Land into Water--Water into Land: A History of Water Management in Florida

By Nelson Manfred Blake | Go to book overview
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3 The Big Dealers

F or three decades after the Civil War adventurous businessmen were placing their bets. It was the right moment because the rapidly growing nation needed everything -- lumber, coal, oil, steel, railroads, electricity. Money, usually borrowed, staked the new ventures; and money, by the millions, rewarded the winners, men like Vanderbilt, Carnegie, and Rockefeller. But why did these enterprisers strike it rich, while hundreds of others gambled and lost? Sometimes the winners were shrewder than the losers and sometimes they were luckier, but often they won just because they had the right political connections. Only in theory was it an age of rugged individualism; in practice businessmen looked to government at all levels -- municipal, state, federal -- for contracts, franchises, charters, land grants, and subsidies. To succeed, one needed the right political friends, such as officeholders, legislators, and judges.

Businessmen in search of quick rewards found the Florida situation particularly inviting. The state needed railroads and canals to open up the interior and drainage to convert swampy acres into farmland. But there were problems as well as opportunities for the capitalists. The state had a population of only 140,000 in 1860, so where were the passengers and shippers to make railroads and canals profitable or the farmers to purchase reclaimed lands? Unless massive state aid was forthcoming, investors were not interested in Florida ventures. Bitter experience, however, had made the politicians somewhat cautious. Forced to default on government- guaranteed loans to banks and other enterprises during the early decades of statehood and saddled with heavy debts by the guaranteed railroad construction bonds of the 1850s, the state authorities would no longer buy the stock or guarantee the bonds of private corporations. But they did have one golden resource. Unlike other states where the federal government itself granted or sold most of the public land, Florida largely controlled its own land policy. By a

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