Abstract: Banking on Swampland: The Political Economy of Florida's Early Railroad Regime, 1850-1881

Sean Patrick Adams


Americans often use the term "Florida swampland" as a simile for worthless or fraudulent business deals, but the perceived value of wetlands figured prominently in Florida's nineteenth-century development. When Florida entered the United States in 1845, the federal government awarded it 500,000 acres of public land. Five years later, Congress passed the Swamp and Overflowed Lands Act, which ultimately transferred 22 million acres of wetlands to the state. In 1855, the Florida legislature created the Internal Improvement Fund, which planned to use the proceeds of land sales and state-backed bonds to build a railroad system. Some rail lines in this system were completed by 1861, but the expected revenues from land sales never met expectations. The Internal Improvement Fund plunged into insolvency and angry creditors slapped an injunction on it during the 1870s, which effectively ended the state-sponsored system. In 1881 Hamilton Disston, a wealthy Philadelphia industrialist, saved the Fund with his purchase of 4 million acres for $1 million. Railroad growth occurred after the 1880s, but now involved massive land grants and no coordination from state officials. Florida's government still relied upon cheap or free land for economic development, but abdicated any control over the process.