January 19, 2018

Water in Paradise: California, Florida, and Environmental Rivalry in the Gilded Age

KnightLozanoFIG3-550by Henry Knight Lozano

Focusing on the writings of state and local promoters, this article traces how water-based characteristics formed a fundamental differential in the rivalry between California and Florida for settlers and tourists in the Gilded Age. In crude terms California and Florida presented as environmental opposites: while the Pacific state—its southern part, especially—was associated with a scarcity of water, Florida, with its many rivers, lakes, springs, and swamps, appeared to host a troubling abundance of the stuff. An important element of truth underpinned these conceptions. But in their competition to sell their states as “paradises” for Americans, land and tourism boosters accentuated this environmental


dichotomy and its potential developmental consequences. “Dry” California was set against “watery” Florida as promoters repeatedly attacked the other’s supposed environmental deficiencies. Ultimately, while both states succeeded in becoming leading tourist destinations, Southern California’s proponents seemed to hold the upper hand over their Florida counterparts in selling an American homeland. Their championing of irrigation as a “civilizing” process that converted desert into prosperous garden soothed widespread anxieties over living in such an arid land and contrasted with the persistent struggles of Florida’s advocates to convince Americans to relocate permanently to the supposedly water-logged peninsula.

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