The year was 1915 when a small group of determined residents had a vision of connecting many of our lakes by canals. The group organized as the Twenty Lakes Boat Club. At the time, some of the lakes had small "runs" or swampy places that connected them. This club wanted to create canals there.
The fledgeling citrus industry had made a healthy comeback from the freezes of the mid-1890s. Newspaper articles from 1912 cite “opening more land for citrus growing and lake-front homes” as a sound rationale for creating the system.
The month the charter was signed, the club had an engineer plat a proposed course for boats to traverse the south, west and northern perimeters of Winter Haven and beyond, all the way from Lake Winterset to Dundee.
The lakes originally targeted included Winterset, Eloise, Lulu, Shipp, May, Howard, Cannon, Idylewild, Hartridge, Conine, Rochelle, Haines, Smart, Fannie Buckeye and Hamilton. The original corporation had no intention of changing lake levels and instead was anticipating a system of locks. Of the original 20 lakes to be connected, all but one eventually became a part of what today is known as the upper and lower chains comprising a total of 25 lakes. These are separated by U.S. 17 between Hartridge and Conine where a lock now exists.
The original private effort ran out of funds. From 1917 to 1919, no progress was made on the canal system. The Winter Haven Lake Region Boat Course District was established by an act of the Florida Legislature during 1919. Taxing power was granted by local referendum (78 for and 49 against) in a special election on July 7 that same year.
By September 1919, an engineering company was authorized by the "Canal Commission" to dredge and clean canals. At the time there were no seawalls used in the system.
If you count Little Lake Eloise and Little Lake Winterset, there are 16 lakes in the southern or "upper" chain, which is completely navigable based on adequate water levels. Some portions of the lower chain are navigable while others are intended for water control.
Before the canals were constructed, as much as 75 percent more land was covered with water than now. The Dundee Marsh between Winter Haven and Dundee (adjacent to what is now Cypresswood) was strictly marsh and wet 99 percent of the time. A crossing route through the marsh to Waverly was known as Buffalo Ford.
Harry Miller (a charter canal commissioner) noted that when he came here in 1912 (before any canals) he tied his rowboat to an oak tree at the foot of Central Avenue on Lake Howard. To go to Lake Eloise, he could row and push his boat through weeds and grass in the shallows (or runs) between lakes Howard, May, Shipp, Lulu and Eloise.
Based upon watermarks found on Cypress trees, water levels at the turn of the 20th century were 4 to 5 feet higher than we see today.
The basic canal system of today was completed in the early 1920s. The Lake Region Lakes Management District maintains boat ramps, canal walls and other maintenance needs with a budget derived from the taxing district established more than a century ago.
Our system of canal-connected lakes is considered by many to be our most valuable asset.