Next Stop, New River

Oil magnate and railroad builder Henry Flagler couldn’t imagine a town at what would become Fort Lauderdale, but he reckoned it would make good farming land.

By: 

John Dolen

Published date: 

Sep. 1, 2017

When the railroad Henry Flagler built made it to St. Augustine in 1889, the oil magnate had also endowed the city with a huge luxury hotel. But he soon discovered it could still get cold there, so he ran his tracks still further south to Ormond Beach, where he built another hotel. Both he and fellow Standard Oil co-founder John D. Rockefeller built estates there. Later, he fell in love with Palm Beach and extended the rail line even further. There he built two mammoth hotels, including the Breakers.

While lobbied by others to extend the railroad line further south to Miami, Flagler only toyed with the idea. He was already in his 60s, his rail lines and hotels from Jacksonville to Palm Beach were substantial investments and, according to some accounts, he felt Palm Beach was the place to stop. Then, in 1894, one of our worst freezes struck, wiping out crops all the way to Palm Beach. Flagler wanted to live in a place where it was never freezing.

He took a launch down to our not-yet-named settlement, and then rode a mule-driven cart 35 miles on dirt road to Fort Dallas. Later called Miami, it was where early landowners Julia Tuttle and the Brickell family were waiting. Earlier, Tuttle had pledged half of her land to him, hundreds of acres, as a complement to other inducements by the state of Florida to extend the railroad to her colony of about a thousand. Flagler finally succumbed, and as he had elsewhere up the coast, he built a huge luxury hotel, this one on Biscayne Bay.

Tuttle had 100 acres along the New River, too, and she suggested he make the small settlement a station stop from West Palm Beach. In a landmark moment in Fort Lauderdale’s history, he agreed.

Settlers here were numbered in the dozens in 1895. Flagler wrote to Tuttle later, “not that I expect to build up a town at New River, but I think it is good farming land.”

There would be no magnificent Flagler-built hotels for our fair city-to-be. Instead, settler Philemon Bryan built our first hotel. It was about the size of the kitchen at the Breakers.

Bryan and his son Tom supervised the 400 black laborers who laid the final miles of track from Cypress Creek. An impresario himself, Bryan set his New River Inn directly across from the new station. When trains pulled in, he sent his kids out to recruit guests. While the stop is no longer there, the inn on Southwest Second Avenue is now the city’s history museum.

The trains started pulling in on Feb. 22, 1896. That’s when the Florida East Coast Railway train left West Palm Beach on its inaugural run to the end of the line - Fort Lauderdale. On hand were pioneers Frank Stranahan and Cap Valentine, Seminole leaders like Dr. Tommie, and a farmer named Louis Marshall.

Flagler and a few well-heeled buddies, including actor Joseph Jefferson and millionaire sportsman Charles B. Cory, rode the train down.

For 20 minutes everybody congratulated Flagler and his party, and the train headed back.

But during that time, Marshall - who had brought a shipment of tomatoes to the station by barge - had loaded them aboard.

He would become the first local farmer to ship winter vegetables north via the railroad.