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Pioneers William B. and Mary Brickell, Julia Tuttle and Henry Flagler

By Becky Roper Matkov and Kendell Turner

The year was 1898 when George Edgar Merrick, founder of the City of Coral Gables, arrived in South Florida with his father, Solomon Greasley Merrick, a Congregational minister.  Solomon had purchased a homesteader’s cabin on 160 acres, sight unseen.  Althea Merrick arrived some time later with four tired children, George’s siblings.  

Plans were soon made to enlarge the shack into more of a home and the land needed to be cleared beyond the half acre of guava trees.  But this was a pioneer family that was not to be stopped by hard work and big dreams, not unlike earlier pioneers William B. and Mary Brickell.

William B. Brickell of Cleveland, Ohio, and Mary Brickell, a British woman from Australia, made their way to south on a schooner they boarded in New York in 1870.  They were greeted by a remote land of vast green and blue, accessible only by boat, inhabited by Native Americans, soldiers and a few hardy pioneers.

The Brickells owned land on the South Bank of the Miami River.  It was a perfect location for them to open their Trading Post.  It proved to be the first stop for visitors coming to Miami, and that ensured their success.  The Trading Post became the center of activity, and many Seminole Indians living in the Everglades came to trade with them. The Brickells owned 3,000 acres of land. They carved a wagon trail through the dense hammocks to create easier access to the area of Coconut Grove.  This trail is now Brickell Avenue.

Another early Miami pioneer, Julia Tuttle, moved from Cleveland, Ohio, to the small settlement of Fort Dallas on Biscayne Bay in 1891. She had visited there earlier to see her father, Ephraim Sturtevant, and thought this subtropical, exotic land had much to offer.  After her husband died, she bought the abandoned military post and 640 acres on the north side of the Miami River.  She arrived with her adult children, furniture and cows by barge, cutting through the dense brush to land.  She established a comfortable home and grounds in the officers’ quarters of the fort.  She dreamed of creating a flourishing town. 

Entrepreneur that she was, Julia recognized that her investments would prosper only if the area were more easily connected to the rest of the country.  She tried in vain to persuade Henry Plant to build his railroad from Tampa across the Everglades.  Then she heard that Henry Flagler was building a railroad down Florida’s east coast to Palm Beach. 

Julia contacted Henry Flagler repeatedly and urged him to extend his railroad another 60 miles south to Ft. Dallas.  She offered him half of her land if he would do so.  He refused — until the “Big Freeze” of 1894-95 devastated the crops across most of Florida -- and Julia sent orange blossoms to Henry to prove that the Miami River area was below the frost line. 

Henry Flagler recognized a promising market for shipping fruit and vegetables on his railroad.  He accepted Julia’s offer — plus more donated land from trading post owners William and Mary Brickell.  He immediately began building his railroad south. 

The Florida East Coast Railway arrived at Fort Dallas on April 13, 1896.  A few months later, on July 28, 1896, the growing town was incorporated as the City of Miami.

To attract wealthy tourists, Henry built a glorious resort hotel on the north side of the Miami River, atop an Indian burial site. The Royal Palm, with its magnificent view of Biscayne Bay, opened Jan. 16, 1897, and became the cornerstone for Miami’s growth.

Henry Flagler, a Presbyterian, was ecumenically generous to Miami’s early churches, donating land and funds.  He surveyed and cleared streets.  He built housing for workers.  He established a waterworks and the Miami Electric Power and Light Company.  He donated money for a hospital and a public school. He financed the first newspaper, the Miami Metropolis (later to be the Miami News), in 1896. He dredged a channel in Biscayne Bay to create a harbor.  In a massive engineering feat, he eventually extended his railroad from Miami to Key West, connecting many of the islands.

William B. and Mary Brickell, pioneers of endurance; Julia Tuttle, the “Mother of Miami,” and Henry Flagler, the “Father of Miami,” were dreamers and doers who made possible the growth of Miami into a major metropolis.  They opened the door for other visionary developers like George E. Merrick of Coral Gables who would follow in the decades to come.