Biography by Mary Ellen Wilson and is located in the American National Biography, published by Oxford University Press, 1999. Photo from Ken Milano's archives.
Hamilton Disston (23 Aug. 1844-30 Apr. 1896), land developer, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Henry Disston, an industrialist, and Mary Steelman. At the age of fifteen Disston started as an apprentice in one of the divisions of his father's factory, Keystone Saw, Tool, Steel and File Works, setting a precedent for other family members. The firm, later renamed Henry Disston and Sons, eventually became the world's largest saw manufacturing company. A few years later, much to the dismay of his father, Hamilton and other young men from the Disston factory volunteered for Union army service during the U.S. Civil War. Returning to the firm at the end of the war in 1865, Hamilton continued an active role in the company, becoming its president in 1878 upon the death of his father.
The year before Disston assumed the reins of Henry Disston and Sons, he traveled to Florida for a fishing excursion with a friend, Henry S. Sanford. Sanford, who had pursued a U.S. diplomatic career, was a scion of a wealthy Connecticut family and had real estate investments along Florida's St. Johns River. It is very possible that Disston's interest in a Florida land project began at this time. Whatever the turn of events, Disston eventually met with Florida governor William D. Bloxham and signed a land deal considered by many historians as essential to the future development of the state.
Back in 1850 the federal government had transferred ownership of several million acres of federal lands in Florida to the state. Within five years the Florida legislature had established a board of internal improvements to administer the disposition of these lands for railroad, canal, and other construction projects. By the 1870s the Internal Improvement Fund was mired in debt from the default of antebellum railroad companies, and land sales could not even meet interest obligations. A bondholder of the fund sued in federal court to stop the board from selling additional tracts. The court responded in 1877 by placing the Internal Improvement Fund in receivership, thus making it very likely that the state would lose title to the properties. Then in 1881 Disston and his associates signed a drainage contract with the trustees of the Internal Improvement Fund "to drain and reclaim by draining all overflowed lands in the State of Florida practicable and lying south of Township 23 and east of Peace Creek." This included a large portion of south and central Florida below present-day Orlando. Disston and his associates were to receive one-half of the lands recovered. Because legal proceedings had state lands tied up in receivership, tracts reclaimed by Disston could not be transferred to him. This legal obstacle led to another agreement between Disston and Governor Bloxham, which is known as the Disston land purchase. Under this deal, which was quite controversial within the state, Disston purchased 4 million acres of land for $1 million. This discharged the debt incurred by the Internal Improvement Fund and cleared the way for land transfers.
The first drainage project joined the Caloosahatchee River to Lake Okeechobee, thus permitting Florida's largest lake to drain into the Gulf of Mexico. The second project connected by canal a series of lakes around the upper Kissimmee valley. As the development of the upper Kissimmee River proceeded, several thousand acres of the drained lands were converted to agricultural production. Around 1887 at St. Cloud, Disston was cultivating sugar and rice. Later in 1891 he persuaded the federal government to establish an agricultural experiment station near St. Cloud. Not only did the station conduct research with sugar cane varieties but also with many types of fruits and vegetables.
Eventually Disston was deeded 1,652,711 additional acres of land by the state of Florida for his drainage efforts. Canal construction and river improvements made water transportation possible from Kissimmee through Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River to the Gulf of Mexico. Although his drainage projects were probably too ambitious for private capital and did not accomplish all that was planned, central and south Florida were opened to development and settlement years earlier than would have been the case without Disston's activities. Several scholars of the Disston land deal maintain that had the Board of Internal Improvements been forced to sell all lands in 1881, the consequences would have been disastrous. For example, the state would not have kept ownership of any of the lands as it had under the Disston contract and it could not have offered lands as an incentive to railroad, canal, and other development companies. Thus developers such as Henry B. Plant and Henry M. Flagler--who played a key role in the development of the state--might never have invested in the state or might have waited until a later period.
Unfortunately, Hamilton Disston's reinvestment of profits in additional projects coupled with the economic depression of 1893 produced a financial strain on his personal finances. Furthermore, Florida railroad expansion had diminished the profitability of his steamboat companies. Apparently believing he had brought financial ruin to the family business, Henry Disston and Sons, Disston committed suicide at his Philadelphia residence as creditors were preparing to foreclose on a $1 million loan. As others in his family had little or no interest in the Florida properties, and funds were required to secure the firm's indebtedness, the land was sold for a fraction of its value.
Business records of Disston and Sons are at the factory site in Tacony, Pa. An excellent study of Hamilton Disston's Florida land development projects is an unpublished undergraduate paper written at the University of North Florida by Jack W. McClellan, "Hamilton Disston in Florida" (1987). Two other helpful articles, which appear in the Florida Historical Quarterly are J. E. Dovell, "The Railroads and the Public Lands of Florida, 1879-1905," 34 (1955): 236-58, and T. Frederick Davis, "The Disston Land Purchase," 17 (1939): 200-210. See also R. E. Rose, The Swamp and Overflow Lands of Florida (1916), and Charlton W. Tebeau, A History of Florida (1971). A well-written general account of the Disston family business is Harry C. Silcox, A Place to Live and Work: The Henry Disston Saw Works and the Tacony Community of Philadelphia (1994). An obituary is in the Philadelphia Record, 1 May 1896.