The beaches were pristine but offered no protection or refuge from storms. You couldn’t grow anything in the soil. And most significantly, you could reach them only by boat.
It was the river that brought people in.
The New River environs were the place to be. You could arrive by Flagler East Coast Railway train, get around by ferries, have construction materials and even mules delivered by barge. You could also grow just about everything in the fertile soil.
Agriculture was such an attraction that big-money real estate investors from the Midwest bought vast tracts of South Florida land. A major campaign in March 1911 to auction off small plots drew more than 3,000 visitors from across the country to our fledgling town, which in the previous year’s census listed a population of just 110 people.
The campaigns touted the Everglades as “The New Fertile Crescent.” Come to Florida, the marketing went, for once-in-a-lifetime auctions in “The Promised Land.”
One who didn’t buy into that idea, the owner of a lonely hunting lodge on the beach at the time, was Thomas Watson.
A former Georgia senator and candidate for president on the Populist ticket in 1904, Watson was the author of a book on the history of France. He also published a magazine called The Jeffersonian. Here’s his take on the land rush, according to historian Stuart McIver: “I was there when those bargain seekers (or I may say suckers) began coming to Fort Lauderdale. One day I saw three long, heavily loaded trains come to the place.”
The town’s hotel and pension rooms, Watson reported, could accommodate only about a fourth of those coming in. The rest had to stay in tents set up in the woods: “More than a thousand tents were put through the piney woods between March 15 and March 20.”
And what were the virtues of the “New Fertile Crescent”?
“The Everglades is the best country in the whole world to raise alligators, rattlesnakes, mosquitoes and malaria,” Watson dryly observed.
That’s just what many buyers found. Many discovered that the land they purchased was underwater. Promised dredging hadn’t materialized.
One national newspaper called it “the biggest land swindle in history.” A congressman from Missouri, where the largest land company was headquartered, called it “one of the meanest swindles ever devised … resulting in the victimization of 25,000 people.”
Yes, there was fertile land in the New River area and beyond. But that only extended so far. When the tents were folded up and the thousands left, it was business as usual. Planting tomatoes, trading with Seminoles, slowly building civic structures. All along the river.
Meanwhile, down at the beach, settlement was sparse. When Chicago lawyer Hugh Taylor Birch, an authority on geology, ornithology and botany as well as the law, first saw the beachfront, he fell in love. He called it “the most beautiful spot I laid my eyes on in all my travels.”
In the mid-1890s he and a partner bought three miles of oceanfront land. (The park that bears his name was bequeathed to us, including the parcel given to his daughter, home of the Bonnet House estate and museum.)
And then there was Watson’s hunting lodge. That had a little beach history too.
Birch’s partner was J. McGregor Adams, a successful Chicago manufacturer. On his portion of beachfront he had a house built by pioneer Ed King, responsible for much of the early construction in the “downtown” area. A two-room cottage at what is now Las Olas Boulevard and the beach was mounted in the sand on molded concrete blocks.
Adams hosted many A-list guests coming in by boat over the years, including senators and authors, among the latter Theodore Dreiser. Shortly after Adams died in 1904, the cottage, which had been used as a hunting lodge, was sold to Watson.
Watson ran the hunting lodge for nearly ten years, selling it in 1914. This turned out to be a landmark moment in the evolution of the beach.
That’s because the purchaser, David Alexander, had a vision for the future. A graduate of Stanford, the Californian came here on a visit and realized our beaches were as beautiful as anything on the Pacific Coast. And that they were practically deserted.
He bought the lodge along with 32 acres of beachfront property. He platted the land and called his resort Las Olas-By-The-Sea. The hunting lodge was converted into the beach’s first hotel, The Las Olas Inn.
Now all that was needed was a road and a bridge to get people in.