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Okaloacoochee Slough - History

birds in flight

Some of the first visitors to the Okaloacoochee Slough area were probably the Calusa Indians, skilled hunters and fishermen who traveled up the Caloosahatchee River in dugout canoes to reach interior wetlands associated with Lake Okeechobee and the Kissimmee River. The Caloosahatchee, (“River of the Calusa") is north of Okaloacoochee Slough WMA, close to the Hendry/Glades County border. Later visitors included soldiers of the Seminole Wars, cattlemen, hunters, trappers and traders. By the 1880s, settlements such as LaBelle sprang up where forts had been built.

historic train in swamp
Photo Credit: Florida Photographic Collection, Florida Archives

The area was heavily timbered in the 1900s. Sears Road is all that remains of an early small sawmill town, named after John Sears, of Sears and Roebuck. He logged pine for railroad ties during the 1920s, but by the 1930s most of the marketable timber was removed and the town declined. Twin Mills Grade is named for the Twin Mills, two portable sawmills used in logging operations. Later, most of the uplands were ditched and cultivated in tomatoes, watermelons and cucumbers, or became pasture grasses for cattle production.  Agriculture and cattle ranching operations continue to flourish in the area, with sugar cane, citrus and tomato farming among the most important commodities.

Before the WMA came into public ownership in 1998, it was owned by the Atlantic Land Improvement Corporation, which purchased the property from the Atlantic Coastline Railroad. Over the years, the Caloosahatchee River, Lake Okeechobee and other regional wetlands and waterways were altered by canals and dikes designed to provide flood control, navigable waterways and usable agricultural land. Today, despite these alterations, Okaloacoochee Slough serves as an important connection between the Caloosahatchee River, Fakahatchee Strand and Big Cypress National Preserve. These lands, the adjacent Spirit of the Wild WMA and Dinner Island Ranch WMA, are extremely important to the survival of several declining wildlife species, especially the Florida panther, wood stork, Audubon’s crested caracara, snail kite, American swallow-tailed kite and sandhill crane.