Within a few months every tract of vacant land anywhere near Miami had been gobbled up by developers. Scores of wealthy men who did not know just what to do with their war-augmented fortunes poured millions into the development of lands which had been orange groves or vegetable gardens, or just plain waste land, into residential suburbs and sub-divisions, building magnificent hotels, creating beauty spots and drawing visitors to Florida who had never dreamed of going there. People who had bought lots came to see them, wrote back home about the climate and the beauties of Florida, and their friends came down and bought.
The reselling of individual lots at tremendously increased prices, for the account of the original buyers, became such an acute and active form of speculation that all over the country everybody was talking about Florida. The wave of speculative development spread rapidly from its nucleus and birthplace in Miami until it covered the entire state. Fabulous fortunes were garnered by owners of what they had regarded as almost worthless land, but in which some real estate developer saw a potential value to be realized by sub-dividing it and selling lots. Many of the fortunate ones thus suddenly enriched held on to their profits. More of them never realized their profits in money and had to take back the property under mortgage foreclosures when the boom finally collapsed. Still others, and not an inconsiderable number of them, were infected or self-hypnotized with the belief that there was no top limit to the speculative value of Florida property, reinvested their profits in speculative efforts to multiply them, and lost everything.
This is not the place to recite the history of the Florida real estate boom in detail, but the story of Miami is so intimately tied in with the genesis and after effects of the boom that it cannot be omitted from any attempt to account for the Magic City, which stands in all its glory where no such city has any justification for existence under the ancient accepted rules of economics. Anyone who is interested in a minute and detailed account of one of the most curious episodes in American economic history will find it all told painstakingly and accurately in Kenneth Ballinger’s “Miami Millions.” A few concrete instances, however, may well be cited to illustrate not only how Miami got its start but how firm a foundation the earliest and most honest of these real estate developers laid.
John S. Collins was a Quaker farmer from New Jersey. When he bought, in all, 1,600 acres of land on Miami Beach, he had in his mind a vision of a great residential suburb of Miami, as soon as that city grew large enough. While waiting for that time, he decided to develop his land agriculturally. In order to make it easier to get his avocados to the railroad shipping point at Miami he dug a canal through his acres and he built a road, which is now Collins Avenue.
Still the only way to get the produce from the grove to the mainland was by boat. Mr. Collins and his son-in-law, Thomas J. Pancoast, who in 1937 completed his sixteenth year as president of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, obtained a charter for the construction of a bridge. With the bridge partially completed, more capital was needed. Messrs. Collins and Pancoast invited Carl G. Fisher to buy $50,000 of their bridge bonds. Mr. Fisher, who had retired with a comfortable fortune from his Presto-Lite Company, was vacationing in Miami. He went over to Miami Beach to see what was at the other end of the bridge. He saw the possibilities of an ocean front real estate development, and agreed to take the bridge bonds. The Collins interests gave him 200 acres of land. He bought 260 acres more and set dredges to work, pumping sand from the bottom of the bay to fill in the mangrove swamps, and laid out the property into streets, parks and building lots. That was the beginning of the Miami Beach of today. Carl Fisher and the Collins-Pancoast interests made money, other developers who followed in Carl Fisher’s wake made money.
They made money because, as soon as they had made Miami Beach accessible and provided hotels in which visitors could sleep, and firm land on which people could build their homes, everybody who could afford it, broadly speaking, wanted to come to Miami Beach to play or to live or both. For it is impossible to challenge the claim of Miami Beach that it is the greatest playground of the nation. It has everything that the ordinary American wants when in search of winter relaxation; the Florida sunshine at its brightest and best, ocean-front beaches to bask on or to bathe from, sports of every kind in profusion, accessible to everybody. There are few social distinctions at Miami Beach. The homes of the wealthy and socially elect create an atmosphere which combine luxurious tropical beauty with sedate exclusiveness and good taste. But the common people are welcomed also-and there are more of them. The dozen or more islands adjacent to Miami Beach, dredged up from the bottom of the bay like the Beach itself, and connected by beautiful bridges and causeways, are built up with attractive homes and surrounded by restrictions calculated to prevent encroachments by undesirable neighbors.
In no spot in the United States has building activity been so continuous since the general slump in the building industry in the late 1920’s as it has been in Miami Beach, with its in creasing popularity as a winter resort and the improvements in means of access. It was the first community in America to respond to the beginning of economic recovery in the 1930’s. In 1935 and ’36 Miami Beach headed the list of American cities in the volume and value of new building construction, proportionate to population. Hotels, apartment houses, business buildings and private residences were multiplied. More than 100 new hotels have been built at Miami Beach since the collapse of the Florida real estate boom.
