The discovery of phosphate
Following the Seminole Wars, the Peace River Valley remained a sparsely settled wilderness, dotted with small farms, citrus groves and cattle ranches. These farms relied on bone meal as the main source of fertilizer. With the discovery of phosphorus’ role in promoting plant growth, agriculture was forever changed.
Phosphorus, a nonrenewable resource, is mined as phosphate minerals, which were formed millions of years ago when Florida was underwater. It is believed that phosphate formed when skeletal remains of animals, organic matter and dissolved phosphorus in seawater solidified and settled at the ocean’s bottom, ultimately becoming sedimentary layers of rock.
Through a series of discoveries by amateur geologists and mining engineers, the Florida “phosphate boom” of the late nineteenth century was sparked. In 1881, Captain J. Francis LeBaron of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers discovered phosphate while surveying the Peace River south of Fort Meade. Additional deposits were discovered in 1886 by John C. Jones and Captain W.R. McKee, who quickly formed a company and commenced mining operations. In 1888, Captain T.S. Moorehead created the Arcadia Phosphate Co., purchasing the rights to mine sections of the riverbed. Within a decade, over 200 companies were mining phosphate in central Florida, and the price of an acre of Peace River land had soared from $1.25 to $300. Initially, phosphate was mined with picks and shovels. Later, as new and deeper reserves were identified, the mining companies began strip-mining huge tracts with steam shovels. By then, the region had a new nickname — “Bone Valley” — because of the numerous fossils discovered in the deposits.
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