this week, “and people would come by and look at me funny.”

A lot of people in state and federal agencies back then referred to the “Everglades marsh,” as if it were a big bathtub, he said. But McVoy’s conclusion was that the River of Grass originally functioned like a shallow, wide, slow-flowing river that ran from Lake Okeechobee down to Florida Bay. Ever since 1928, an obstruction had been blocking its path.

The Tamiami Trail “definitely functions to a degree as a dam,” he said.

But when he pointed that out, his bosses “would get all unhappy with me.” Meanwhile, he said, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, working with the state on creating a complex rescue plan for the Glades, regarded him and his findings as “kind of weird.”

He finally published a book about the pre-alteration Everglades. Four months later, he was tossed out on his ear, along with more than 100 other veteran water district employees. This ill-considered house-cleaning had been engineered by then-Gov. Rick Scott in the name of cutting taxes — regardless of the consequences for the state’s water supply.

McVoy was later elected to a city council seat in Lake Worth, but the man who knows more about the original Everglades than anyone else has not worked on Everglades programs since his ouster a decade ago.

Fortunately, McVoy’s findings caught the attention of a very persistent young environmental activist named Jonathan Ullman.

Soaring high above the Glades

Ullman, who worked for the Sierra Club on South Florida environmental issues, seized on the Tamiami Trail’s dam-nable nature the way Ahab seized on the pursuit of that big whale. Anyone who read McVoy’s research “knew we had to raise that road,” he told me this week.

Federal officials, he said, had signaled they were interested in “something minimal” — a half-mile of elevated roadway, or even just installing more culverts. But Ullman saw the potential for something far grander.

He worked with a bridge designer and soon unveiled a conceptual drawing for what he called an “Everglades Skyway” — an 11-mile bridge raised up high enough to not only let the water flow freely, but also give drivers a sweeping vista across the Glades’ glorious expanse.

He pitched it as more than just an environmental rescue for the thirsty national park. It would be a major tourist draw, too, he predicted.

Nobody took the idea seriously then, partly because a skyway would cost far more than the $20 million the Corps had allotted for raising the road as part of its billion-dollar Everglades restoration plan.

“We got brushed off,” Ullman recalled. “We definitely got ignored.” Even other environmental activists scoffed at first, he said.

In 2001, he was driving to Jacksonville to meet with Corps officials for what he hoped would be a meeting to convince them of the need to build the Skyway. He made it as far as Palatka before he heard about the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Corps officials not only canceled the meeting, he said, but “they took the whole project off the table.”

Four years later, he was still pushing the Skyway plan, telling the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, “If government is really serious about restoring the Everglades, they need to build the Skyway. If they’re not, they might as well pack up and go home.”

By then, the National Academies of Sciences had weighed in, concluding that the road should be raised “as a first step that should create a sense of urgency” toward further Everglades restoration. The Corps committed to building a 1-mile bridge, even though that would provide less than half the flow the park needed.

The Miccosukee Tribe — whose reservation is on a strip of land at the park’s northernmost border — went to court to block construction. They said they feared their homes along the Tamiami Trail would flood. In 2008 a federal judge ruled that the bridge project had skipped a key procedural step and issued an injunction that would block construction, labeling it “an environmental bridge to nowhere.”

A year later, the judge lifted the injunction because Congress had passed a budget bill that waived the normal procedures. But this was still going to be nothing but a little 1-mile bridge.

That little bridge opened in 2013. Ullman, in an interview with WLRN-FM, hailed it as significant because “it has spurred further bridging.” The National Park Service had jumped in to build another 6½ miles of bridges along the Tamiami Trail.

So far, the park has built 2.3 miles, as well as raising the Miccosukee Tribe’s housing. The rest should be completed by 2024, according to park officials. (Ripping out the roadbed of the old highway is technically a separate project, they said, but with a similar intent.)

It’s not exactly the soaring skyway Ullman envisioned. The bridges look more utilitarian than tourist-tempting, he said. And there’s no spot to stop for Instagram-worthy photos.

Still, the water has begun flowing the way it should, the way it used to, and that’s the main thing, he said.

Of course, he continued, that’s not enough. The bridges are “only buying us time,” he said, until rising sea levels push all that freshwater back as saltwater invades the Everglades.

All those state officials who were patting themselves on the back for removing the roadbed haven’t done diddly to deal with climate change or its impact on Florida, even though we are the state considered most vulnerable to rising seas and temperatures. Ignoring that increasing threat makes as much sense as believing we live inside a hollow Earth.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.