A Special Moment In Time 1896: Miami’s Most Crucial Year
By Seth H. Bramson
There are certain years in certain cities that can be defined as “crucible” years, meaning that those years were either the single most important in and to the history of that particular town or city or one of several that fit that definition. Chicago, for example, will always be defined by the horrific fire of 1871 and the great world’s fairs of 1893 and 1933-34 as well as the years of the Chicago Railroad Fair of 1948-49. For New York it would be the great blizzard year of 1888, the world’s fairs of 1939-40 and 1964-65 and, of course 2001. For San Francisco the 1906 earthquake would put that year into the noted category. Miami is another city that has had several crucible years including 1896, 1912, 1926, 1941 and 1960, but, unquestionably, the single most important year for what would become one of the world’s greatest cities was 1896.
What happened in 1896 leads us to ask why that year should be considered the single most important year in the city’s history and the answer is simple: because in that year five defining events would prove to be the most important in the formation and shaping of what would, just a few years after its founding, be called “The Magic City.”
The railroad construction crews of Henry Flagler’s renamed in September of 1895 Florida East Coast Railway were pushing steadily toward Biscayne Bay as ’95 came to an end, the result of the agreement reached by Mr. Flagler, Julia Tuttle and Mary and William Brickell whereby Tuttle and Brickell would donate half of their holdings (the former’s north of the river, the latter’s to the south, plus fifty acres given by Mrs. Tuttle for the railroad’s shops and yards) to Flagler in exchange for his extending the railroad to the north bank of the Miami River and building one of his great hotels upon said bank, with the hotel’s construction also underway in late ’95.
There is, however, an addendum to the story which, sadly and unhappily too many faux-historians, led by the late queen bee and Miami’s walking fountain of MISinformation, have conveniently ignored because and apparently in their minds, “why ruin a good story with truth and facts?”
As some of our readers may be aware, Julia Tuttle has been called, for more than a century, “the mother of Miami,” and that story is patently nonsense, because besides “the orange blossom story” in which it is related that she supposedly sent Mr. Flagler some orange blossoms after the great freezes of December, 1894 and January and February, 1895 in order to convince him to extend the railroad to Biscayne Bay, a story which is totally without basis in truth or fact and while sounding very romantic, is a complete bubbemisseh (correct, dear readers, no such thing happened and the story was debunked as early as 1913 in a beautiful descriptive booklet issued by the then-separately incorporated Village of Coconut Grove, wherein it is stated that “while the story that a woman sent Mr. Flagler some orange blossoms to entice him to extend the railroad to the shores of Biscayne Bay is very romantic, it is completely untrue”) and it is long past high time that the nonsensical prattle that there was one “Mother of Miami” be thrown out and replaced with the truth, because—seriously—there were at least four mothers of Miami, one of whom was Jewish.
Therefore, and before we begin the story of the five crucial events of 1896 we must needs look at and examine who the four mothers of Miami were, and while, yes, Mrs. Tuttle was one of the four, why have the other three, beginning with Mary Brickell, been ignored for so long? After all, she and husband William arrived on the south bank of the Miami River at least twelve years (and possibly longer) before Julia arrived on the north side, she coming in 1888, hence and unquestionably, Mary Brickell is the second—if not the first–of the “mothers of Miami.” The third then is Mrs. Sewell, and “who?” you ask, “is Mrs. Sewell,” and, simply put, I’m glad you did.
J. N. and J. E. Sewell were and are mightily important in and to Miami early history, J. N. becoming the first mayor of Miami Beach while J. E. was the third may or Miami. In addition, for quite a few years they advertised that their dry goods emporium was “Miami’s first store,” but, and as you will see below, that might not be quite correct. But which Mrs. Sewell are we herein referring to, and that would be Mrs. J. E. Sewell, because she spent a great deal of time during her early years helping her husband in the business and advising and assisting her brother-in-law regarding the fads and foibles of preparing a conglomeration of individuals for cityhood. (Remember, her husband was only the third mayor of a city which was founded in July of 1896 and while her brother-in-law was the first mayor of Miami Beach the later to be world famous resort city was not incorporated and did not come into existence until 1915, becoming the third incorporated municipality in Dade County. (Homestead was second, incorporated in 1913).
We now have three of the four mothers of Miami, leaving only one—Ida Cohen—to be named.
