A Jacksonville acquaintance had learned that a huge federal project was approved to build a barge canal across the peninsula. Did Marjorie Harris Carr know? Carr, taking that 1962 call at her home in Micanopy, admitted that she didn’t, but promised the woman that she would investigate. That call became her calling.
It all began with a telephone call.
A Jacksonville acquaintance had learned that a huge federal project was approved to build a barge canal across the peninsula. It would cut a path from the Gulf of Mexico near Yankeetown to the St. Johns River, which would give access to the Atlantic Ocean. The Florida Federation of Garden Clubs was the sole group concerned about the project.
Did Marjorie Harris Carr know?
Carr, taking that 1962 call at her home in Micanopy, admitted that she didn’t, but promised the woman that she would investigate. In coming weeks, she discovered that the project, dubbed the Cross Florida Barge Canal, and endorsed by federal and state politicians and business leaders blinded by dollar signs, would destroy much of her beloved Ocklawaha River—a magical serpentine waterway that had inspired poets, writers, and tourism for the past century.
That call became her calling.
For the ensuing three decades of her life, Carr joined efforts with activists across the state to, first, try to change the route of the canal and, later, to stop it altogether. It was the first statewide grassroots environmental conflict in Florida and its enormity spilled into the national consciousness, ultimately resulting in a 1971 presidential edict to halt the canal. Afterwards, Carr worked tirelessly to repair its damage—a wish that remains unfulfilled.
No one thought it could be stopped and as the activists pushed uphill against a bureaucracy and political system that favored massive public works projects, Carr kept urging them on, reminding them “‘Well, we’re right. We’re right,’” remembered David Anthony, adding that she gave them “backbone.”
Anthony, a University of Florida biochemist, was co-chair for programming with Carr at the Alachua Audubon Society. They put the canal project on the organization’s November 1962 agenda, headlined “The Environmental Impact of the Cross Florida Barge Canal.” It quickly became apparent that the project would take a devastating toll and the group organized opposition to it, gathering information, garnering expert support, and operating a steady publicity machine to alert residents across the state.
Nevertheless, the canal’s construction began in 1964 to the delight of state officials, but Carr, Anthony, and Alachua Audubon were not daunted; a year later they had gathered support from conservation groups, women’s clubs, garden clubs, sporting groups, and Audubon societies from across the state. And the news media, which initially cheered on the canal, eventually changed its tone as the group, later called the Florida Defenders of the Environment (FDE), dug up facts showing that claims about the canal’s economics were unrealistic, and that the real cost was the loss of a riverine system of immeasurable value.
The story of the demise of the Cross Florida Barge Canal is the subject of numerous articles and books, but it also has been central to my life since I first met Carr in 1990. I was working on a master’s thesis, focusing a chapter on the barge canal. Carr met me at her office and fed me lunch at her home, regaling me with her recollections. She described her childhood in southwest Florida, a place that was paradisiacal, its beauty inspiring her life.
“I can remember when we’d go down on the beach to go swimming in the moonlight,” she said. “‘Nobody there, just our family or friends. And that gorgeous lovely sand. And we knew it. We said, ‘This is heaven. This is heaven.’”
She was so funny, with her raspy voice and laugh, and so very, very smart. And determined. I admired her immediately and was eager to hear her story. As with many activists, Carr hadn’t taken any time to write about herself—she was too busy fighting the good fight.
She instantly became my “shero”—an exemplar of female activism. I have spent years uncovering the stories of other Florida women who, before they could vote, helped save the state’s birds, forests, and natural places. They had an affinity for the state’s beauty and fought threats posed by development and growth, their battles often becoming personal crusades like Carr’s.
Like many others, Carr didn’t work alone—she was part of a network across the state of outraged citizens demanding an end to the canal. But she became its figurehead, speaking before groups and gaining widespread attention. While the media loved to portray her as a simple Micanopy housewife fighting the Goliath of a project, in reality she was a trained scientist who held a master’s degree in zoology, had a strong understanding of ecology (a relatively new term to public thinking) and had collaborated with her husband, Archie Carr, a renowned sea turtle researcher. She had participated in many local environmental skirmishes such as saving trees in downtown Micanopy and preventing a major road from crossing the University of Florida campus. These were preludes to the canal battle, but certainly not of similar scale. No one could or would have predicted that Carr and FDE would prevail.
Except Carr, the optimist.
When President Richard Nixon stopped the canal, almost a decade after Carr answered that telephone call, it created national headlines and accompanied a wave of public opinion that the environment did matter and that consequences to its health should be considered in any federal works project. It was a major victory, but Carr was not finished. Until her death in October 1997 at age 82, she appeared before groups and called on politicians to demand restoration of 16 miles of the Ocklawaha River, which were damaged by a manmade dam and reservoir that has smothered 20 springs, inundated thousands of acres of forests, and prevented movement of endangered fish and manatees.
In early 1997, a friend alerted me that Carr’s health was worsening from emphysema, but I didn’t realize the extent until I visited her home. She was using oxygen to breathe and there was a “Do Not Resuscitate” order above her bed. I was completely startled, but Carr wasn’t interested in sympathy. She wanted to get things done. She railed about the dam, talked about her latest scheme to get it removed, and then gave me a precious gift—an anthology of essays by Archie that she had edited. She inscribed it to me as someone “who cares for Eden and helps save it.” Those words, and her warm encouragement, meant the world to me.
It has been 25 years since Carr died and, unfortunately, the “damn dam” still exists, defying all common sense. But there is hope on the horizon that the deteriorating structure might be removed so the river can flow unencumbered, thanks in part to FDE’s continuing pressure on government officials to dismantle it—after all, dams are being removed across the United States in recognition of their environmental toll. And a new person has taken on Marjorie’s mantle—Jenny Carr, her granddaughter. A working scientist, she is the past president of FDE and is advocating to “Free the Ocklawaha,” a living legacy of Carr’s work. She equals Marjorie in tenacity and optimism.
“For me, the Ocklawaha’s story is personal. The river has played an important role in my family’s life for decades,” Jenny Carr wrote for The Marjorie in 2021. “After all these decades, it feels hopeless sometimes. You hear people say that the river will not be restored in their lifetimes. I look at my daughter Carmen and say, well, in her lifetime it will.”
Another Carr woman has found a calling.
Leslie Kemp Poole, PhD, is assistant professor of environmental studies at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. She is author of “Saving Florida: Women’s Fight for the Environment in the Twentieth Century” and former executive director of the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Society. Poole is an editor of the recently released book “The Wilder Heart of Florida: More Writers Inspired by Florida Nature.”
Cover photo: Ocklawaha River at the Starkes Crossing looking north. Wikimedia Commons photo by Eyabe