- Historic Sites
The Bubble In The Sun
Under the Florida palms William Jennings Bryan orated and Gilda Gray shimmied while real-estate promoters hawked lots. It was the greatest land boom in our history
August 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 5
Flagler, an early partner of John D. Rockefeller in Standard Oil, had first seen Florida on a vacation trip in 1878. He returned to St. Augustine for his honeymoon in 1883 and soon embarked upon a career of developing a string of resorts along Florida’s east coast. Starting with two hotels at St. Augustine, the Ponce de Leon and the Alcazar, and with the improvement of railroad connections from Jacksonville, he pushed his Florida East Coast Railway on south to Ormond and Daytona, and eventually, in 1894, into Palm Beach. That year, Flagler added to his hotel chain by building the Royal Poinciana in Palm Beach, and, two years later, the Breakers. These hotels, supplemented by a railroad parking lot for private palace cars, were for decades among the favorite resorts of the rich and the famous. When in April, 1896, the railroad reached Miami, Flagler launched the city by constructing still another Flagler hotel, the Royal Palm; an electric light plant; and a water and sewage system. By 1900, Miami could claim a grand total of 1,681 persons.
On June 13, 1913, a few weeks after Flagler’s death, a landmark was dedicated in Miami. It was the first bridge to Miami Beach, the narrow strip of land that separates Biscayne Bay from the Atlantic. The bridge was the brain child of another great Florida pioneer, John S. Collins, a successful New Jersey horticulturist who, in the eighties, had invested $5,000 in a scheme to grow coconut palms in the area. Disappointed in that venture, Collins came to Miami himself in 1896, acquired land on Miami Beach with an eye to its future resort possibilities, and, for the time being, began raising avocados, potatoes, and bananas.
But in order to assure the development of the area, Collins realized that there had to be a bridge from Miami to the Beach. In 1912, with the backing of his three sons and his son-in-law, Thomas I. Pancoast, he began his bridge across Biscayne Bay. Halfway across, the contracting company failed, and with his Jordan nearly crossed, Collins’ money ran out. The plight of the venture was brought to the attention of Carl Graham Fisher, an Indianian who had founded the Indianapolis Speedway and the Prestolite Company and who, by good luck, was just then vacationing in Miami. Fisher met Collins, was impressed with his plan, and took $50,000 worth of bonds in the bridge, enough to complete it.
Fisher also inaugurated some of the more bizarre phases of Florida promotion. He dredged up the bottom of Biscayne Bay in order to fill a mangrove swamp, then dredged up more mud to make artificial islands in the bay. He incorporated the town of Miami Beach in 1915, and after World War I opened a campaign of hotel building and high-pressure advertising unlike anything seen before in the country. Among his gimmicks were Carl and Rosie, two elephants who hauled cartloads of children around the island. One even served as a caddy for President Harding. Finally, Fisher conceived the idea of the Miami Beach bathing beauty. According to Will Rogers, he was the “midwife” of Florida, who “rehearsed the mosquitoes till they wouldn’t bite you until after you’d bought.”
Thanks to the spadework of men like Flagler, Collins, and Fisher, Miami on the eve of the boom was already a playground for the rich. South Bay Shore Drive on Biscayne Bay, south of the city, had emerged as a millionaire’s row in 1916 with the completion of the palatial Villa Vizcaya, home of the harvester magnate James Deering. In 1923 William H. Luden, the coughdrop king, arrived for the season at his home on the Drive, and William K. Vanderbilt came in his $3,000,000 yacht, Alva . Senator T. Coleman Du Pont of Delaware was staying at Flagler’s Royal Palm Hotel, and Harvey S. Firestone came to visit and then to buy a great Georgian-style showplace. Other visitors of note that year included Labor Secretary James J. Davis, chain-store genius J. C. Penney, auto mogul William C. Durant, and the 1920 Democratic presidential candidate, James M. Cox, who purchased control of a Miami newspaper and transformed it into the Miami Daily News . A new resident was sometimepolitician, sometime-evangelist William Jennings Bryan, who taught a Bible class for tourists every Sunday morning in the Royal Palm Park. But, naturally, the climax of the 1923 season was the arrival at the Flamingo Hotel of President and Mrs. Warren Harding.
Thus all was in readiness for the boom when, in 1924, the combination of Coolidge prosperity and the proliferation of Henry Ford’s tin lizzies gave Americans extra money to spend and made Florida an accessible place in which to spend it. A number of factors contributed to the Florida boom. First of all, there was money to be made in land speculation. The value of Florida real estate had been climbing since the turn of the century, and the state was particularly attractive to investors after 1924, when it outlawed both income and inheritance taxes.