Miami Beach, One hundred years ago

The National, Royal Palm, New Yorker and Shorecrest hotels in the art deco district of Miami Beach
The National, Royal Palm, hotels in Miami Beach. (1950) ©getty

A century back, Miami Beach was a wild slice of land, a peninsula sitting between the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay, far from the bustling town of Miami.

Stretching along the sea was a pristine white-sand beach, dotted with coconut palms—remnants of long-abandoned plantations from the 1870s. In the heart of the peninsula, Caribbean pines towered over a central ridge of fertile soil. But beyond this oasis, the land was a tangled mix of swamp and thicket: mangroves rising from dark, oozing mire, rugged cabbage palms, and clusters of a fierce cactus-like plant known as Spanish bayonet.

Despite its untamed appearance, this ‘wasteland’ teemed with life: oysters clung to mangrove roots, fish thrived in tidal creeks, and birds—herons, ibises, and egrets—waded through the shallows. Ducks paddled in the swamps, while raccoons feasted on sea grapes by the shore.

Imagine visiting Miami in 1895—an expedition to this deserted paradise. Landing on the bay side, trekking over planks to the beach, then venturing into the jungle. The explorers cut through what they thought was an overgrown Indian trail (traces of the Tequesta Indians’ path from centuries past). Suddenly, a blood-curdling scream—a fierce panther leaping nearby!

Sunshine, salty air, and a rainbow of colors - beach perfection in miami beach
Sunshine, salty air, and a rainbow of colors – beach perfection!

Undeterred, they pressed on to the Crocodile Hole—a dark, ghostly spot veiled in palms and oaks entwined with vines. Crocodiles lurked on banks and in the water, tempting hunters from the nearby Royal Palm Hotel, now The National. On moonlit nights, scavengers roamed the beach, tracking giant loggerhead turtles that laid eggs in the sand—culinary treasures back in those days.

Life was raw and untouched until the early 1900s.In 1870, John Lum, a New Jerseyan, dreamt of a coconut plantation on these shores. His failed attempt left behind scattered palms, devoured by rabbits and mangroves. His son, Charles, and wife briefly homesteaded here in the late 1880s, miles from any neighbors. Enter John Collinsa visionary from New Jersey, a man of action. In 1896, he arrived in Miami, seeking answers about Lum’s failed venture. Surveying the land, he saw promise beyond coconuts—agricultural potential.

In 1909, at seventy-one, Collins secured 1,675 acres, proving that mangoes, avocados, and bananas thrived here even in winter.

Silhouettes of the Art Deco District of Miami Beach
Silhouettes of the Art Deco District of Miami Beach. © R Fairs

Then came Carl Graham Fisher—an auto tycoon turned real estate pioneer. By 1915, Miami Beach was a town, thanks to Fisher’s dredging, filling, and promotion. Fisher wasn’t settling; he was creating a playground, a money-making adventure. Miami Beach birthed from Fisher’s audacity, thrived—despite later challenges with schemes and scammers.

Fisher was a quintessential American original—a highway builder, a city maker, defined by limitless vision. Raised on can-do philosophies, he overcame obstacles with sheer grit and seized every opportunity.

0 replies on “Miami Beach, One hundred years ago”