On the mainland, the city of Miami began to get into its stride and to develop the civic pride which is so marked a characteristic of its citizens, within a year or two after the efforts of its real estate promoters had started the golden flood of northern money flowing its way. By 1924 Miami had begun to build sky-scrapers and to envision its future as that of a great metropolitan seaport. So great was the demand for the steel and stone and tiles and other building material necessary for modern tall building construction, and which Florida could not supply from its own resources, that transportation facilities almost broke down. The Florida East Coast Railroad, seeking to cope with the situation, double-tracked its entire right-of-way from Jacksonville to Miami; still the only doubletracked railroad in Florida. The Seaboard Airline, whose operations had been confined to the northern and western parts of the state, pushed its rails at top speed southward to Miami, making some sort of a time record in railway construction. Even these added facilities did not relieve the freight congestion, with the result that all of the railroads leading to and entering Florida were compelled to place an embargo upon shipments of all but perishable merchandise.
In this emergency recourse was had to water transportation of building supplies from the North, and almost superhuman efforts were made to speed up the dredging of the rather shallow and narrow channel from the sea through Biscayne Bay to the wharves of Miami. Everything that could float, carry a cargo and negotiate the Miami harbor channel was pressed into service in the frantic months in which Miami’s building boom climbed to its climax in the latter part of 1925. At the beginning of the Christmas holidays that year thirtytwo schooners jammed the Miami harbor and forty more were on their way, some from as far as Seattle, bringing lumber and other building supplies. They tied up or anchored wherever they could find a place; one of them pulled up the Western Union cable with its anchor and so cut off the United States from communication with a large part of South America for several days.
Then, on January 10, 1926, the Miami building boom came to an abrupt end. The four-masted barkentine Prins Valdevnar, a Danish vessel which had been brought to be outfitted as a hundred-room hotel at an anchorage in the harbor, was caught broadside by a high wind as it was being towed through the channel to its ultimate anchorage, keeled over, filled and sank, ‘thwartwise of channel!
That stopped the building boom. It effectually prevented the entrance into Miami of any more building material, and it bottled up the vessels already in the harbor. Lying, outside, along the edge of the Gulf Stream opposite Miami Beach, were fifty schooners and steamers, loaded with 45,000,000 feet of lumber and other building materials, in which real estate developers had their hard cash invested.
Weeks passed before the channel was open. Dredges attempting to cut a new channel around the Prins Valdemar broke down, struck hard reefs which called for dynamite that was not available, and very definitely impressed upon the people of Miami the vital need of harbor development if the city was ever to realize its metropolitan dreams. Many building promoters were bankrupted, and plans for new buildings were abandoned before the channel was finally reopened. At last, however, the masts of the overturned Prins Valdenaar were cut away, the water was pumped out of her hold and the ship righted herself so that tugs could pull her out of her crosschannel position. Miami’s harbor was uncorked, but the damage had been done. The boom had ended, and the city and its people were occupied in casting up accounts and taking stock of losses.
What seemed a tragedy at the time turned out to have been a blessing in disguise. It cured Miami of its speculative fever before the rest of Florida woke up to the fact that the public was no longer falling over itself to gamble in Florida real estate. As Miami had been the birthplace of the boom, so it was first to begin to recover from it.
The Prins Valdeynar, the deus ex rnachina which touched off the collapse of Miami’s boom, today occupies a prominent place in the foreground of the city’s picture. With its lower masts remounted and supporting a string of flags by day and lights by night, it stands alongside Bay Front Park in the heart of the city, firmly berthed in its bed of concrete, housing Miami’s only aquarium. There are some who think the old ship should bear a memorial tablet acclaiming her as the one who saved Miami and laid the foundation for the magic city that she is today.
The stimulus given to the project of harbor improvement and port development by the Prins Valdemar incident has borne rich fruit. In 1937 a million and a half tons of cargo and nearly 50,000 passengers were carried by a thousand ships in and out of Miami harbor through the broad, straight 30foot channel dredged and maintained by the Federal government. This traffic included the passengers of 15 European “cruise” ships, and others engaged in foreign travel to the number of nearly 20,000. Of negligible importance as a seaport in 1925, Miami now ranks ahead of Pensacola, is subordinate in freight traffic in Florida only to Jacksonville and Tampa, and ahead of either of those older ports in ship passenger traffic.
It seems probable that the future growth of traffic in and out of Miami harbor will be chiefly in passenger business and in the lighter types of freight. Heavier and bulk cargoes can be better handled at the nearby Port Everglades, which is, in effect, an auxiliary harbor for Miami. The principal passenger steamship lines plying between North Atlantic ports and those of the Gulf and the islands of the Caribbean make Miami harbor either a terminal or a port of call.
