Hamilton Disston

Hamilton Disston

Hamilton Disston (August 23, 1844April 30, 1896) was a real-estate developer who purchased four million acres (16,000 km²) of Florida land in 1881. The amount of land transacted, larger than the state of Connecticut, was reported as the most land ever purchased by a single person in world history. The purchase and his efforts to drain the Everglades from central and southern Florida triggered the state's first land boom with numerous towns and cities established through the area.

Disston was the son of industrialist Henry Disston who formed Disston & Sons Saw Works, which Hamilton later ran and which was one of the largest saw manufacturing companies in the world.

Early life

Hamilton Disston was born in Philadelphia.cite news
title=Hamilton Disston Found Dead
publisher=The New York Times
date=May 1 1896
] The Disstons were descended from French nobility and Disston's father, Henry, had emigrated from England.Grunwald, p. 83.] Henry was orphaned just days after arriving in the United States and his first wife died during childbirth but he persevered and began the highly successful Keystone Saw Works when Hamilton was a child.Hartzell, p. 24.] Hamilton left school, opting for an apprenticeship at the saw factory which, by that time, was a $500,000-per-year international venture. His father threatened to fire him for repeatedly leaving the factory to work for a volunteer fire department. Hamilton twice joined the Union Army only to have Henry purchase his release, but Hamilton organized a Company of saw factory employees during the Gettysburg Campaign. Henry finally agreed to financially support the "Disston Volunteers".

After the American Civil War, Hamilton Disston returned to work in his father's saw factory as an executive. He also became heavily involved in Republican politics, as was his father, and served as a ward leader in Philadelphia, associating with eventual President Benjamin Harrison, Congressman William D. Kelley, and political boss Matthew Quay.Grunwald, pp. 83-84.]

In 1877, diplomat Henry Shelton Sanford invited Disston on a black bass fishing trip through Florida.Landry, p. 81.] Grunwald, p. 84.] During the trip, Disston realized the possibility that enormous tracts of land could be reclaimed for agriculture by using canals to drain Florida's Lake Okeechobee. Within a few years, he would put the possibility to the test.

Family business

In 1878, Henry Disston died. His sons, Hamilton, Horace C., William and Jacob C. Disston inherited the saw company which had been renamed to Henry Disston & Sons. Hamilton became the controlling member of the 2,000-employee company and expanded production to 1.4 million hacksaws and three million files per year.Grunwald, p. 84.] Only a month after Henry's death, Hamilton gave President Rutherford B. Hayes a tour of the factory where an unshaped piece of steel was manufactured into a convert|26|in|mm|sing=on hand saw in only 42 minutes, and was presented to the president at the end of the tour - etched with his name.

While the saw manufacturing business continued growing, Disston branched out, investing in a chemical firm, a Chinese railroad, real estate in Atlantic City, New Jersey and mining in the western United States.

Disston Land Purchase

In the 1840s and 1850s, the state of Florida came to own approximately convert|15000000|acre|km2 of mostly swamp land, placed in a trust called the Internal Improvement Fund of the State of Florida. The trust fund was managed by state officials including the Governor of Florida.Davis, p. 204.] By the time Governor George Franklin Drew took office in 1877, the fund was nearly $1 million in debt. In 1880, an application for foreclosure of the fund and its land was filed in federal court. Negotiations to relieve the debt were held with various potential investors, including Henry Shelton Sanford and Alexander St. Clair-Abrams, but did not come to fruition.Davis, p. 205.] Disston and five associates, meanwhile, entered into a land reclamation contract with the Internal Improvement Fund in January 1881.Davis, pp. 205-206.] Grunwald, p. 85.] The contract stipulated that Disston and associates would be deeded half of whatever land they reclaimed around Lake Okeechobee, the Kissimmee River, the Caloosahatchee River and the Miami River.Davis, p. 206.] Congressman and Disston family friend, William D. "Pig Iron" Kelley, described Disston's first contract:

Dredging took place around Lake Okeechobee during the following winter.Davis, pp. 206-207.] Disston's drainage contract, however, did not affect the massive debt bearing down on the Internal Improvement Fund.Davis, p. 207.] To that end, Governor William D. Bloxham personally visited Disston in Philadelphia.Grunwald, p. 86.] During the visit, Disston tentatively agreed to purchase four million acres (16,000 km²) of Internal Improvement Fund land for 25 cents per acre, an agreement which became a formal contract on June 1, 1881. Disston signed the contract on June 14 and "The New York Times" described the transaction with, "What is claimed to be the largest purchase of land ever made by a single person in the world".Davis, p. 208.] cite news
title=Buying Four Million Acres
publisher=The New York Times
date=June 17 1881
] It made him the largest landowner in the United States. On December 17, 1881, Disston sold two million acres (8,000 km²) of his land to English Member of Parliament, Sir Edward James Reed, for $600,000.Davis, pp. 208-209.] Hartzell, p. 25.]

