Lake Okeechobee dominates South Florida‘s landscape, a massive liquid patch along a narrow peninsula, as if some giant creature found the lower portion of the state a convenient coaster for the world’s largest mug. It is the second largest freshwater lake contained wholly within the United States, behind only one of the Great Lakes — Lake Michigan. It covers a whopping 730 square miles but averages a measly 9 feet deep. It’s really just an opening within the surrounding Everglades, a clearing in a much larger body of water camouflaged by swamp and sawgrass. This would generally be interesting enough to warrant coverage on this website but there is an even more unusual feature that has nothing to do with nature, and everything to do with the unique way mankind carves out its little territories.
Looking at Lake Okeechobee on this Microsoft Encarta map clearly shows a point where five different Florida counties come together at a single point: Glades; Hendry; Palm Beach, Martin and Okeechobee. There is no other spot in the United States where this occurs. It’s fairly common to find a boundary where four political units come together since this happens logically anytime two lines cross. It is much more unusual to find more than four coming together. It often signals that something of importance sits at the common point. In this case it’s the lake itself, or more specifically, the large reservoir of fresh water that is useful both for drinking and for agriculture.
Lake Okeechobee wasn’t always shared so equitably. The Palm Beach County government’s public affairs website explains that the entire lake belonged to Palm Beach County until 1963. This prior ownership arrangement can be seen quite clearly in this detail from a 1921 L.L. Poates map available through the University of South Florida. Notice how the blue county boundary for Palm Beach marked by the red arrows wraps entirely around the lake. As the population of South Florida and demands for fresh water grew, so did the demands of counties bordering on Lake Okeechobee. Eventually the State of Florida stepped in and divided ownership among the five. That is how the state ended up with five counties coming together at a common point.