Boondoggle Florida canal destroyed African-American Community

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About six miles south of Ocala, in a wide jungle of a median of the divided U.S. 441, you will find symbols of Florida’s greed and racism hidden in the trees: Four bridge stanchions built in 1935 for the never-completed boondoggle known as the Cross Florida Barge Canal.

I discovered the place recently when I visited a little-seen side trail on the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway while on a camping trip.

The canal was a long-dreamed idea to build a shipping channel across Florida to more efficiently move goods between the East Coast and the Gulf without having to ship around the Florida Keys. The project never really got going until the Great Depression when people were desperate for jobs. Work began in 1935 but federal appropriations weren’t steady and it was halted in 1936. Over many decades, through fits and starts, parts of the canal were dug and built, though less than 30 percent of it was ever completed. But that didn’t stop the federal and state governments from destroying the small African-American community of Santos, whose residents lacked political power and influence. Eminent domain was declared to make way for the canal right through the town and four bridge stanchions were built to carry vehicular traffic over the canal to be dug below. Historians say the black residents were forced to sell their property at fire sale prices and disperse for who knows where.

Today, just one of Santos’ buildings remains, the Pentecostal Temple of God. I’d guess it’s about a quarter mile from the bridge supports. Near the church is the old Santos baseball field, where black ball players took on rival baseball teams back in the day when every town worth its salt had a team.

The remnants of Santos and the bridge stanchions are scarcely noticed, if at all, by folks who visit the state’s Santos Campground, across 441 from “Port Santos.” The park is a trailhead for a portion of the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, a protected greenbelt named for the environmentalist who in the 1960s and 1970s fought against the canal and advocated creating a nature corridor on the route carved out by the state for the shipping channel. The Santos Trails have become a recreation magnet, known for having some of the best equestrian, mountain biking and hiking in the state.

But few folks knew what I was talking about when I asked how to find the bridge stanchions. Two women on horseback never heard of them. A surveyor along the highway didn’t know what I was talking about. Dano, the owner of Greenway Bikes, offered some directions but a third of a mile up the road I still couldn’t find them. A gray-bearded man, passing in a car, noticing me, carrying a backpack and looking over a map, pulled over and gave me directions to the bridge structures, which were fully hidden by tall trees, down a trail behind a Marion County Sheriff Office’s substation.

For more, see this 11-page 2011 report by a University of Florida scholar, Structural Racism and the Destruction of Santos, Florida.

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This artist’s rendering of the never-built bridge was posted on a bulletin board on a trail. The bridge was to span the Cross Florida Barge/Ship Canal, also never built. 

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