As we walk the mile and a quarter along the Florida Trail through deep woods to the west of Belleview, the low-hanging clouds that threatened the morning with rain now part.
Emerging from the forest, we step into bright sun–and a crowd of more than a hundred people, gathered here in a clearing. Thousands of trucks and cars stream past nearby, along busy Interstate 75.
It’s a day for rejoicing. Nearly ten years after the Cross Florida Greenway became a reality, slightly more than a year since this construction project began, we’re about to witness the birth of something special.
Something unique. Something Florida can brag about forever.
It’s the nation’s first land bridge.
Sure, other states have built special culverts so wildlife can cross busy roads safely. Projects dot the landscape, from Seattle to New Jersey, to our own bear culverts under SR 44, north of Sanford. But this is different.
It’s not a wildlife crossing , although the snakes, squirrels, mice, and raccoons who’ve been using the span might argue otherwise. No, this bridge is for people, people who love the outdoors.
It’s not your normal highway bridge. More than a thousand tons of material went into its construction, beams laid two thousand feet across six lanes of I-75.
It’s a gigantic planter, supporting rocks, trees, and shrubs—odd enough to make motorists passing beneath do a double-take.
Tall oaks rise up above a screening of scrub palmetto; native limestone walls and tall fences keep visitors from dangling over the highway.
Two overlooks allow the curious to stare down and wave at the traffic. A built-in sprinkler system keeps the plants growing. All to the tune of $3.1 million dollars.
A COOPERATIVE EFFORT
Unusual bridges take unusual plans. In this case, a unique partnership between the Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) brought together folks who rarely work together.
Consultants and state officials studied land bridge plans implemented in Europe, using a publication developed by the Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management of the Netherlands.
A biologist was included on the design team, and the firm of Daniel, Mann, Johnson, and Mendenhall awarded the design contract. Adapting a Netherlands design to our country’s Interstate system took a unusual twist: custom-made supports.
A Texas firm was contracted to design U-beams that could handle the greater-than-average load of soil, rock, and trees.
These beams, weighing 87 tons each, went into place in November 1999. By May 2000, the structure had a surface, inviting small creatures to scamper across. Serious landscaping began.
According to DOT Project Development Engineer Mariano Berrios, this cooperative project utilized statewide transportation enhancement funds to design and build the bridge.
Even with the bridge complete, the partnership goes on. “Since the project serves the Greenway, the DOT and DEP signed a maintenance agreement in which DOT agrees to maintain the structure and DEP agrees to maintain the trail portion, the vegetation and irrigation system.”
Similarly, recreational groups who use the Cross Florida Greenway banded together to coordinate trail-building for various purposes in the corridor: several equestrian groups from Marion County, the Ocala Mountain Bikers Association, and the Florida Trail Association (FTA).
As a FTA member, I’ve helped build this trail, along with a dedicated group of trail maintainers headed up by Section Leader Kenneth Smith of Belleview.
It’s a serious nod to the cooperation between the groups – all trails converge at the land bridge – when on the day of the they receive a National Trail Award from the National Trails Symposium, commemorating “Outstanding Trail Sharing.”
BUILDING THE CANAL
As the green ribbon is cut and a myriad of recreational users stream across the bridge, a group of hikers keeps on heading west, following the orange blazes of the Florida Trail into one of the most interesting segments of the Greenway, the 1930s canal diggings.
Retired Judge Bill Milton worked on this part of the trail, and we follow him down into the thickly forested canal bottom. “Imagine, back in those days, what a task it was, digging a canal with shovels…”
The dream of a “great Florida canal” dated back to the 1820s, when Colonel James Gadsden talked about it in a speech to the Florida Institute of Agriculture. Florida had just become a United States Territory; its resources were closely examined.
In those days before Florida had rail lines, the lure of developing a quick route to the Gulf of Mexico brought many speculators down to the territory, including the United States Government.
In the 1840s, Robert E. Lee and other members of an Army Corps of Engineers expedition scouted and mapped the wilderness along Florida’s shores.
