President to open port bay mabel screamed the banner headline in the Fort Lauderdale Daily News on Feb. 21, 1928.
Pretty impressive, you say: President Calvin Coolidge himself would be present to inaugurate the city’s first deep-water port, now named Port Everglades.
Except that he wouldn’t be. You had to read the smaller print, and even that was strange. Old “Silent Cal” was to detonate the final blast allowing Atlantic waters to come rushing into Bay Mabel – by pushing a button in the White House.
How exciting was that? So much so that the day after this article appeared, roughly 85 percent of Fort Lauderdale’s population showed up for the scheduled ceremony. Many of these civic-minded folks were also the farmers and produce sellers who had been agitating for such a port as far back as 1911. The rich farms of Broward County produced far more crops than could be transported on the single train line; a seaport was needed to bring the produce to points north or even west.
On the big day, there was only one problem, as newspapers told it then: President Coolidge forgot about it. Engineers on the ground had to detonate the final blast.
Oh, well, we got our port. (And how was that technology from the White House to work anyway? Later stories said Coolidge pushed the button and nothing happened, but most didn’t buy that.)
At any rate, today that bay and inlet to the sea has become a world unto itself. According to port figures, it is one of the top three cruise ports in the world, one of the foremost container cargo ports in the U.S., and South Florida’s main port for oil, gas and jet fuel. The total value of economic activity annually is more than $15 billion. (No mention of vegetables and fruit anymore.)
In 1913 Fort Lauderdale’s first mayor, William H. Marshall, founded the Deep Water Harbor Company. He was president, and Frank Stranahan was treasurer. Their idea was to dig an inlet to the sea near Bahia Mar, dredging that area for a deep-water port.
The idea spread and even became a part of the pop culture. There is record of “home town theatricals” performed in a schoolhouse on Andrews Avenue. One number, performed by Mrs. Herb Lewis, offered a twist on an old standard:
Reuben, Reuben I been thinkin’
What a fine thing it will be
When we get a deep-water harbor
In this river by the sea.
Unfortunately, various attempts to get a cut-in to the New River near Bahia Mar failed, and the company was later dissolved. It would take a little help from the next town south to get the project going again. That came in the form of a visionary named Joseph Wesley Young, who had a better idea.
Young had already developed a marshy area between Dania and Hallandale into a fast-growing community, originally called Hollywood-by-the-Sea. His dredging extended up to Bay Mabel, now the site of Port Everglades. A thin strand of land still held back the ocean. His idea was to cut through there, rather than further up near Bahia Mar.
A confab was set up between Young, the new city of Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale; funds were committed by both sides for the port. All was proceeding apace until the Great Hurricane of 1926 blew through. Financing fell apart, but the idea didn’t.
A series of future leaders made it happen, and successive generations have been expanding the port ever since. During World War II, it was taken over by the U.S. Navy. After the war it reverted to the Port Authority and eventually became a self-sustaining enterprise, with no burden for businesses or taxpayers.
Oh, and about that name, Port Bay Mabel. A few women’s organizations decided that the name was not very impressive. It sounded more like a diner than a major port. So they sponsored a contest in 1928 and selected the name we have today, to reflect what was really behind that port. Four million acres of landscape that, as President Obama said in a 2015 visit, is “unique” and “magical.”
So as you sail through that passage during your next cruise or boat outing, or drive over the 17th Street bridge and gawk at some of the largest cruise ships in the world, know that those waters didn’t originally run deep. But the ambition of some pioneers did.