Matanzas Inlet – South St Johns County

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 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…

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Cost of Completing the Florida East Coast Canal (ICW) from St. Augustine to Cocoa-Nut Grove

Estimated Cost of Completing the East Coast Canal from St. Augustine to Cocoa-Nut Grove, Fla. (1889)
Estimated Cost of Completing the East Coast Canal from St. Augustine to Cocoa-Nut Grove, Fla. (1889)

Sometime in 1888, the Florida canal company engaged acclaimed Chicago-based railway and waterway engineer Elmer Lawrence Corthell to undertake a complete survey of the cost of the work to be done in completing what would become the Intracoastal Waterway from St. Augustine to Miami, Florida.  In turn, Corthell retained Arthur F. Wrotnowski, an experienced civil engineer who had laid out the town of Clermont, Florida, to do the actual on-the-ground survey work.

Interestingly, Wrotnowski had been born in Clermont, France.  Nine months later, in May 1889, Corthell reported to Florida canal company directors that 87% of the 326-mile distance consisted of watercourses, lagoons, estuaries, and sloughs, with the balance in dry land. For the most part, and this cannot be overemphasized, the waterways were less than 5 feet deep and largely non-navigable except for canoes and rafts. The State’s contract with the canal company called for a waterway not less than 5 feet deep throughout the entire distance of the waterway. In the case of the thirty-mile stretch of dry and muck land between the Matanzas and Halifax rivers (St. Augustine and Ormond Beach), the work would take thirty years.  Corthell estimated the total cost at $1,080,671.00, including the cost of three locks, each 300 feet long.

St. Augustine’s anchoring and mooring pilot program tested |

St. Augustine’s anchoring and mooring pilot program tested |

Under a state pilot program, St. Augustine enacted an ordinance requiring boats to moor at least fifty feet from the navigable channel of the Intracoastal Waterway. One man who has lived aboard his sailboat for eleven years filed suit challenging the law in federal court.

Under federal maritime law, the federal government has the right to establish mooring rights within the Intracoastal Waterway and its tributaries. The federal supremacy clause makes federal law the supreme law of the land.

Generally, regulation of the use of the Intracoastal Waterway depends upon whether or not the federal government has preempted state and local law by enacting federal law over various uses of the waterway. However, the State of Florida owns the bottom lands of the Waterway by right of sovereignty under federalism. Unless the federal government intervenes in various uses, local governments may set speed limits for marine vessels, for example, transiting the waterway.

Court watchers await the final decision of the United States Supreme Court if the matter reaches that level of judicial authority. The author of this blog believes the federal government will prevail. In the absence of a uniform federal law on mooring, the author envisions scores of municipalities each with a confusing mishmash of differing mooring laws along the waterway.

Watermelon Feast on East Coast Canal (Under Construction) at Boynton Beach, Fla. In 1914


By November 1912, according to the terms and conditions of the Settlement Agreement made in 1906, the last of twelve deeds had been delivered by the State of Florida Trustees of the Internal Improvement Fund (the State Cabinet) to the Florida canal company conveying in the aggregate more than one million acres of prime east coast land for dredging 268 miles of Intracoastal Waterway from Jacksonville to Miami.

Under the 1906 agreement, state legislators had given the canal company more time to finish the waterway and more state land if the canal company dredged an additional 30 miles north of St. Augustine to Jacksonville. In 1914, many stretches of the waterway had not been completed to state specifications. The state had required a canal five feet deep and fifty feet wide. In many cases, embankments as in this photograph slid back into the water, requiring remedial work.

At the same time, shippers, business and trade associations complained that the State should not have given the last of the twelve deeds for work that had not been completed or completed incorrectly. The photograph plainly shows a deficiency of retaining walls or their equivalent to keep dredged material from sliding back into the canal by 1914.  Unfortunately, the State’s original specifications called for “maintenance” of completed work to be paid for out of toll money collected but little else in specifying precisely how the waterways were to be maintained.  

Courtesy, Boynton Beach Historical Society/Janet DeVries.

Corthell’s 1889 Estimate of the Cost to Complete the Florida East Coast Canal


In 1888, Florida canal company general manager George F. Miles engaged acclaimed Chicago waterway and railway engineer Elmer Corthell to survey the soil, rock, sand, and other material the Company dredges would likely encounter in completing the waterway and to estimate the cost of completion.

In turn, Corthell employed a former Army engineer, Artur [sic] Wrotnowski, to perform the actual on-the-ground measurements between bodies of water, their depths, and distances, with calculations of how much material the Florida canal company would have to move to comply with state requirements. Corthell reviewed Wrotnowski’s survey in detail and reported to the directors of the Florida canal company the amount of material to be moved and the cost to complete the waterway.

Corthell also considered mounting marine vessels on railway cars to transit difficult-to-dredge dry land between waterways but rejected the railway alternative as too expensive to maintain. In conclusion, Corthell endorsed the project on a ‘pay as you go’ basis, starting with minimum depths now, using the waterway to generate revenue to dredge a deeper and wider waterway later.  Withal, Corthell thought the Florida East Coast economy robust, more than enough to justify his estimated cost to complete of a little over $1 million in  1889 ($26 million in historic standard-of-living dollars today, 2014). Courtesy, Brown University, Hay Library, Providence, Rhode Island.

Brigadier General Quincy Adams Gillmore

Brigadier General Quincy Adams Gillmore
Brigadier General Quincy Adams Gillmore, Second Florida chief of the Army Corps of Engineers. Gillmore graduated first in his class at West Point. He conducted several surveys of the Florida east coast during his command (1869-1884). In later years, Gillmore published several textbooks, including one on underwater concrete, a necessity in waterway and canal improvements. Gillmore recommended improvements in the old Haulover Cut that Wright had constructed in 1854. But Wright, now Gillmore’s superior and Chief of the Corps of Engineers, turned Gillmore down. The Federal Government remained resistant in spending federal dollars for construction of internal improvements. Construction of waterways was left to the states and to private enterprise for work deemed local in importance. In the relatively new state of Florida, its government after the Civil War was bereft of any cash to pay for public improvements. It was again left to private enterprise to finance canals and railways.

In 1881, four St. Augustine investors led by Dr. John Westcott, who also had been Surveyor General of Florida, formed the Florida canal company that would dredge 268 miles of privately-owned waterway by 1912 and earn the company more than a million acres of valuable east coast land from St. Augustine to the tip of the Florida peninsula as well as the right to collect tolls from waterway traffic. Westcott proved invaluable in heading the company. His knowledge of the choice state land available to pay for the company’s work benefitted the enterprise immensely in the years ahead. In 1929, the State of Florida turned over what been the private Florida East Coast Canal to the Federal Government free of charge for perpetual maintenance and enlargement as the Florida portion of the toll-free Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. Courtesy, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Bucket dredge in the Matanzas and Halifax rivers Cut, ca. 1893

Bucket dredge in the Matanzas and Halifax rivers Cut, ca. 1893

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.