Draining the Everglades was an idea whose hour finally arrived in the early years of the twentieth century. Why was the ancient dream so powerfully revived? The answer lies largely in the populist and progressive movements that swept across Florida in overlapping waves during the years between 1890 and 1920. The politicians who authorized the digging of an ambitious system of canals and ditches saw themselves as champions of the people redeeming millions of acres of soil from wealthy monopolists and transforming these swampy tracts into an agricultural paradise for small farmers.
Floridians regarded the railroads with a mingling of love and hate. In a generally favorable political climate the promoters had laid mile after mile of track between 1880 and 1890. The Florida legislature had encouraged this outburst of building by promising the railroads some 15 million acres of land. Since this was more than the state actually owned, the railroads had received deeds to only about three- fifths of this acreage but were still claiming the rest.
Like the railroads in other parts of the country, the Florida lines had gone through a ruthless Darwinian process in which scores of local companies had been born but relatively few had survived. During periods of depression many of the smaller lines were absorbed into a few great systems. By acquiring the Pensacola and Atlantic, the Louisville and Nashville Railroad became the most powerful force in the economic life of Panhandle Florida. It received deeds to 2.2 million acres of state land and claimed over 1 million more. One of its officers, William D. Chipley, exerted potent influence in Florida politics. A second masterful figure until his death in 1897 was Henry B. Plant, a Connecticut expressman, who had bought control of the South Florida Railroad, the Florida Southern, the Jacksonville, Tampa and Key West, and other lines to add to his holdings in Georgia and other southern states. The Plant System had acquired