Ida and her first husband, Jacob (“Jake”) Schneidman moved to the area in either late 1894 or early 1895 as real and true pioneers. On February 6, 1896, Isidor Cohen arrived and was greeted by the Schneidmans, but later that year Jake died from cancer and Ida packed up her belongings and her two sons and moved back to New York. Isidor, who had also opened a dry goods store (predecessor of today’s department stores) had a friendly competition going with the Sewells as to who opened first, but, and in any case, Isidor’s arrival on the date noted was the first of the five momentous events of 1896.
Several months after Ida returned to New York, Isidor, ostensibly on a buying trip, made his way to that even then great metropolis and when he returned, with Ida, who he married and whose surname was changed to Cohen, and her two sons, now legally his sons because he adopted both of them, would begin the history of the Jewish community of Greater Miami, and, indeed, Ida Cohen was absolutely the mother of that community and as such has earned the well-deserved (but, conveniently, on the part of no few parties, overlooked) honor of being one of the four mothers of Miami.
The year 1896 began quietly enough but on February 6th of that year, as noted, Isidor Cohen would, for the first time, set foot in what would become Miami. That story is told in “L’Chaim! The History of the Jewish Community of Greater Miami,” the first and only complete history of Greater Miami’s Jewry, heavily illustrated and covering all of Dade County, from what is now Aventura to Homestead, which, yes, had a Jewish presence (albeit not a permanent one) before Mr. Cohen got here and so Isidor Cohen is accorded the honor of being Miami’s first permanent Jewish settler.
Cohen’s arrival would prove to be a major asset to the yet-unborn city as in addition to his business acumen and his desire to see the city come to life, his story is told in detail in the aforementioned book, which was published by The History Press of Charleston and is available in local book stores, at amazon.com or from The Bramson Archive. That book is not only dedicated to the Cohen family, but, in addition, the first chapter is titled “Ida and Isidor Cohen.”
The second major occurrence of 1896 was the arrival of the Florida East Coast Railway on April 15th with a freight and construction engineers train pulling into what was still not a formally named locale. Interestingly, while there were well-wishers on hand, the crowd was surprisingly small. Among those in attendance were Mr. Flagler, his now famous in Florida history lieutenants, James E. Ingraham (for whom Miami’s Ingraham Building is named) and Joseph R. Parrott, Flagler’s railroad vice president, along with Mr. Cohen, who, in his 1923 self-published Memoirs and History of Miami, Florida describes Flagler, Ingraham and Parrott as “an odd lot.”
For a very short time, the railway station, a wooden building of small almost shack-like proportions and looking somewhat like a temporary, thrown-together structure (which was pretty much what it was) was opened on Avenue E almost right at 12th Street, the names being changed in 1921 so that, under the Chaille Plan, which was the quadrant system of street numbering, Avenue D would become Miami Avenue, Avenue E Northwest First Avenue and 12th Street would be named Flagler Street. (To put it all in perspective, Avenue A became Northeast 3rd Avenue, Avenue B became Northeast 2nd Avenue, Avenue C became Northeast 1st Avenue while the street numbering began twelve blocks north of 12th Street—later Flagler Street—with 6th Street being the only street which would retain its number and would later become Northeast 6th Street while today’s SE and SW 1st Street was 13th Street before the re-naming and re-numbering)
One week later, on April 22nd, 1896, the first passenger train arrived, with three of the five momentous events then being complete.
After only a few months serving as the depot, the railroad moved the passenger and express operation to Sixth Street (the only street whose name or number remained the same after the 1921 renaming and re-numbering of streets and avenues) just west of “Boulevard” as what would become Biscayne Boulevard was named at the time. The FEC’s trains would stop at the beautiful depot, then pull across Boulevard and unload or load passengers, baggage and express at the Florida East Coast Steamship Company’s dock, approximately where the American Airlines Arena is today. It was there that, until 1909, travelers could board or disembark the ships which would take them to Key West and Havana. Beginning in 1909, and until the completion of the FEC’s extension to Key West on January 22, 1912, passengers destined to the island city or to Cuba would leave or embark their ships at Knights Key, the three year temporary terminal of the FEC which was built about five-eighths of a mile out into the Atlantic Ocean. It was just one part of that herculean task of building the Key West Extension that makes it, simply put, “the greatest railroad story ever told.”
