We bestow the title Father of Fort Lauderdale on Frank Stranahan deservedly: He was a towering figure in our early history. And the home he built still stands as a museum on the New River, where he operated the post office, ferry and trading post, beginning in 1893.
But if Stranahan was the father, we might say it was Mary Brickell – a shrewd landowner who never lived here – who midwifed the city-to-be.
It was she who helped persuade Henry Morrison Flagler to extend his Florida East Coast Railway south from Palm Beach. And it was the fertile land she invested in along the New River, 100 acres of which she gifted to him for railroad access, that prompted him to establish a station here.
You know the point of the Riverwalk just north of the rail bridge where you walk over the tracks? That was the site of the old railway stop.
Why was that stop so important? In the days before the automobile, it brought hundreds of people heading down from the North and sent freight cars full of vegetables harvested from farms here. In short, the railroad brought growth and development. By 1916, we were one of the top vegetable-producing areas in the country.
Just who was Mary Brickell? Born Mary Bulmer in Yorkshire, England, she met and married William Brickell in his native Australia. During the Civil War they lived for a time at the Lincoln White House, where William worked as an aide to the president.
In 1868 they purchased large chunks of South Florida land, and in 1871 built a trading post and home on the south bank of the Miami River. In addition to the New River land they purchased, they held a tract of land that went from this trading post to Coconut Grove. There they raised five girls and three boys.
Mary worked with Julia Tuttle, a Dade County landowner from Cleveland, to try to
persuade Flagler to extend his railroad line south. At the time there was just one primitive road coming down from Lantana to Lemon City, a Miami-area community that predated the city of Miami. But the railroad and resort magnate, once a partner with John D. Rockefeller in Standard Oil, declined their proposals.
However in 1895, a devastating frost in the north of the state – where Flagler owned land and orchards – wiped out hundreds of farmers. The two large-landholding women pointed out to Flagler that all the South Florida crops survived. It wasn’t called Lemon City for nothing.
Tuttle offered him hundreds of acres for a Miami route and station. With Mary’s New River offer also on the table, Flagler finally was persuaded. Still the tycoon famously wrote that he didn’t expect to “build up a town at New River, but I think it is a good farming land.”
While William Brickell and the pioneering Tuttle were named as co-founders of the city of Miami when it incorporated, it was Mary Brickell who handled the family ventures. Her reputation over the years was one of both a strait-laced businessperson and a woman with a generous and kind nature. She provided loans “to people who didn’t drink” and extended that service to Blacks and Seminoles during a time of rampant bigotry.
And her bets on both agriculture and real estate paid off handsomely. She owned, for example, the land that spawned Rio Vista.
So if you come across that thin strip of a street in downtown Fort Lauderdale called Brickell Avenue, you know how it got its name.