Far more spectacular and of possibly much greater future importance to Miami than its harbor traffic is its rising prominence in the field of aviation. As the northern terminal of the oldest and largest international flying boat service of the Western Hemisphere, Pan American Airways, Miami has leaped into international fame. As a community it has been “airminded” from its earliest days. Just south of Miami, near the old settlement of Coconut Grove, the United States Army maintains Chapman Field, one of its largest training and practice fields for military bombing planes. Twelve miles northwest is the United States Naval Reserve Aviation station. Nearby is the Municipal Airport; closer in is the Sunny South Airport. All-American Airlines maintains here the southernmost terminal of its Eastern Airlines, which fly regular passenger and mail planes between Newark Airport and Miami in, seven hours flying time, a distance of 1,144 miles, and between Miami and Chicago in nine hours.
Miami even has a dirigible airport. Incited by the first flight of the Zeppelin “Los Angeles” over the city in 1924, enthusiasts of heavier-than-air flying ships persuaded themselves and the city government that a sure way of putting their boom town, on the world map would be to provide a hangar for trans-Atlantic dirigibles. The hangar was built and it still stands, visible across the Everglades for miles. Its only users have been a few “blimps,” naval and commercial, but many Miamians still hope that some day a Zeppelin will make Miami its westernmost home port.
Where Miami is unique in aviation, however, is in the lines which center at the seaplane and flying-boat bases grouped along the city’s southerly waterfront. Here, adjacent to the United States Coast Guard airport at Dinner Key, is the International Port of Entry of Pan-American Airways.
There are few more thrilling sights than to stand on the upper roof-deck of the terminal station at the airport and watch the big clippers come in. Great four-engined birds, 114 feet from tip to tip of their wing-spread, carrying 32 passengers inside their boat-like hulls, one gets a first glimpse through a field glass while the ship is still twenty miles offshore and coming in at cruising speed of 150 miles an hour. At first it is just a tiny speck on the horizon, hardly distinguishable from a sea-gull. As it comes closer and swoops down in a graceful half-circle to alight on the surface of the bay, head-on to the wind, the marvel grows that only yesterday this man-made machine left South America. Five days ago it was in Buenos Aires. One can board it tomorrow morning and tomorrow night step ashore on the southern continent. Over forty thousand miles of invisible air network the routes of Pan-American Airways tie Latin America and North America together, with Miami as the center upon which they all converge.
A hundred passengers a day, a thousand pounds of mail, several tons of fast express freight pass through the PanAmerican airport. One hears every dialect of the Spanish lan guage spoken among the groups that gather at the airport for greetings or farewells to the flying travelers, with an occasional mingling of the softer, liquid Portuguese of the Brazilian folk. The onlooker cannot escape the feeling that Miami is something more than a name on the map to these people from the South; that it is, rather, a symbol of the international goodwill between America of the North and America of the South, which statesmen have for so long endeavored to cultivate and which this new, swift vehicle of communication seems to be bringing to a realization.
Miami-The Magic City! It deserves its name. The magic is not only in its waters and its skies, its sunshine and its ocean breezes, but in the spirit which has moved and still moves its people forward and upward to rise above disaster and, filled with pride and determination, carry on toward the goal of making Miami the greatest city of the South.
Miami laughs at hurricanes. On the heels of the collapse of the boom in 1926 came the great hurricane of September of that year. Hundreds of hastily built cottages and bungalows on the outskirts of the city were destroyed. Steel girders of unfinished sky-scrapers were bent and twisted. There was hardly a plate-glass window in the business section left unshattered. Of all the craft in the harbor only the Prins Valdemar was left unscathed; cargo boats and millionaires’ yachts were lifted out of the bay and tossed ashore. A few lives were lost. To the rest of the world the hurricane disaster seemed to spell the doom of a mushroom town. But Miami came back. Now it builds its structures hurricane-proof with easily barricaded windows. There is always three or four days’ warning before the hurricanes strike, and not once in ten years does one strike Miami.
The city dug up the old Flagler plan and followed it in its development, with a broad water-front park along the crescent curve of the bay making a front yard of green for the city’s business district. New wide avenues and boulevards are lined with shops as complete and up-to-date as one can find in New York or Paris.
Miami boasts, and offers evidence to support its claim, that it is becoming a fashion center, rivaling both Paris and New York as an originator of women’s styles. “What Miami wears this Winter Newport will wear next Summer,” is an oft-heard phrase which has at least a modicum of truth. For the ladies who winter at Miami and Miami Beach must clothe themselves as for a northern Summer, and most of the smart shops of New York have their branch shops down here. What more natural than that there should develop here in Winter the fashions which will be the North’s good form next Summer?