The Miami River evolved over thousands of years from a tidal channel into a freshwater stream that carried water from the Everglades to Biscayne Bay. It is the oldest natural landmark in Southeast Florida. The word “Miami” is said to come from an Indian word meaning “sweet water.”
Native Americans first inhabited the area. Archaeologists recently found the remains of a village that existed at least 2,000 years ago on the river’s south bank, in a site known as Miami Circle. There, native people cut a pattern of circular holes and basins into the limestone bedrock. This pre-historic structure on the south bank of the river’s mouth was recently preserved through the assistance of the Trust for Public Land.
The river ran clear and clean for four miles, fed by natural springs at its bottom and from tributaries, and from the tea-colored waters of the Everglades. Juan Ponce de Leon probably the first European to set eyes on the Miami River, when he discovered Biscayne Bay in July 1513. There, he noted the large Tequesta Indian village on the north bank.
Settlement thereafter was rare and sporadic for more than three centuries. Spaniards, Englishmen, Bahamians and North Americans established missions, trading posts and settlements along the river’s banks, but none lasted into permanence.
That changed in 1844, William English built a plantation at the mouth of the river on the north bank. During the second and third Seminole Wars, William English’s plantation was occupied by the US Army, which used the buildings for its headquarters, naming it Fort Dallas. After the Civil War, settlers gradually streamed into the area, forming a community in Lemon City six miles to the north, and in Coconut Grove three miles to the south.
Julia Tuttle moved to Florida from Ohio and bought the William English plantation. She persuaded Henry Flagler to extend his railroad to the Miami River, which he did in 1896, the year the City of Miami was incorporated. The boom was on.
The next year, Flagler built his magnificent Royal Palm Hotel at the mouth of the river. Residents and rivers soon enjoyed expeditions up the river to Musa Isle and Coppinger’s Indian Village tourist attractions. Fifty-cent paddlewheel “jungle” cruises took tourists 41/2 miles to the rapids where the Miami River began. The rapids were created by a six-foot natural ridge bringing water from the Everglades.
As the city grew at the beginning of the century, the river quickly became a working river. The Florida East Coast Railroad built warehouses and docks to serve the area’s growing trade. Winter vegetables came in by water over Biscayne Bay and were loaded on freight cars for shipment north. Boat building and marine repair enterprises sprouted along the river.
From 1909 to 1933, the river was lengthened and widened. The rapids stopped in 1909 when the Miami Canal was built. When digging for the Miami Canal began, the water table dropped sharply, and Everglades muck slid into the river’s once clear waters. By the 1930s, the river was in its present configuration, as a 5.5-mile navigable channel and river at the end of the Miami Canal, extending from Lake Okeechobee to Biscayne Bay.
World War II sealed the river’s cachet as a center of industrial and heavy marine use when the river became a center of construction of PT boats.
Pollution has been a great concern for a century. Untreated sewage was the greatest culprit from the beginning. The county planned and grappled with a comprehensive treatment system and unveiled a plan in 1925, but was immediately thwarted by the land speculation collapse of 1925-27, the great hurricane of 1926, the Great Depression, and World War II. By 1950, 41 sanitary sewers emptied into the bay and 29 into the river – a low point in Miami’s history. Construction of the Virginia Key sanitary sewerage system fixed much of this problem.
But other problems remained. Saltwater intrusion, disposal of trash and unwanted items into the river, chemical and oil seepage from the airport and hospitals, and oil spills both accidental and deliberate took their tolls.
In the 1960s, a movement to restore the river took wing. In the early 1970s, state and local civic and political leaders undertook studies to document the neglect of the river. Code enforcement sweeps cleaned up part of the river area. In 1976-86 Miami River Comprehensive Zoning Plan recognized the river as a special district.
Through the 1980s, the Miami River Coordinating Committee took shape as a central clearinghouse for information on the river. Still, progress was too slow for many. In 1991 and again in 1998, two federal grand juries sharply criticized local leadership for not doing more to clean up the Miami River.
In January 1998, the Miami River Study Commission issued a “call to action” urging a forceful, community-wide effort to clean up the river and bring it to its potential. The Miami River Commission was formed shortly thereafter, and soon started to fulfill its mission, and managed to unite disparate and often conflicting voices along the river to act with common cause to restore the river, revive it as a public destination and attraction, and promote its destiny as a principal focus of trade and commerce with the Caribbean.