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New PBS doc The Swamp explores how Florida land rush reshaped the state

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The story of how Americans drained, developed, and eventually preserved the Everglades

A Seminole woman poling past a billboard advertising the sale of reclaimed land in the Everglades, circa 1920.
A Seminole woman poling past a billboard advertising the sale of reclaimed land in the Everglades, circa 1920.
Courtesy of HistoryMiami Museum

It was one of the nation’s last unpopulated frontier, a subtropical wilderness that seemed to many inhospitable, and certainly unbuildable.

But in the early decades of the 20th century, Southern Florida became the setting of one of the country’s most storied land rushes and development booms. A new PBS documentary, The Swamp, which premiered this week and is available online, explores the efforts to conquer, colonize, and eventually preserve, the Everglades.

While the engrossing episode of the American Experience series focuses its energy on one specific watery wilderness, it’s also a very American story that touches on themes of development and environmental destruction. Journalist and author Michael Grunwald, whose book The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise helped inform the show, told Curbed that in many ways, Florida has been built around the “people-importation industry.”

In what he calls “a bewildering dreamscape forged by greed, flimflam, and absurdly grandiose visions that somehow stumbled into heavily populated realities,” the attempted transformation of swampland into promised land is a potent metaphor.

“The story of the repeated efforts to tame the Everglades—and the often deadly results of those attempts is a particularly cautionary tale in these days of increasingly violent natural disasters,” says American Experience executive producer Mark Samels.

A 1911 boat trip to show off potential Florida land. One buyer, caught in the rush, said, “I have never bought land by the gallon.”
Courtesy of the Lawrence E. Will Museum of the Glades / Glades Historical Society

Turning a backwater into a boomtown

The Swamp begins at a time when South Florida, due to the impenetrable nature of the Everglades, was a true wilderness.

In the early decades of the 20th century, a Floridian version of manifest destiny took hold, combining belief in man’s ability to improve dangerous and diseased swampland—ignorant of the ecological and environmental benefits of the Everglades—and a desire to make money. Charles Ponzi, the swindler whose name became synonymous with unsustainable business ventures, had a sideline in the ’20s selling lots “near Jacksonville” that turned out to be 65 miles away.

Visionaries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries—such as Hamilton Disston, who bought four million acres with plans to drain, dredge, and redevelop, Governor Napoleon Broward, who proclaimed “water is the common enemy” as he pushed forward policies to transform South Florida, and Henry Flagler, who ran a rail line south to the Florida Keys—reshaped the landscape.

This was an era that spawned neighborhoods and towns such as Progresso and Utopia, when Miami was marketed as a tropical wonderland to northerners who quickly purchased swampland real estate, sight unseen. “I have never bought land by the gallon,” one buyer remarked. Hundreds of thousands of new arrivals would transform a farming state into something radically different.

Creative, in some cases duplicitous, advertising and marketing helped sell Florida to the rest of the nation (famous developer Carl Fischer hung a billboard in Times Square that proclaimed “It’s June in Miami”). Writer Marjory Stoneman Douglas, namesake of the Parkland High School, whose gorgeous prose would make the case to preserve the Everglades and establish a national park, spent time penning brochures for new developments.

Foreshadowing Florida’s future

The Swamp stays grounded in the shifting fortunes of the Everglades, including man-made disasters, such as the creation of the Tamiami Trail, a highway through the swamp that served as a dam, and the hurricanes of 1926 and 1928, where poor farmers were killed by extreme weather and infrastructure failures.

While the original land boom trailed off during the Depression era, Florida’s growth has only gained momentum, and the struggle to balance progress with preservation has become more important. Now the state with the country’s third-largest population, and a pivotal point on the election map, is still growing and sprawling with new subdivisions and residents. The state’s biggest agricultural industry isn’t citrus, it’s sod and palms trees, many destined for newly manicured lawns.

The Everglades land rushes showcased in the doc, and the greed that helped fuel them, also foreshadow the future of Florida real estate. Banking and development interests collided on what would later be revealed to be a scam, argues historian Raymond Vickers. According to Grunwald, much of the land originally developed during the initial forays into the Everglades would later be center stage during the subprime lending scandal that caused the Great Recession.

Like the earlier eras chronicled in The Swamp, growth statewide often comes up against a powerful natural force, that of water. Grunwald says that coastal areas have been hit with horrible red tides, and waterways and estuaries have been clogged with “horrid guacamole glop” due to environmental degradation. Only recently has Miami, repeatedly pointed to as the first metropolis that will fall due to climate change and rising sea levels (the ultimate bust), begun to be more responsible and sustainable, as the oceanfront continues creeping onto city streets. The story of the Everglades serves as a cautionary tale about development without taking natural ecosystems into account.

“We have very short memories, the sunshine is very nice, and the cycle begins again,” Grunwald says.