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 Matanzas Inlet is eighteen miles south of St. Augustine at the the south end of the St. Johns County barrier island. On the south side of the inlet is the barrier island to Ormond Beach, another twelve miles. West of the barrier islands is Fort Matanzas National Park. The absence of jetties at this natural inlet makes possible the continued shifting north of the Inlet by natural Atlantic littoral shifting described in another posting that has been an ongoing process for at least a hundred and fifty years. The waterway running north and south through the inlet inside the barrier islands is the Matanzas River reach of the Intracoastal Waterway.
In 1882, when the Florida Coast Line Canal & Transportation Company (“the Florida canal company”) began the actual work of dredging what would become the Intracoastal Waterway, the company started its work with one dredge south of St. Augustine working south and another dredge at Ormond Beach working north.
Using crude continuous bucket dredges, the work was difficult, almost incorrigible in many places. The Inlet shown in this photograph made that part of the work even more challenging, introducing swirling currents, tides, and beach sand as well as rock, coquina, and mud.
Because the State of Florida agreed to grant the company 3,840 acres of public land for every mile of waterway dredged, the canal company soon moved the work south into easier cuts such as the Indian River Lagoon. The lagoon was a waterway of sorts but not navigable in any sense of the word.
A canoe could traverse the large body of water but its depth barely exceeded a few feet in many places. The State of Florida required a waterway at least five feet deep. The canal company cut a navigable pathway through the lagoon and marked the Lagoon’s depth at five feet and width of fifty feet as required by the State, even though the large sheet of water expanded to as much as four miles wide in some places.
Matanzas Inlet -South St. Johns County In 1881, the private St. Augustine-based Florida canal company agreed to dredge an inland waterway from Miami, Fla., to St. Augustine, Fla., and later to Jacksonville, Fla., a distance of approximately 400 miles. For every mile of waterway dredged, state legislators agreed to convey to the canal company 3,840 acres of state-owned land. Upon the delivery of the last (12th) deed to the canal company, the State had granted the canal Company a little over a million acres of public land.
Of the total length of the waterway, between 80% and 85% of the total was pre-existing waterway. Nonetheless, of that 80% to 85% of the waterway, much of it required the dredging of safe, uniform channels as we see them today in the Intracoastal Waterway.
Moreover, both artificial and natural inlets dot Florida’s east coast making difficult maintenance of the waterway at these…
Bucket dredge in the Matanzas -Halifax rivers Cut south of St. Augustine ca. 1893. Large steel buckets attached to a continuous heavy chain scooped up sand, clay, and rocks, and then dumped the material on either side of the Cut via conveyor belts. Among the earliest of the dredges employed, the bucket dredge soon fell into disuse as chains often broke under the strain of conveying heavy spoil. Eighty to a hundred men with picks and shovels opened up ditches where little or no water existed. Courtesy. St. Augustine Historical Society.
Horatio G. Wright was the first Florida chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (1852-1854). Wright superintended the first cut in what would become the Florida section of the Intracoastal Waterway, joining the Matanzas and Halifax rivers at Titusville, Fla. After years of wrangling over Congress’s constitutional powers, Congress authorized a mere pittance of $1,200 to dredge a short cut two feet deep and ten feet wide to join the waterways for military defensive purposes.
At the country’s founding, Thomas Jefferson had fought for a military with limited powers to survey the internal improvements of the Nation but not to spend a dime’s worth of taxpayer dollars for construction of roads, waterways, and bridges. Alexander Hamilton and other Federalists pursued an expansive view of the military to fund inland waterways at taxpayer expense. The small waterway at Titusville represented a grudging nod to a burgeoning nation with the need to transport commerce and defend the Nation. Courtesy, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.