Parallel Histories: Miami and the Great U.S. Cities (Part I)

Images: Mouth of the Miami River in 1896 (above) and 2007 (below)

Getting Started

At a time when Miami has exceeded NYC in construction, analyzing the Magic City’s evolution in comparison to other great U.S. cities becomes rather interesting. This series aims at following Miami’s emergence from obscurity into what has arguably become the Gateway to the Americas. Miami’s emergence is tracked parallel to other U.S. cities in order to see a unique picture of Miami’s historic evolution and its special role in 21st Century urban America.

Image: Third Seminole War

A Lonely Fort

Before there was Miami there was Fort Dallas. The defensive U.S. Army outpost was built in the midst of a war against a band of renegade Indians. They were the Seminoles: remnants of various tribes from the continental north that had fled south into the cover of Florida’s vast swamplands. In 1836, when Ft. Dallas was erected in the heart of what would later be Miami’s Central Business District, it was at the farthest edge of the American frontier. Florida had yet to be incorporated into the Union.

Map: Fort Dallas

Boston, San Francisco, and Chicago in 1836

In this period of U.S history, the American West had already seen development. A year before, Yerba Buena, a port located on a magnificent harbor, was renamed San Francisco. St. Louis had a population in excess of 6,300. Chicago, which would incorporate a year later, had an estimated population of 4,000. Boston, long since an important hub, had expanded across the Charles River to form the neighborhoods of Cambridge, Charlestown, and South and East Boston.

Map: Boston 1830’s

New York City in 1836

New York City at this stage was mostly concentrated along the southern portion of Manhattan Island. For the time, the City was sprawling. Parts of it had already expanded across the bay into what is now the Brooklyn Heights area. Stunningly, if you view a map of the Big Apple in 1836, the area that is now Midtown Manhattan was largely hilly and forested. Still, by that time, a forward thinking street grid had been planned for the area up to what is now 155th street. New Yorkers ambitiously planned for the City’s inevitable expansion in advance of it.

Map: New York City 1840’s

Still no Miami. Just war.

Meanwhile, Fort Dallas stood dangerously isolated in a hostile area near hauntingly beautiful turquoise waters. The same clear waters that would later lure millions of international visitors into them offered solace to the small group of men. A year prior, while marching east from Tampa, Major Francis Dade was ambushed and killed by the Seminoles along with two army companies (an event to which Miami-Dade County attributes its name). The Seminole Wars would last until 1858. Florida was a militarized state because of the wars. It’s no coincidence that there are so many Florida cities named after forts (i.e.: Ft. Lauderdale, Ft. Walton Beach, Ft. Pierce, Ft. Myers). Progress was severely hampered during the period. In fact, due to the U.S. Army’s scorched-earth policy, the peninsula’s entire population had dwindled to an estimated 35,000. Most of them confined to the northern part of the peninsula. Even before it had a name, the odds were stacked against Miami.


Image: San Francisco mid-nineteenth century

Miami is Incorporated in 1896

Miami would not be incorporated until 1896 when railroad tycoon Henry Flagler stepped into the picture after having been lured by Miami native Julia Tuttle. Ironically enough, Miami’s official existence is attributed to a major project by a wealthy developer. The project was the Royal Palm Hotel. Rumored to have been lured by a simple basket of oranges, Henry Flagler became Miami’s original developer. At the time, there were families that lived in the area. The Brickell family lived south of the Miami River. Julia Tuttle owned land north of it. The city, however, was well short of bustling.

Image: View of Early Philadelphia from the River Delaware

Miami Connected to the U.S.

During this same time, while Miami was centered around a single luxury hotel, Philadelphia was massive. Traveling on a boat along the ship channel on the River Delaware the city would have impressed one with its endless rows of centennial buildings. The spires of the Old Christ Church and Franklin Square would have risen in the foreground. The Masonic Temple’s tower and two spires would have loomed in the background. The Delaware River would have been busy with sailboats and steamboats. On the other hand, Miami barely had a town center and was sparsely stretched from Coconut Grove to Lemon City. However, in 1896, one year after the great freeze, there came a great turning point for the infant city. The railroad came to town. From then on, a diverse assortment of people would gradually stream into the fledgling southern town. For the first time, Miami was connected to the rest of the country.

Up until the 1890’s, Miami had no place in the class of America’s rising cities. Boston, Philadelphia, New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco were at the top of the class. It was at the turn of the 19th Century that Miami officially entered the mix but would not be noticed for decades to come. As it was in 1896, few knew the city even existed. (to be continued…)

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1 Comment

Filed under BoB Articles, History, The Big Picture

One response to “Parallel Histories: Miami and the Great U.S. Cities (Part I)

  1. Pingback: One Year Later « Boom or Bust: Miami

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