But Lee’s recommendation for a “canal across the isthmus” languished when the Civil War broke out, leaving Union troops and Confederate loyalists to skirmish over Florida’s main commercial route—-the Florida Railroad.
In 1887, the Atlantic & Mexican Gulf Canal Company incorporated with the intent of building of a canal “from the mouth of the St. Mary’s River, on the Atlantic, through Okefenokee Swamp and the State of Florida to the Gulf.”
Proponents touted the obvious savings of 1,200 to 1,500 of shipping miles, plus the “saving to commerce of heavy rates of insurance, which are made imperative by the dangerous navigation…of the reefs of Florida.”
A route was surveyed by General Quincy A. Gilmore, running the canal from the St. Mary’s River to the Suwannee River at Ellaville.
But at a cost of fifty million dollars in 1880, a lack of investors – and a lack of government support – prevented the effort from getting past the planning stages.
Turning their attentions to Central Florida, independent surveyors marked a new, shorter canal route linking the St. John’s River near Palatka with the Withlacoochee River near Dunnellon.
By the early 1900s, an earthen dam held back the waters of the Withlacoochee, the first step in building the new Cross Florida canal. World War I delayed the project once more.
In 1935, men took to the woods with shovels, picks, and mules, digging the ditch inch by inch. They made dents in two areas which flank modern-day I-75.
Their backbreaking effort kept them employed during some tough times, but within a year, the funding ran out. The project was abandoned.
ENTER THE ENVIRONMENTALISTS
Wartime concerns about German u-boats caused the Army Corps of Engineers to take a closer look at the idea. In 1942, the Cross Florida Barge Canal became an official government project. And it sat. And sat.
Finally, in 1964, the United States Congress appropriated funding to begin work on the canal. Up went the Rodman Dam, cutting the traditional route of Ocklawaha River off from the St. Johns.
Concerned citizens assembled a protest group, the Florida Defenders of the Environment, to publicize the environmental damage that the construction of the canal would cause.
Founder Marjorie Harris Carr (wife of famed University of Florida zoologist Archie Carr) gathered forces together. Environmentalism was in its youth at the time, but the stakes were high. The landscape of Florida would be forever altered.
Already, the pool forming behind the Rodman Dam was killing thousands of acres of priceless hardwood forest. The canal would destroy the historic and scenic Ocklawaha River, which would be dredged out to form the route.
Hundreds of rare and unusual species of flora and fauna would vanish. The Silver River would be flooded, and Silver Springs, the world’s largest freshwater spring, would run the risk of being destroyed.
In these more enlightened times, it’s frightening to realize how close we were to losing some of our state’s most precious resources to the canal.
But the grassroots effort gained support. Lawsuits were filed, letters written, petitions circulated.
In January 1971, in response to a Federal judge’s injunction against the project, President Richard Nixon halted construction of the canal. In 1976, Florida legislators voted in favor of de-authorizing the project.
It took the U.S. Congress another 14 years to lay it to rest, on Nov 28, 1990. The canal was only 28% complete.
More than $63 million dollars in Federal funds had brought it to this point: two disconnected bodies of water, near Palatka and Inglis, and numerous high bridges over the proposed canal route.
Ironically, while the canal sat undone, its incomplete segments became magnets for anglers and recreational boaters.
Once the project was officially de-authorized, the lands came back into state hands as the “Cross Florida Greenway State Recreation and Conservation Area.”
A new state department was formed to oversee the development of the Greenway as a public resource—-the Office of Greenways and Trails.
THE FLORIDA TRAIL
True, the land bridge benefits several recreational user groups: equestrians, mountain bikers, and hikers. But for the Florida Trail Association, the bridge carries the trail into the future.
It finally provides access to the long-planned Florida National Scenic Trail’s western corridor, a loop to the west in Central Florida to carry the trail through a patchwork of public lands from the Withlacoochee River to Withlacoochee State Forest and down to Green Swamp, enhancing the trail’s wilderness feel.
The Florida Trail was meant to be one continuous ribbon, more than 1,200 miles of hiking trail stretching from the depths of Big Cypress in the Everglades to the glistening white sand dunes of Gulf Islands National Seashore, off Pensacola.
