Today, we hear about Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, who was both loved and hated in our home state. Welcome to Florida Time, a weekly column about Florida history.
Last week we told you about Hamilton Disston, who bought -- and drained -- a large part of central Florida. This week: Napoleon Bonaparte Broward.
The man whose name would later adorn a South Florida county had the charisma and cunning of his emperor namesake and the robust stance and fat mustache of Teddy Roosevelt, a man Broward helped make.
Young Napoleon worked in a log camp, on a farm and was a steamboat hand and Newfoundland fisherman. He piloted a steamboat on North Florida’s St. Johns River, ran a lumberyard and developed a phosphate mine, all by the time he was in his forties. When a tidy war was manufactured to the south in Cuba, Broward used his steam tug, the Three Friends, to run guns past the Spanish naval blockade to the rebels.
A decade later, in 1907, then-Florida Gov. Broward found himself with then-President Roosevelt on a Mississippi River steamboat near Memphis. “Have you still got the Three Friends?” the former Rough Rider asked.
“Well. You ought to be mighty proud of her. If it had not been for the Three Friends, you would not be governor now.”
Broward replied, “You ought to be proud of her yourself, because if it had not been for her, you would not be president.”
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It was no coincidence that the two were on the mighty Mississippi. Roosevelt was inspecting drainage projects and Broward was championing a big one. He had become governor five years into the new century with new promise for Florida. Although tourism and migration had pulled the state out of its post-Civil War financial straits, it still held only a little more than 500,000 people. But it was on the move. Broward had been elected in no small part based on one of his key campaign promises: to drain the Everglades.
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As early as 1848, three years after Florida achieved statehood, U.S. Treasury Secretary Buckingham Smith had declared the Everglades could be “reclaimed” by digging canals. Stephen R. Mallory, then the collector of customs at Key West and later Confederate Secretary of the Navy in the Civil War, had called that idea “totally out of the question.” But that didn’t stop Napoleon Broward.
A half a century later, he was proposing this: All that was needed to turn what he considered a worthless swamp into rich farmland was to “knock a hole in the wall of coral and let a body of water obey natural law and seek the level of the sea.”
Within a year of Broward’s election, dredges were cutting canals from the lake to the ocean and the water was draining out to sea. Broward was an unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1908 while governor. He then won the office two years later. But he died in Jacksonville on Oct. 1, 1910, before taking office. His successor as governor, Albert W. Gilchrist, continued the drainage projects.
Even as the new century was heralding dramatic schemes to engineer the land and water, early critics were starting to say that this might not be a good idea. They were drowned out by the pistons of progress and the din of prosperity.
Decades later, environmental groups would decry the draining as one of the world’s great environmental catastrophes, claiming that it swallowed Florida’s natural beauty, ruined a great drainage and filtering system and forever altered the area’s rainmaking machine.
In 2017, residents successfully got Broward’s statue removed from a hallway of the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale. They complained Broward was a segregationist. But he presided over a Deep South state that would go another half-century before it acknowledged civil rights, and then only grudgingly. When Broward ran Florida, segregation was the law and the majority of white Floridians were segregationists. Not just Gov. Broward.
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Eliot Kleinberg has been a staff writer for the past three decades at The Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, and is the author of 10 books about Florida (www.ekfla.com). Florida Time is a product of GateHouse Media and publishes online in their 22 Florida markets including Jacksonville, Fort Walton Beach, Daytona Beach, Lakeland, Sarasota and West Palm Beach. Submit your questions, comments or memories to FloridaTime@Gatehousemedia.com. Include your full name and hometown. Sorry; no personal replies.