October 12, 1878
John G. Webb
Transcribed by William LaMartin
Editor, Sunland Tribune:
I was in Fort Myers on Friday, Sept. 20th, the week succeeding the recent cyclone and facts learned there are so remarkable that they deserve a permanent record.
Among the first persons whose acquaintance I formed was a party of three who arrived at the wharf just after I did, having come in a boat from Fort Bassinger, on the Kissimmee river. Now if in high water a boat should pass down the Kissimmee into Lake Okeechobee, and thence into the Caloosahatchee, it would not be an unprecedented performance, for these waters are known to connect frequently, perhaps every summer. But these men did not go down into Okeechobee at all, but came in a straight line 30 miles across the prairie, finding nowhere less than 5 feet of water, where saw palmettos covered the face of the country, and where cattle usually range and feed. They told me they crossed Fish Eating creek and did not know it. That stream was obliterated in the flood. I suggested that many cattle might be drowned. They thought not, as there are little scrubby elevations upon which the cattle had collected, and where they could stand, though in the water. Where they passed the flood had already begun to abate and on these elevations the palmetto leaves to show. The cattle were eating them. But bad as was this condition of affairs, when they arrived at the Caloosahatchee they found matters a great deal worse. There had been quite an immigration within two or three years to the banks of that river and there are now probably twenty houses situated on the immediate bank above Fort Myers. All of these houses except one were, as my informants passed, submerged. That one stands on posts about six feet high, and the water was up to the floor, and a boat was tied to the door ready for the embarkation of the family at a moments notice.
My next acquaintance was a party of refined ladies from Baltimore, who had settled with husbands and brothers some twenty miles above Fort Myers, nearly two years ago. Their home of one story, built of plank, stands on a bluff on the river and six or eight feet above it. The cyclone which at Little Sarasota on the coast, spent its force in wind blowing 60 miles an hour for five consecutive days, not constant indeed--was, in the interior a long continued pouring rain of four days duration. The water rose, the floor was inundated, the men improvised a garret floor and stored their furniture upon it under the roof, the family fled to a neighboring scrub, and at last embarked in their boat and fled to Fort Myers. When they left their home the water was up to the plates, the roof only visible. The people who did not fly were camped in various oak scrub. The weather was and has been constantly fine since the storm, and they were making the best of their misfortune, having plenty to eat; but where their fuel came from I could not learn. Most of the houses are lower than the one I have described, and when the Fort Bassinger men came along ten days after the cyclone had passed were showing only the roof or only the peak of the roof. They were not made of logs of course or they would have floated away, but of palmetto leaves, or plank.
To give the reader a better idea of the performance of these men I will state that they told me that they buy their supplies at Sand Point on Indian River, about 40 miles east, and I suppose some 30 more from the Atlantic ocean. I asked them if they had no fears of the flood subsiding so as to leave them dry as to navigation. They did not worry on that account, as they were sure the water could not subside before Christmas.
How long it has been since a similar visitation, or how long it will be before another I do not know, but it would seem to little the question as to the possibility of settling up the interior of Southern Florida.
Mr. Hendry, of Ft. Myers, informed me that the cattle range south of that village is not wetter than usual at this season of the year, and that cattle are doing finely. This is an important fact in the conclusion that I am now going to draw with reference to the physical geography of Southern Florida. The facts are these:
1st; Fort Myers stands not on a river, but on a bay. The tide flows up there, and flowed the days I was there, although there is a tremendous channel three miles wide of black fresh water flowing past; we beat up it however without any great difficulty.
2nd; The Caloosahatchee river is a very deep stream one or two hundred yards wide emptying into this bay, some miles above Ft. Myers, and with banks six to eight feet high.
3rd; This flood has filled these bands and the country around them with a flood at least eight feet deep making a perpendicular rise of at least 14 feet, any yet
4th; there is no more water on the prairie South of Fort Myers than common, and no more water in the bay at Fort Myers than common, the tides rise and fall as usual. The wharf maintains its usual height, and so do the banks of the bay for miles above the village.
The conclusion is irresistible, that Okeechobee, and a large basin around is below the sea, and that if the Caloosahatchee bay from Punta Rassa up to Okeechobee could be deepened sufficiently the tide would flow into the lake probably raising the ordinary level of that body of water.
An expedition should be fitted out at Key West to sail up Shark river into the lake. It may be that obstructions are trifling to constant navigation from Key West to Ft. Bassinger. Will the people of that liberal city, both in the interest of science and trade, not organize such an expedition?
John G. Webb