Welcome to Florida Time, a weekly column about Florida history: from the Fountain of Youth and Walt Disney to the Miami Riots, the extent of Jim Crow, the mermaid at Weeki Wachee Springs, the moon landing and more. Today, we hear about “Alligator Alley.”
Readers: Officially, it's just a stretch of Interstate 75, which runs some 1,800 miles from the Miami area to the Canadian border. But don't tell that to the people who have made an idyllic, or adventurous, or unnerving, 80-mile trip across the Everglades on the legendary Alligator Alley.
Motorists can gaze at the Everglades stretching to the horizon on either side, undisturbed by towns, buildings or billboards. They might see thick black clouds of mosquitoes or mating lovebugs, black crows perched atop fences, or white egrets and blue herons soaring lazily over algae-covered pools. Or they might see one of the road's trademark alligators sunning on a bank or submerged in a waterway with only its eyes and nostrils showing.
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Until fencing was finished in the mid-1990s, drivers might’ve had to dodge gators casually waddling over the road or a rare Florida panther dashing across … or the remains of animals that didn't make it across. They might see buzzards swoop for a road kill, pick at it and wait until cars are almost upon them before sharply winging away in a dangerous game of buzzard's "chicken.”
And they might find their way blocked by blinding brush fires so fierce, the pavement crawls with snakes flushed from the bush by the heat and smoke.
But the original two-lane, pitch-black, unlit highway also was a killing ground where a careless or dozing or drunken driver would drift across the thin yellow stripe of paint and slam into a vehicle hurtling the other way. The deep canals on either side, formed by workers gouging out earth to elevate the highway out of the swamp, gave motorists no escape. Hundreds died over the years.
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At first, the idea of carving a highway through the Everglades ran into opposition but not for what you'd think. With environmentalism not yet a force in Florida, it focused mostly on practicality.
Remarkably, a road already had been hacked across the Everglades.
Individual counties had raised money to build a road south to Naples. In 1915, businessmen called on state officials for a road across the peninsula. World War I, financial woe, and deaths of workers from drowning and blasting accidents, stalled it for more than a decade. It was revived in 1923 and opened in April 1928. Its role as an artery between Florida's two largest metropolitan areas led managers to come up with a truncated name: Tamiami. But even now, it's often just a two-lane ribbon through scrub and forest.
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Still, people argued that, with Tamiami Trail, as well as State Road across from West Palm Beach, made no sense and wasn’t worth spending dollars extending State Road 84 across the southern peninsula.
The state first called its new project Everglades Parkway. Detractors snidely suggested Swamp Pike, Alligator Lane and finally, Alligator Alley. That stuck and became the official name during five years of construction. It opened in February 1968.
Even then, planners saw it as part of I-75, which for decades had snaked through the Midwest and South before coming to a dead end in Tampa. In the 1980s, I-75 was extended to Naples and a section in Dade and Broward counties connected to existing expressways. Starting in 1986, the two lanes of the old Alley were made eastbound and two lanes were built to the north, with a grassy median between.
While it cost more than $189 million, in 1980s dollars, just to four-lane the Alley -- 11 times the original $17 million to build it -- $151.2 million of that money came from Washington, D.C.
The original state bond issued was paid off in 1984, years ahead of its planned date of 1991. Tolls were to stay in place for another decade. But they're still in place today.
It cost $1.50 each way in 1969; it's now about $3.
In 1993, the roadway officially lost the "Alligator Alley" name. But not really.
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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.