One hundred years ago, Miami Beach was au uninhabited peninsula that separated the Atlantic Ocean from Biscayne Bay and the frontier town of Miami.
A fine, white-sand barrier beach stretched along the sea, fringed here and there with coconut palms, the legacy of all abandoned coconut plantation from the 1870s. Caribbean pines grew in the rich soil along a high central ridge in the center of the peninsula, but the rest of the land consisted of hundreds of acres of swamp-thickets of mangroves rising out of oozing black mire, squat cabbage palms, and clumps of a brutal, cactuslike plant called Spanish bayonet.
Like many so-called wastelands, it was rich in annual lite: oysters clung to the roots of the umìangroves: barracuda, mullet, and snapper lived iii a tidal salt creek: heron, ibis, and egrets waded iii the shallows of the bay; ducks fished in the swaulips: and raccoons nibbled sea grapes along the shore.
A visitor to Miami in 1895 wrote of an expedition to this deserted peninsula, landing on the bay side and walking over planks to the beach, then hiking up the sand to find a point where they could penetrate the Jungle.
As they slashed through what they thought was an overgrown Indian trail (infact, relics indicate that native Tequesta Indians passed through around the fifteenth century), the safari party was startled by “a scream as of a woman in agony . .. a big tawny, fierce looking panther leaped from branch to branch a few fret away.”
Pushing on, they reached the Crocodile Hole. “a sinister, rather ghostly looking spot, dark with palms and oak iii a tangle of lianas.” Crocs, with their greenish. narrow snouts, lay about on the banks and in the water, easy marks for the sportsmen who sailed over from Miami’s fancy Royal Palm Hotel to hunt them.
On moonlit evenings, scavengers came to the beach to follow the tracks of huge loggerhead turtles, which crawled onto shore at night and laid nests of up to a hundred round, softshelled eggs.
It was a highly lucrative adventure: turtle steak and turtle eggs vere delicacies of the time.
With few interruptions, that was life on the beach until time 19002.
In 1870, a New Jerseyan named John Lum, while standing on the the deck of a steamer returning from Havana, spied a few palm trees on the future Miami Beach shoreline and envisioned a fantastic coconut plantation there.
He returned with a crew in 1882 to undertake a grand but miserably ill-conceived scheme; three years later, they virtually abandoned the scattering of coconut palms that had managed to take root to hordes of rabbits and the encroaching mangroves. His son Charles and his bride homesteaded on the beach, Crusoe-like, for a few years in the late 1880s, their closest neighbors six miles north in the House of Refuge for wrecked mariners.
Then they packed up and moved to the mainland.
Two men saw a future in this daunting swampland. The first was Johui Collins, a pioneer in the American tradition. Colluins a New Jersey horticulturist, first came to Miami in 1896, determined to find out what had happened to the money he had invested in Lum’s coconut plantation. After surveying the land, he was convinced that despite the coconut failure there was agricultural promise in Miami Beach.
In 1909, at age seventy-one, he acquired 1,675 acres of the peninsula and established a farm on a strip of rich high ground west of Indian Creek. He very shortly demonstrated, to everyone’s surprise, that mangoes, avocados, new Irish potatoes, Cavendish bananas, and other tropical fruits and vegetables could thrive in the middle of this jungle, in the middle of the winter.
Enter Carl Graham Fisher, an Indianapolis automobile baron about to turn real-estate developer. Fisher was a twentieth century pioneer he didn’t settle land, he created it.
By the time Miami Beach was incorporated as a town in 1915, Fisher had accomplished a good deal of the dredging, filling, platting, landscaping, and promoting that would soon turn the swampland into a boomtown.
Unlike communities that have been settled as refuges fom religious persecution, as wilderness trading posts, or as experiments in utopian living, Carl Fisher’s Miami Beach was basically a lark, a moneymaking lark.
Yet creating the resort was nonetheless an extraordinary achievement, a fact that may be most acutely appreciated in Miami Beach, a place renowned in later year for fly-by-night schemes and scam artists.
Carl Fisher was an American original. He forged highways mud built cities, driven by a sense of unlimited personal boundaries”. He was also a product of his era, growing up on the can-do philosophies of writers like Robert Ingersoll and Horatio Alger during a time when the country was dominated by men like J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Fisher’s own story is as fraught with obstacles as any Horatio Alger tale.
He was born in 1874 and raised in a fatherless home in Indianapolis, supporting his mother and two brothers by the time he was a teenager. Despite having only 50 percent vision, a condition that went undiagnosed and uncorrected until he was thirty-one, Fisher painstakingly trained himself in athletics, he even learned to run backward and walk tightropes, and he raced high-wheeler bicycles before the craze turned to cars.
But while Alger’s virtuous boy heroes ultimately achieved success through a timely stroke of luck, Fisher seized opportunities.
It was his good fortune to possess a love of speed and a talent for mechanics when an age of wheels was Just beginning.
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