But unlike other National Scenic Trails, the Florida Trail faced a serious struggle. Although it’s been around for 35 years, there hasn’t been much money available for land acquisition.
As a result, the cooperation of landowners, including the state and the U.S. Forest Service, has been the only guarantee the trail has of staying on wild lands.
Far too often, the trail changed course thanks to a new planned community, a clearcut, or the closure of a property due to development.
At 75 years, the Appalachian Trail is almost completely protected, almost entirely a walk in the woods. Not so for the Florida Trail.
“There isn’t a section of a hundred miles that isn’t broken up by a roadwalk,” said Joan Hobson, Vice-President of Trails for the FTA.
True, hikers can walk from the Everglades to Pensacola on a marked trail. Just follow the orange blazes. But those orange blazes can take you 30 miles down the edge of a lonesome highway.
Or for miles through some of the backyards of the most densely populated suburbs of Orlando. For the long-distance hiker, it’s not a wilderness experience.
The dream of the Florida Trail dates back to 1964, when the trail’s first segment was blazed through the wilds of the Ocala National Forest.
Realizing the explosive growth of Orlando would continue to degrade the wildness of the trail, the concept of a western corridor came along pretty early in the planning stages.
And why not use that empty stretch of wilderness to head west from the Ocala National Forest along the route of the Cross-Florida Barge Canal? More than 70,000 acres of land are protected within the Cross Florida Greenway.
Thus an idea was born: the Western Corridor. According to Kent Wimmer, Florida Trail Liaison at the U.S. Department of Forestry, Tallahassee, “It is our intent to identify a route for the FNST so it has a wilderness setting as much as possible, with the constraint of having a continuous trail without road walks.”
And mile by mile, the wilderness setting of the Western Corridor continues to grow.
Belleview resident Kenneth Smith has been working on this trail section since 1997, with a love for the land stemming from his 25 years of association with the FTA. As section leader, it’s up to him to nudge the route through the most scenic (and shaded) places.
At this point, there are 15 miles of trail completed between US 441 in Belleview (the Santos Trailhead, near the old piers of the proposed Cross Florida Barge Canal bridge) and SR 200 west of Ocala.
“I sometimes wondered why I was building trails to bring more people into such a serene and beautiful wilderness area,” said Ken. “I almost wanted to leave it for the adventurers and navigators who wanted to find their way out there, find a place to “find” themselves.”
But thanks to Ken’s leadership and the volunteer efforts of many FTA members, folks who want to find a little solitude can take a walk in the woods, enjoying the old-growth fern-draped live oaks that shade this sliver of trail.
Campers court solitude in the depths of the diggings, the sand hills rising like dunes out of the pine forest. It’s a special place, the trail less traveled. And to get there, you’ve got to cross the new land bridge.
A PUBLIC TREASURE
With a nod to her role in preserving a crucial piece of Central Florida, the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway is truly a public treasure.
Model airplane clubs in Ocala and Dunnellon maintain small remote control airplane fields along the corridor. Mountain bikers established a state-renowned set of trails in and around the Santos area.
Equestrians from Florida’s horse-breeding heartland established horse trails up and down the corridor, putting in benches, hitching posts, watering troughs, and campsites.
Where the Greenway intersects with the incomplete canal segments, public boat ramps provide waterway access for fishing and boating.
This unique, unusual land bridge over I-75 provides the crucial piece of the puzzle to provide maximum enjoyment to active outdoorspeople enjoying the trails along the Greenway.
No longer will they need to detour down the busy commercial strip at the I-75 / SR 484 junction; instead, their outdoors experience will continue seamlessly, unbroken by civilization-—save, perhaps, a wave at the traffic passing under the nation’s first land bridge.
And with one project successfully completed, who’s to say there won’t be more? Said Kent Wimmer, “This Florida Department of Transportation’s inspired and innovative green bridge demonstrates their commitment to creating a statewide network of trails, and they deserve our highest praise.”
Originally published in Florida Hiker magazine, 2001
Learn more about the Cross Florida Greenway