Purchase effects

While some in Florida disapproved of the sale for giving away the land too cheaply, its positive effects on the state were undeniable.Grunwald, pp. 86-87.] In the four years following Disston's purchase, four times as much rail was added than in the 20 years prior. Land sales were six times more lucrative after the sale and the state's taxable property value doubled. Around 150,000 tourists came to Florida during the winter of 1884 alone.Grunwald, p. 87.]

To further lure people to Florida, Disston opened real estate offices across America as well England, Scotland, Germany, Italy, Sweden and Denmark.Grunwald, p. 89.] Disston drew people to the Orlando area and the major cities of Sarasota and Naples, Florida grew out of land sold by Disston. Fort Myers became the base of his Caloosahatchee River dredging efforts and its population rapidly increased. Disston's headquarters were on the shores of Lake Tohopekaliga and became the city of Kissimmee. In 1883, he arranged for President Chester A. Arthur, a fellow Republican, to take a fishing trip to Kissimmee as part of a large publicity campaign for the city.Grunwald, p. 88.] Disston founded a convert|20000|acre|km2|sing=on sugar plantation, out of which sprang the city of St. Cloud.Hartzell, p. 26.] Refineries for the plantation ran in Kissimmee and Lake Okeechobee.

The key to Disston's Florida plans was a massive dredging effort to drain the Kissimmee valley into Lake Okeechobee and then guide the overflow of Lake Okeechobee through canals into the St. Lucie River and then into the Atlantic Ocean in the east, canals into the Caloosahatchee River and into the Gulf of Mexico in the west, and canals south through the Everglades.Grunwald, p. 90.] Disston was advised to begin with a large canal connecting Lake Okeechobee with the St. Lucie but the costs were too high so he began with smaller dredging operations to straighten the Kissimmee River and to connect Lake Okeechobee with the Caloosahatchee.Grunwald, pp. 90-91.] In June 1883, a report concluded that the Kissimmee valley was indeed drying up as Disston planned, and another report a year later reported further drainage with nearly convert|3000000|acre|km2 of reclaimed land credited to Disston.Grunwald, pp. 92-93.]

Disston City

In addition to dredging, Disston's plans included the creation of a major city in the Tampa Bay area to rival the budding city of Tampa. By 1884, he established Lake Butler Villa Co., one of four land companies he operated. Disston founded the town of Tarpon Springs, much of which was built by Lake Butler Villa Co., including a commercial pier and two hotels, using lumber from his sawmill in Atlantic City, New Jersey. After deciding that Tarpon Springs would not become the metropolis he hoped for, Disston moved south and established a town he called Disston City. He invested heavily in steamboats and built a wharf, a school and the area's first hotel. In 1885, a Maryland doctor declared the area to be the healthiest in the world which drew many investors and developers including F. A. Davis, who partnered with Disston's brother, Jacob, in further developing Pinellas.

In the mid-1880s, Russian developer Peter Demens was building the Orange Belt Railway across central Florida with a planned western terminus in the Tampa Bay area. On December 1, 1886, Disston offered Demens approximately convert|60000|acre|km2 of land to stretch his railroad to Disston City. Demens countered with a demand of an additional convert|50000|acre|km2 but Disston refused, mistakenly believing that Disston City would thrive if the railroad merely came close to the area. Instead Demens terminated his railway at St. Petersburg, which he named after his home city in Russia. While Disston City never met Disston's expectations and became the small city of Gulfport, St. Petersburg reaped the rewards of Demens's railway and became one of the largest cities in Florida.Hartzell, p. 27.]


Disston's success at draining peninsular Florida quickly turned to disappointment. The positive report of his drainage results in 1883 was followed by a dreadful report in 1887.Grunwald, p. 94.] While it still credited Disston with draining parts of the upper Kissimmee valley, it credited a "drought" with drying the area north of Lake Okeechobee. Meanwhile, Lake Okeechobee flooded worse than it had, and the only canal out of the lake that Disston actually completed resulted in the Caloosahatchee River flooding the surrounding area.Grunwald, p. 94-95.] The planned canals to the east and south out of Lake Okeechobee had not materialized.Grunwald, p. 95.]

