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.
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.
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
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.
"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"