The Gulf; The Making of An American Sea by Jack Davis. Liveright, 2017.
Professor Jack Davis covers a relatively short period in the history of the Gulf of Mexico – from the Pleistocene, two million years ago, to the Twenty-First Century AD. The Gulf is an enormous body of water that drains a vast land area, the basins of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and the rivers that deliver freshwater to the Gulf from Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas. His study of the Gulf is modeled after Alexander Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II.
Davis keeps his sense of humor despite the bad news that flows from his word processor. The subject of his history, he laments, has been “a sandbox for the earth-sculpturing [by the] US Army Corps of Engineers.” Their dike building along the Mississippi River is only a small part of the trouble, however. The Gulf has also become a dump for the numerous industries that have clustered around its waterways.
Add to that the more recent discovery of off-shore petroleum deposits and their exploitation. In April 2010 Deepwater Horizon, one of those off-shore oil rigs, blew spewing two hundred million gallons of oil into the Gulf. But that is less, Davis reminds us, than the annual dose of poisons that comes down the Mississippi River from our Midwestern agricultural heartland. Nor was this the first time that the Gulf has been contaminated by discharge from an off-shore oil rig.
Those ‘tarred and feathered” birds that attracted so much attention during the press coverage of the Deepwater Horizon spill should remind us that the Gulf is a major path for migrating birds. Billions of birds cross the Gulf of Mexico twice a year. It is a six-hundred mile trip for many of them, but shorter - “as the crow flies” – than any passage over land.
Many of the migratory birds are in their breeding plumage. Look back at photographs of fashionable, turn-of-the-last-century females and you will find their hats decorated with plumage, feathers from egrets, herons, spoonbills, and other mostly wading birds. They were harvested by shooting, hence a rapid reduction in numbers. (Fortunately women’s hat fashion changed during WWI).
Their men folk joined clubs and hunting lodges and, for the sport, aimed their guns at those same migrating birds. For the gentlemen, there were shooting excursions by steam boats up the St. Johns River.
Wading birds may have seemed like ‘small potatoes’ to some hunters, but there were alligators fashioned into ‘big game’. They were an impressive prop in a photograph of the dead animal and its sportsman hunter. Or for fishermen; tarpon were popular fish for the sports fisher, their size, according to Davis, would satisfy the national masculinity zeitgeist.
The hoteliers, Henry Plant and Henry Flagler, were happy to supply these gentlemen and ladies with luxury accommodations. Both were railroad men, presiding over a transition in the Florida tourist trade. From vacationers arriving by rail, many were now traveling to Florida in automobiles. And staying in Plant’s Gulf coast hotel in even larger numbers.
The Gulf of Mexico became a second home near the beach. And that in turn led to the rows of high-rise condominiums. With them more roads, more malls, more fast-food restaurants. And up-rooted mangroves.
Meanwhile the Gulf of Mexico was becoming a major docking facility for container ships. The widening of the Panama Canal resulted in a major transformation of shipping in the Gulf. Huge new machinery, lifts, etc. were necessary to handle these containers.
Sand has always been a tricky foundation for a building of any size. And that became a problem as condo’s etc. were allowed closer and closer to the edge of the water. Moreover, existing regulations, if enforced, have not made allowances for sea level rise and more Hurricanes and tropical storms. The slowly-disappearing beach needed to be armored and nourished.
Gambling. It was decided that the best way to add gambling to the Gulf and keep it more-or-less out of sight was to position it off-shore. That particular gamble however, did not pay off. It didn’t count on an uninvited participant – Hurricane Katrina. The casinos, washed out to sea, were rebuilt. They are now back on land, and paying taxes.
Jack Davis ends The Gulf; The Making of an American Sea on a positive note. When the State of Florida banded gill-netting in 1994, Cedar Key fishers began exploiting a new fishery, clam farming. And the town changed from one where those fishers lived to vacation condominiums for the well-off. Most of the employed population live inland. So be it.