The first dredge used in constructing the Intracoastal Waterway was a crude steel bucket dredge. Each bucket was the size of two average-sized men standing inside. The buckets were attached to a continuous steel chain, powered by steam. First used in the so-called Matanzas-Halifax Cut, the dredge was to join the Matanzas River at St. Augustine with the Halifax River at Ormond (now, Ormond Beach). The thirty-mile stretch of dry land required thirty years to complete the work. The constant breaking of the continuous chain as well as the tearing away of buckets from the chain made the work difficult to sustain.
In the dredging of dry cuts like this one, it was necessary to put fifty to eighty men with shovels and picks ahead of the bucket dredge to break up the solid ground and remove any sizeable trees. Often, expediency required a source of water ahead of the the work to make the rock and sand more easily removed by the buckets without sand and rock escaping the buckets.
It didn’t take canal company officials long to realize that more efficient machines were needed. The dredge machine was all encompassing. It contained not only the dredge itself but also sleeping quarters for the men operating the machine, a kitchen and dining area, as well as an acetylene gas generator for lighting, for dredging twenty-four hours a day.
The Culebra Cut was the most difficult of all the dredging operations in the digging of the Panama Canal. Capt. David Gaillard, of French Hugenot ancestry, was chief of dredging operations at the Cut and a cousin of Henry Gaillard. Henry had been one of the four original incorporators of the Florida canal company, the longest serving director, and a St. Augustine state senator. Henry’s political importance in securing the million acres of state land promised for dredging what would become the Intracoastal Waterway cannot be overstated. Without Henry’s political clout after the death of Dr. John Westcott, it is doubtful the company would have been successful.
The Culebra Cut was essentially a cut through a solid mountain. So arduous was the work, including dynamiting and the building of a railway to remove the rock and debris, it left David a broken man. David was hospitalized for the balance of the Panama Canal work. He died before the opening ceremonies. Here, Roosevelt operates an elevator dredge, which required level ground and the laying of railway steel and wooden ties. The Florida canal company used elevator dredges in the northern extension of the Florida waterway from St. Augustine to Jacksonville. Courtesy, Library of Congress, American Memory.