The 1887 commission concluded that Disston had received convert|1200000|acre|km2 which he had not earned. Disston, however, reached a compromise whereby he would keep land that he had been given in return for spending $200,000 to improve drainage including improving the flow of the canals he had already dug. In total, he dug over convert|80|mi|km of canals and received convert|1600000|acre|km2 of land under the terms of his first drainage contract of January 1881. However, he never finished his canal plans for Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades were never drained, although he was formally credited with reclaiming large portions of land and generally improving the drainage of peninsular Florida.Grunwald, p. 96.]

Disston himself continued living in Disston City until more bad fortune prompted his return to Philadelphia.Hartzell, p. 27.] The financial Panic of 1893, the Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act of 1894 and two devastating freezes caused financial difficulties and he mortgaged his Florida assets for $2 million.

On April 30, 1896, Disston had dinner with the mayor of Philadelphia and attended a theatre production with his wife in Philadelphia. The following morning, he was found dead at age 51. Although some claim that Disston committed suicide in his bathtub with a self-inflicted gunshot to the head, almost every obituary, as well as the official coroner's report, stated that he died of heart disease in bed.Hartzell, p. 28.] "The New York Times" further reported that, several months before his death, Disston suffered from a bout of typhoid pneumonia.

At the time of his death, Disston's estate was valued at $100,000 but he also carried a $1 million life insurance policy, the second largest policy in the United States. His family had no interest in Florida and creditors foreclosed on his Florida mortgage four years after his death.


Hamilton Disston was married with a son and two daughters, all of whom survived him. He was a Presbyterian and a Mason. He was described as a fun-loving socialite as evidenced by a yacht he owned named "Mischief". But he was also known as a hard-working executive whose gentle facial features were balanced with intense eyes described by one reporter as: "like that of the great eagle in the cage at the Tampa Bay Hotel, that can look straight at the sun without a tear, or even a blink."

Places named after Disston

Several places have been named after Hamilton Disston in Pennsylvania and Florida such as:
*Hamilton Disston School in Philadelphia. [http://www.phila.k12.pa.us/schools/disston/DisstonWebPage/aboutus.html Our History] from Hamilton Disston School, Philadelphia.]
*Hamilton Disston School in Gulfport, Florida. [http://www.hamilton.pinellas.k12.fl.us/ Hamilton Disston School] from Pinellas County Schools, Florida.]
*Lake Disston in Flagler County, Florida at coord|29|17|N|81|23|W|type:waterbody.
*Lake Disston in St. Petersburg, Florida at coord|27|46|30|N|82|43|4|W|scale:5000.
*Disston Avenue in Tarpon Springs, Florida at coord|28|8|8|N|82|44|54|W|type:landmark.
*Disston Avenue in Clermont, Florida at coord|28|34|28|N|81|45|0|W|type:landmark.
*Disston Avenue in Tavares, Florida at coord|28|48|27|N|81|43|29|W|type:landmark.



*Cite book
first=Scott Taylor
title=Remembering St. Petersburg, Florida: Sunshine City Stories
publisher=The History Press
chapter=Hamilton Disston: In Search of a Metropolis
pages=pp. 24-28

*Cite journal
first=T. Frederick
title=The Disston Land Purchase
journal=The Florida Historical Quarterly
publisher=Florida Historical Society (electronically: Florida Center for Library Automation)
location=Gainesville, Florida
pages=pp. 201–211

*Cite book
title=The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise
publisher=Simon & Schuster

*Cite book
first=Clay J.
title=Government vs. Environment
editor=Donald Leal and Roger E. Meiners
publisher=Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
chapter=Unplugging the Everglades
pages=pp. 81-82

*Cite book
first=William D.
authorlink=William D. Kelley
title=The Old South and the New: A Series of Letters
publisher=G. P. Putnam's Sons
chapter=Letter I
pages=pp. 23-26

External links

* [http://www.sptimes.com/News/070101/Beaches/Three_names_shape_one.shtml Gulfport, Florida history]
* [http://www.visitfloridaonline.com/article_gulfport.htm Another article on Gulfport, Florida history]

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