Marjorie Carr:American Zoologist and Environmental Activist

The woman who saved Florida from the Cross Florida Barge Canal, Marjorie Harris Carr (1915-1997)

Marjorie Carr: zoologist and American environmental activist

Marjorie Carr: zoologist and American environmental activist

For almost 200 years, in fits and spurts, the U.S. Government and powerful commercial interests had sought a shorter way of getting from the Gulf of Mexico side of Florida to the Atlantic coast.  The person most responsible for ending this ‘on again, off again’ probable environmental disaster was a Gainesville, Fla., zoologist named Marjorie Harris Carr, wife of Archie Carr, a University of Florida professor concentrating in conservation biology. Marjorie died just one year short of the official end of this disastrous canal project.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had recommended an inland waterway across the Florida peninsula at various places along both sides of the peninsula as early as the 1820’s to shorten the transit of ships from the Atlantic coast of the Territory of Florida to the Gulf of Mexico. The existing route had forced ships to transit south to the tip of the Florida peninsula, then north through the Gulf of Mexico to Pensacola or to New Orleans to the Mississippi River.

Time and again, decade after decade, Congress had taken up the Corps’s recommendation as Florida suffered through three Seminole Wars, the first of which began in 1816, a second one in 1835, and the third ending a few years before the Civil War.  Advocates for a Cross Florida ship, then later, barge canal, argued that such an inland waterway would assist the military in defending the southern states and facilating commerce between the Atlantic coastal cities and the Mississippi River.

Opponents grounded their arguments first in the Constitution.  The Constitution vested no express power in the Congress to construct inland waterways. The same opponents raised that argument in resisting the funding of an Atlantic coast inland waterway.   Moreover, constructing a Cross Florida Barge Canal would drain the federal treasury, with little concrete economic benefits in return.  For the most part, Florida was a vast unknown waste land.

The first substantial effort to build a barge canal came during the Depression.  In 1933, state  legislators created the Canal Authority of the State of Florida to begin the barge canal, spur economic activity, and coordinate the several inland waterways projects either in the planning stage or under construction such as the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (principally, federalily funded).   A year later, work on the barge canal stopped amidst concerns the construction would deplete Florida’s aquifers. In 1942, to promote the national defense, work on a planned barge canal never started because Congress never appropriated any funds.

Born in Boston, Mass., Marjorie Carr grew up in Bonita Springs, Fla., where her parents taught her how to identify animals and plants in what was then a largely rural area.  In 1942, Marjorie graduated from the Florida State College for Women with a bachelor’s degree in zoology.  Although there was a prohibition against women seeking master’s degrees, several years later, with the help of her husband, Archie, Marjorie obtain a master’s degree in zoology from the University of Florida.

In the late 1950’s, Marjorie began her career in conservation and environmental activism in Micanopy, Fla., establishing Payne’s Prairie Preserve State Park and the restoration of Lake Alice on the University of Florida campus.  Her most famous work was the fight to save the Ocklawaha River, challenging the Cross Florida Barge Canal.  Marjorie headed a coalition of volunteer University of Florida economic, scientific and legal experts called the Florida Defenders of the Environment. Marjorie used the developing science of ecology to show that the barge canal would destroy the Ocklawaha River and its basin or regional ecosystem, questioning the economic benefits of the canal.

In January 1971, Marjorie’s group won a temporary injunction in federal court against the Corps of Engineers against further construction on the basis of the group’s environmental impact statement.  Days later, President Richard Nixon halted construction. Carr continued to fight for the restoration of the Ocklawaha River valley until her death.  The Rodman dam still blocked the Ocklawaha River.   A year after her death, the State of Florida took possession of the easement and bottom lands purchased for the Barge Canal to create a public park. The linear park includes the completed and incomplete portions of the Barge Canal.  It is known today as the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway. a linear park in memory of the one woman in Florida who opposed heavily financed, political and commercial interests to prevent irreparable and inestimable damage  to Florida’s environment.

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