In this episode of our Historical Chronicle, we will continue to examine the early days of Miami’s incorporation in July 1896. Unsurprisingly, this period has been both eventful and colorful, but with the exception of the ongoing work on the Henry M. Flagler’s cavernous Royal Palm Hotel, most activities and initiatives did not portend the city’s illustrious future as a tourist mecca or its colorful real estate saga. More importantly, these early Miami moments portray a city remarkably different from today’s mega-municipality, a border colony closely tied to both its recent border past and its unique subtropical environment.
A bizarre “Miami-only” event occurred in August 1896, when James Olmstead and several companions “bathed” in the Miami River overnight. Suddenly, Olmstead disappeared underwater before rising to the surface “with a shrill cry and bravely rush towards the shore”. Upon reaching shore, a restless Olmstead announced that he had been attacked by a large alligator. Large wounds on his chest, back and arm attested to Olmstead’s claim, as well as the profuse bleeding he was experiencing.
What apparently saved the victim was his awareness that if one dug into the reptile’s eyes, it was loosening its grip on its prey, which Olmstead did with his free left hand. Olmstead was then taken by boat across the river where Dr James M. Jackson cleaned and bandaged his wounds. In his account of the incident, the Miami metropolis complained that “For some time now many boys have deceived a reptile by baiting it with dogs, cats, etc., and at the same time bathing nearby.” The newspaper added, with a hint of jubilation: “However, there is no one swimming around the river at the present time. “
Less than three weeks later, a quickly recovering Olmstead was ready for revenge by starting a reptile hunt. After locating the alligator near the site of the previous attack, Olmstead put four charges of buckshot in its head. When the animal was raised on the nearby dock, it was 10 feet and seven inches long and weighed around 250 pounds.
Not all that is remarkable about the nascent city was accompanied by drama. Around the time of the reptilian attack, top Florida Democratic Party leaders visited Miami as town hall guests. They visited various points of interest in Biscayne Bay before stopping at the southern tip of Key Biscayne to assess the prospects for channel improvement into the bay from the adjoining Atlantic Ocean. (A year later, Henry Flagler completed the Biscayne Canal, allowing ships to travel from the mouth of the Miami River across the bay to the deep, dark waters of the Atlantic.) Then they returned. in Cocoanut (sic) Grove for a “first class dinner” at Charles and Isabella Peacock’s eponymous inn.
Baseball was initially Miami’s most popular sport, and its primary location was the field in front of the Royal Palm Hotel, an area corresponding to what is now SE 3.e Avenue between Second and E. Flagler Street. On the eastern side of the land were the waters of Biscayne Bay. On a hot Sunday at the end of August 1896, a competition between the steam fitters and plumbers, workers of the Royal Palm Hotel, took place on this playground. The steam fitters came out on top. No rating was given in the Metropolisaccount of the game, although the official scorer was affable Miami Mayor John B. Reilly. As usual, the referee drew a lot of criticism, especially among the spectators, for his controversial calls.
Miami’s black community, clustered since its incorporation in a neighborhood called Colored Town in the city’s northwest sector under Jim Crow or racial segregation restrictions, enjoyed a late August performance of the music performed by a group visiting West Palm Beach.
At the same time, across the fledgling city, Mary Brickell, who presided over the family-owned real estate empire on the south side of the Miami River and beyond, was busy making a basket of plentiful “fine” guavas. in the Miami of yesteryear, for the editor-in-chief of The metropolis of Miami. The fruits arrived at the newspaper’s office on D Avenue, now S. Miami Avenue, with an attached card bearing the message “Compliments of Mary Brickell”.
In the next installment of this column, we will continue our exploration of Miami in the period immediately following the birth of the magical city.
Paul S. George, Ph.D., is a resident historian at the HistoryMiami Museum. He runs historic tours throughout the county and even beyond for HistoryMiami. In addition, he teaches in Miami / S. Florida and the History of Florida for the Museum. Dr George has also led, since 2002, tours of Little Havana as part of Viernes Culturales, a monthly celebration, held every third Friday, of the culture and history of this neighborhood. Tours are open to everyone and free!
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