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The Florida East Coast Railway: For 125 Years America’s Speedway to Sunshine: Part I


By Seth H. Bramson

This year—2020—marks a very special moment in time for Florida, particularly for the East Coast.

The state is legendary for a goodly number of “firsts,” including the first attempt at permanent settlement by Europeans in the new world, that at what today is called El Portal. As documented by the Smithsonian Institution, that first landing occurred somewhere in the vicinity of what today is Northeast 87th Street east of what today is called Biscayne Boulevard, in 1535.

That attempt lasted a very short time, probably less than three months. Hostile Indians (contrary to the utter and absolute nonsense bandied about by people who should know better, including a famed archaeologist, and, even worse, Miami’s walking fountain of MISinformation, the so-called Miami Circle was NOT “the center of Tequesta life in South Florida, more on that below), equally hostile animals, ranging from foxes to wolves to Florida panthers to bears looked at the intruders, as the mosquitos did, as meals. That, along with the arrows which would come out of nowhere and cause both horrific pain and often agonizing death caused the Spanish attempt to be quickly aborted.

It must also be remembered that, contrary to the story that it was not bad here in the summer because the ocean breezes had not been blocked by the hotels, apartment houses and condos, the fact is that, buildings built facing the Atlantic Ocean or not, and even given that the event noted above occurred 485 years ago, the climate of the late spring, summer and well into the fall was still both hot and humid. In fact, it is possible that, given the then similar to a rain forest environment, said humidity might well have been nearly unbearable year-round. However, even assuming that the weather might have been “pleasant” (whatever that might have meant at the time) the conditions noted above made the Spanish incursion into the area terribly unpleasant for them.

While we are writing about “firsts,” it should also be noted that there was a second attempt at settlement in the new world, and that, also, occurred here in what today is Miami. Again documented, the second attempt at settlement occurred twenty years later, in1555, that time at or near the mouth of the Miami River. (Readers should keep in mind that the shoreline then was vastly different from what and where it is today, hence it is highly likely that both landings occurred well further inland than at the location of the shoreline or of the mouth of the Miami River today.)

That second attempt was also a failure, mostly because of the conditions stated above. And while, yes, there was a Tequesta settlement somewhere close to the river, there were others in the area, including a large one at El Portal (which this writer notes was equal in importance, if there were such measurements made or taken at that time, as the one on or near the Miami River) one on the ocean side at or on or close to today’s Surfside, and in today’s Broward County, where there were several sites which have been catalogued and memorialized.

It would not be until ten years later that the first permanent settlement in the new world would be established by Spain’s greatest admiral, Pedro Menendez de Aviles at St. Augustine, that city now 455 years old. While there are those who rightfully point with pride at the landing at Plymouth Rock and the establishment of Jamestown in today’s Virginia in 1607, it must be stated that when that occurred, St. Augustine was already 42 years old.

Because our thrust here is neither the Paleo-Indian (the era before recorded time) period or the years through the centuries, a number of events—for our purposes—which took place in the 1800s should be noted and discussed here.

One of the things that you, our readers, might have heard or learned in secondary school (possibly, even in primary school) was that Florida pre-and during statehood was “under five flags.” That would be fine except for the fact that the state was actually under SIX flags: those of Spain (the longest), England, France, the United States beginning in 1821 and the Confederacy, but that leaves out the flag of the short lived Florida Republic, which was actually in place before Texas became a republic and that brief period must also be recorded.

Into the nineteenth century, and during the majority of it, Florida was a backwater and a frontier, with only a very few places with any population to speak of, the two largest cities, for many years, being Pensacola and Key West. Eventually Cow Ford would emerge, to become Jacksonville after the Civil War, with Tampa, Tallahassee and St. Augustine the only two other so-called population centers to speak of. Much would change, though, following the Civil War.

In 1870 father and son Henry and Charles Lum would sail up from Key West and camp overnight on a mangrove sandbar island which, 45 years later, would be incorporated at the Town of Miami Beach. In 1880, with Florida on the verge of bankruptcy, Philadelphia industrialist Hamilton Disston came to the state. It would be Disston who would save Florida from bankruptcy.

Disston, well known nationally, would make the acquaintance of Governor William Bloxham and eventually worked out a deal with Bloxham to purchase four million acres of land in the center of the state from the Florida Internal Improvement Fund for $1 million. Of course, Bloxham’s deal was met with some criticism but in addition to his being able to state clearly to his critics that the state had been saved from the impending bankruptcy he was able to further—and quite clearly–note that, with all of their carping and whining none of them had offered anything in order to do what Disston had done.

Two years prior to the Bloxham—Disston deal another northern industrialist, a friend and partner of John D. Rockefeller, made his first trip to Florida.

With our next chapter we will begin the story—a story beyond imagination—of the man who would become the single greatest name in the history of Florida. And if you are uncertain who that might be, you will find out on our next visit.

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