If there were a competition for “Latest-Blooming Metropolis in the World,” Fort Lauderdale would certainly be in the running.
Our sprawling, glitzy city of today – with its bustling downtown, its magnificent estates on the water, its cultural and governmental institutions – had a population of only 91 in 1900. That’s not a typo. Only 91 souls called Fort Lauderdale home at the turn of the 20th century.
Well that’s a long time ago, you say. But ponder this: In that year New York City had a population of 3.4 million. That same year Paris hosted a world’s fair (called Exposition Universelle) with 83,000 exhibitors. It already had the Eiffel Tower and the Notre Dame Cathedral. New York City had the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge, then the longest expansion bridge in the world.
What did Fort Lauderdale have? Frank Stranahan’s ferry, a framed 20-foot-wide and 30-foot-long vessel hooked up to a cable, would carry folks across the New River. And not long after, we’d have a one-lane swing bridge extending Andrews Avenue.
Photos from New York City in 1900 show a bustling Mulberry Street market, with hundreds streaming along the avenue, in the shadows of five- and six-story apartment buildings on each side. A YouTube video First Look – Paris 1900: The City of Light features film clips showing streams of imposing four-horse carriages, their passengers in high-fashion garb, in an endless procession down the Champs Elysees.
But we had our attractions too.
The fishing for plentiful trout, snapper and bream on the crystalline New River brought in a few wealthy sportsmen (or naturalists) in their yachts for vacations. For locals, we had Henry Flagler’s new train station stop on the way from St. Augustine to Miami. From its opening day, it drew in gatherings of residents. The attraction of these congenial gatherings? The drama of the train cars rolling in and out. The mystery of who would emerge at the stop, and where would they go. Now that was entertainment.
Yes, Paris had its impressive carriages, but we had wagons too, including one drawn by the town’s “Sanitary Mule,” assigned to pick up garbage and empty “privies.”
As for education, Boston already had Harvard, Chicago had the University of Chicago, and we boasted a school too. That first schoolhouse in the midst of a field of scrub pine and palmetto was a one-room affair with used desks for the first 12 students. On walkways to the school, according to first teacher Ivy Stranahan, you could encounter wild turkeys, raccoons, turtles and even wildcats. That’s one exciting campus.
And at a time when medical colleges dotted Europe and America, our city had “The Little Doctor” to attend to locals. He was so named because of his 5’5″ height. OK, so Tom Kennedy wasn’t really a doctor. But he was a medic in the army.
As for trade – yes, we know New York was synonymous with commerce, but we were not idle. At the end of hunting season, as many as 150 Seminoles would come in from the Everglades in dugout canoes to Frank Stranahan’s trading post on the New River. They brought skins and pelts, and with the cash they were paid, bought clothing material, traps, ammunition and more. They’d stay for four days or so, sleeping on the wide porches of Stranahan’s residence and in tents Frank set up on his property.
Old photographs show plenty of Parisians picnicking on the banks of the Seine. But we had real, beautiful beaches. Admittedly, ocean access was limited in 1900 and resorts didn’t arrive until years later. The first resort – the Lauderdale Beach Hotel – opened in 1936.
Late bloomers we are. But we sure are pretty.