The fourth great occurrence would come to fruition on May 11th, when the first excursion train ($1.00 each way!) made the trip from “the North” (Jacksonville) to Miami and that then became a regular and always exciting event.
The station on Sixth Street served as the FEC’s Miami’s terminal until the opening of the Key West Extension in 1912 when a new station was constructed on Avenue E, a block and a half north of 12th Street at what would become number 200 Northwest First Avenue in 1921. That station enabled trains to load and unload at the new depot which had been placed on the mainline (enroute to and from South Dade and Key West) so that the cumbersome backing maneuver to get in and out of the previous station was eliminated.
What would occur next would be incorporation, and on July 28,1896, Miami, without every having been a village or a town or an incorporated area of any kind, sprang into existence as a city, and that was a grand and glorious day for all, with, in fact, African-Americans (then referred to as “Negroes”) were encouraged to vote and instructed to vote for the incorporation, which they did. (Remember, that was still the Jim Crow era when physical slavery and bondage had been replaced by economic slavery)
The last of the incredible happenings of 1896 would occur on the last day of that year, when, on December 31, the magnificent Hotel Royal Palm, one of the Florida East Coast Hotel Company’s hotels would opens it doors and stately grounds with a grand and glorious ball. That hotel would reign as the queen of Miami’s winter season hostelries until badly damaged by the September 17th and 18th 1926 hurricane and because of that was torn down four years later, in 1930.
”But wait! There’s more!”
What made and makes the “Julia Tuttle is the mother of Miami” fol-de-rol all the more nonsensical if not insulting is the fact that, besides the “Julia Tuttle sent Mr. Flagler some orange blossoms so he extended the railroad to Biscayne Bay” story being completely untrue, the fact that not only did Mrs. Tuttle die in 1898 (long outlived by the other three women with, in fact, Ida Cohen founding Miami Jewish Home and Hospital for the Aged (with assistance from Isidor and their daughter, Claire Cohen Weintraub) in 1940, but that so many organizations and so-called historians bought into it and kept that nonsense alive for decades, the most perfect example of the most horrible example being the fact that sometime in the early 20-teens the aforementioned queen bee was able to convince the Miami-Dade County Commission to place a plaque on the County Courthouse in downtown Miami putting forth that rattrap nonsense as if it was a factual deed, which, as our learned readers well know by now, it certainly was not.
Sadly, that plaque and its accompanying bubbemisseh remain on said Courthouse’s exterior wall, but I promise you that I will do all I can to get that shameful piece of anything but truth removed. The worst and concluding piece of the story is, of course, that she and other charlatans were able to play so many individuals and otherwise legitimate historical societies as fools, which they each and all were for simply accepting his or her word and not taking the time (my late, great law professor at F I U, Elio Bellucci, used to say to us repeatedly, “assume nothing”) to do what historians are supposed to do: seek out and search out truth and facts, separate wheat from chaff and make certain that if any undocumented story sounds too good to be true, which without absolute factuality to support said story, it likely is not, then it can not and should not be accepted as legitimate history.
Now, and in conclusion, I believe that several completely previously hornswoggled or bedazzled (taken in) groups or organizations will want to confront me with the “how do you know” jibe, and it is always my pleasure to answer them thus:
Besides the fact (yes, the fact) that not only am I America’s senior collector in my four categories (this past May started my 65th year of collecting “all this junque”) and not only am I America’s single most published Florida history book author (only 33 at present, working on 34, the history of North Lauderdale, with four more in the waiting room) but I am also “Number One in a Field of One,” the only person in the country who bears the official title of Company Historian with an American railroad, and (as the expression goes) “guess what?!!” We have saved and preserved the apropos company (FEC Railway) files and documents and can not only tell the questioner what the facts are in regard to how and why the railroad was extended, but how the railroad assembled land south of West Palm Beach and north of the Tuttle acreage to build its trackage from there to Miami.
Next time, the true, incredible and almost unbelievable story of the construction and operation of the Key West Extension of the Florida East Coast Railway, the single greatest railroad engineering and construction feat in U. S.—and, possibly, world—history, today remembered not only by Florida historians but by railroad buffs nationwide as “the greatest railroad story ever told!” See you soon!