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From Jacksonville Beach, FL

Friday, February 20, 2015

Silver Springs, FL and the Ocklawaha River: "Sweetest water in the world" to ecological disaster

(All photos except those labeled are from vintage postal cards owned by the author of this blog.)

I grew up in Ocala, FL.  My home was a mere five miles from Silver Springs.  In those pre-Disney days, Silver Springs was the most famous, natural Florida attraction, or so we in Ocala thought.  It was a center of Ocala life.  Admission to the park and parking areas was free, and free picnic tables were scattered throughout.  The landscaping was beautiful with seasonal flowers year round, a true retreat.  



    We thought it was our own.  A city wide  Easter egg hunt was held there every year.  We went there to relax or to see and be seen.  It was our mall. Children played at the water's edge. Couples parked there after dark. The 72 degree year-round water temperature drew us all.  Summer heat can be very oppressive in inland Ocala. "The Springs" as we called it was the very best place to get cool.  The glass-bottomed boats were floating nearby, but we didn't notice.  A real rite of passage was a first swim out to the "float," which was so packed with teens, I don't know how it stayed afloat.

Model Ginger Hallowell shows off the clear, transparent water of Silver Springs.  Ginger was a favorite model of Bruce Mozert, promo photographer of Silver Springs.  The urn in the right of this photo was used in the movie Jupiter's Darling. Its clear water made Silver Springs a frequent underwater locale for many movies:  Creature from the Black
Lagoon, Revenge of the Creature
, many Tarzan films, Underwater, Sea Hunt, a long listAfter the springs were purchased by ABC-Paramount in 1960,  movie production greatly increased
    Many Ocala teens worked at Silver Springs during the summer as models, waiters and waitresses, helpers in the various shows (Ross Allen had a rattlesnake ring where he "milked" venom from snakes), and as clerks in gift shops.

     The Silver Springs of my youth was a glorious place.  The water was so transparent you could see a quarter on the bottom at eighty feet.  Fish were abundant.  The glass bottom boat operators would throw out a ball of bread for, as they called it, "fish football."  The water would become black with huge fish going after the ball.

  Photographer Bruce Mozert often set up vignettes of models and objects.  This is underwater
tug of war.  Note the clean sand and the clarity of the water.

A vintage postal card showing the swimming area.  There's the float packed with swimmers in the right center of the photo.



      A few years ago, I went back to Ocala for a high school reunion.  One activity was a glass-bottom boat ride at Silver Springs.  A boatful of us set out for a trip down memory lane.  To say we were shocked is a huge understatement. The water level was considerably lower. The once white sandy bottom was covered with long green, slimy strands of algae, and the fish were just gone.  An occasional one would swim under our boat, but nothing like the fish schools of our memory.  All that was once free, admission, parking had theme park fees, and swimming in the cooling waters was no longer allowed.  

Development in the area around Silver Springs had allowed nitrates and impurities to seep into the water.  Once there was protective marsh around the springs area, but that had been drained to make way for houses and strip malls. There has been a 90% loss in the number of fish. Then there is the Rodman Dam that  slowed the water flow of the Ocklawaha River fed by Silver Springs and other springs along its 78 mile course.  According to the Florida Defenders of the Environment, the Ocklawaha once made the 60 miles from Moss Bluff to the St. Johns in 3.6 days. This slowed to 23.4 days after the dam was built.  Algae and aquatic weeds could grow unhindered. 

The dam is north of Silver Springs near Palatka.  It was to be part of the Cross Florida Barge Canal whose construction ended in 1968 shortly after the dam was built. Now the Rodman Reservoir is mostly used by fishermen though the number of fish has decreased since the dam was built.  Even though it is called a reservoir, it provides water for no one. It can't be used for swimming because of alligators.  It serves little purpose except to nourish water plant life that chokes the water way.  

  The Ocklawaha River is is an old river with a fascinating history.  It's many crooks and turns have been navigated by Indian canoes, steamships taking tourists from Palatka to Silver Springs and steamships running goods for the Confederacy during the Civil War. 
It's course is mostly in Marion County (Ocala--the county seat).  My dad and I used to take a little motor boat down the river.  Paddling on the river felt like another world.  In those days it was very quiet, dark and lined with palms and exotic plants.  Birds and alligators were abundant.  



                                   
(map from Silver Springs)
This map shows the crooked and winding course of the Ocklawaha.
The Rodman Dam is south of Palatka, somewhat in the region called
Devil's Elbow.

    Currently, there is great controversy among environmentalist, fisherman, and county governments over removal of the dam.  The environmentalist say if the dam is removed the 20 springs flooded when it was built and the Ocklawaha can return to their original natural beauty.  Fish will return to Silver Springs and the water level will rise.
Others argue that the dam provides recreation and commerce especially for Putnam County. When Jeb Bush was governor of Florida, he ordered the dam removed, but it was not done, and Governor Scott turned the order around.  So, the debate goes on.

  Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) (2002a):
"The Rodman Dam acts as a barrier to the dispersal of migratory fish and West Indian manatees that historically used the Ocklawaha River system. Removal of the dam would restore historic connections and restore the fish population of the Silver River."

          The steamboat Hiawatha in the top photo approaches Silver Springs.  The bottom photo shows the Hiawatha steaming down the Ocklawaha.  These postal cards are
dated 1914.  Amazingly the big boats could navigate the narrow water way.  Northern tourists thought they were in an exotic land, calling it "the sweetest water."

(photo purchased on Ebay, no attribution given)
For a while, Silver Springs had a railroad depot.  It was also the steamboat wharf located  about where the glass bottom boats later loaded and unloaded passengers. (about 1914)  


Click on Internet sources to read more about Silver Springs, the Ocklawaha and the Rodman Dam:


There is a series of articles written about the time of the heyday of travel on the Ocklawaha, 1870-1876 in The New Harper's Monthly Magazine.  These are from Cornell University and available online.  They are fun to read and give a true account from the day.  Harper's New Monthly Magazine, "Six Weeks in Florida"




2 comments:

  1. Going to Silver Springs was one of the highlights of a visit to my grandparents in Ocala. I loved the mermaids and the flowers. I also loved the gift shop. One of my favorite smells in the world was -- and still is -- orange blossom. I loved to get a bottle of orange blossom perfume from the gift shop as a souvenir!

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  2. Silver Springs was always a favorite when we visited our grandparents also! I remember swimming at the springs as a young girl, with my sister and my parents. We always swam out to the 'float'! My dad would get a particular white shell from the sandy bottom and use it as a whistle. He taught me how to do it and I have since taught my children! We went to the springs about 10 years ago, with our kids, and it was certainly not the same as I remembered as a child. As a native Floridian and nature-lover, I am appalled at how our state government has allowed the decline of our precious springs and natural habitat. It is what makes Florida so special. One day, I am afraid, our failure to act will be our demise. I pray it isn't already too late.

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