Charles Pierce’s Account of the Great Rain of 1884, and How it Relates to the Indian River Lagoon

"End of he Rainbow," South Florida. (Photo by John Whiticar, 2013.)
“End of the Rainbow,” South Florida. (Photo by John Whiticar, 2013.)

As we approach hurricane season, we must prepare for rain. Florida is more like Africa than the rest of the county in that there are really only two seasons: dry and rainy. “Officially,” rainy season runs from June 1st to November 30th, and dry season is from December 1st through the end of May.

One of the most interesting accounts I’ve ever read of a “great south Florida rain” was published in 1886 by pioneer  Charles Pierce, member the famous Hannibal Pierce family, to which our illustrious Indian Riverkeeper, Mr Marty Baum belongs. We along the St Lucie/Indian River Lagoon are part of the south Florida great rain system and there are reoccurring themes whether here or farther south, as  l think you’ll see as I share the story.

Charles Pierce is most well known for his book “Pioneer Life in Southeast Florida” written about the years 1870 through 1894, and published by Miami’s University Press in 1970. It is a five star classic. According to a write up on the book, during this era of Florida history  around 724 people were living between Stuart and Miami.

My mother, historian  Sandra Thurlow, shared an excerpt that Charles Pierce wrote for the Broward Legacy in 1886, as he was living and overseeing  the Biscayne House of Refuge at the time.

According to Pierce:

“In October of 1884 occurred the greatest and longest rainfall ever known on the east coast since its  earliest settlement. It poured down for eight days and nights, slacking at times for a few minutes, but never stoping; then came down harder if that were possible. The whole southern part of the state was inundated…

On the eighth day the rain stopped and the next day came in bright and clear, and the sun shone brightly on a rain-soaked Florida…

I was on the east porch looking out to sea…looking up the coast to the northward, I caught the glint of something white about four miles away. At first, I thought it was a sea gull, then it looked like striking fish. I was not certain which it was, so I went for the old long spyglass to get a close up view  of the scintillating white. What the spyglass revealed surprised me. The flickering white I had seen was now clearly shown to be whitecaps or breaking seas at the head of a dark body of water rushing down the coast….a mass of dark water some hundred feet in width rushing along to the south and with breaking seas over running the blue water in front.

It was a strange sight and at first we all wondered where it came from. My father Hannibal solved they mystery when he said, ‘It is fresh water from the New River Inlet.’ Could that be possible? It was fourteen miles away but there was no other solution to the phenomenon.

What a mighty volume of water must be coming out of the inlet and with tremendous velocity enough to overcome the resistance of wind and sea for so many miles. By night of that day the entire ocean in sight of the Station was covered with dark coffee-colored freshwater from the New River. Not a bit of blue water to be seen in any direction. Biscayne Bay was fresh for nearly a month after the week of rain.”

Incredible. So even before humankind diked and channelized the entirety of south Florida, when it  rained heavily, the black wave of fresh water pushed forth through the south eastern inlets to the ocean; it did not just “go south.” We see a similar but not as intense phenomenon today, although drainage has been modified, when a heavy rain gushes through the  St Lucie Inlet, Ft Pierce or Jupiter Inlets.  In any case,  when one hears a story such as Mr Pierce’s it makes one wonder, with all that water,  during a really “great rain” a rain that comes only once in a few hundred years, will our manmade structures hold?

We all know the Army Corp of Engineers, along with support from the South Florida Water Management District, is working diligently to harden the dike around Lake Okeechobee, but it seems that a third outlet, a flow way south, from the lake to the Everglades surely would alleviate some of that natural pressure, the pressure Charlie Pierce describes as  a
“tremendous velocity…”

If he were alive today, I wonder what Mr Charles Pierce would think?


Lake Worth Pioneer Association, (Charlie Pierce family): ( 



6 thoughts on “Charles Pierce’s Account of the Great Rain of 1884, and How it Relates to the Indian River Lagoon

  1. A third outlet is as close to a “silver bullet” as there is, though certain legislators, and amazingly, even a limited number of River Warriors, are convinced that a bunch of little “silver BBs” scattered all over the place are going to stop the discharges in our lifetimes.

    Me? I just pray for drought, and cheer for El Niño!

    1. Now there are 2 outlets from LakeO.
      C 44 and c43 -/A 3rd south of the lake would substantially offset present releases killing the estuaries, bring water south-if cleaned and relieve pressure on dike.

  2. Nice work Jacqui! I have used this piece many times as an example of just how bad things can get “locally” when a feeder band trains in one spot.. like Isaac in 2012 here. For those who do not know, Jacqui’s Mom, Sandra Henderson-Thurlow is a VERY respected and highly Honored Florida Pioneer Historian. An accomplished author, Sandy has published four books, numerous articles for magazines, newspapers and publications. Sandy is my friend, history mentor, and I love her and husband Tom like they are my own Mom and Dad.

    This was an excerpt taken from the unpublished Charles W. Pierce memoir “On The Wings of the Wind” that Uncle Will finished just before his death in 1939. It was reprinted in the Summer/Fall 1985, and Winter Spring 1986 Broward Legacy as part of a “two part” series The Adventures of Charles Pierce In Broward County One Hundred Years Ago.

    My first thought when I read this years ago was that Bakers Haulover (about three miles north of the Station) had breached and THAT was the source of the fresh water. As there was no other mention in anything I have read, (and that is EVERYTHING I could find) I have to go with Grandpa’s assessment that it was from New River. The Barefoot mail carriers did not restart the route for the last time until December 14 1884, and of course they left and arrived from the crossing of Biscayne Bay to the Miami Post Office at Bakers Haulover, so I don’t have any of their comments. I do not know if Grandpa recorded this in his “remarks” in his Daily Journal, but there was no mention in the Biscayne House of Refuge logbook interesting enough to be printed In Thelma Peters 1978 Tequesta Article “The Log of the Biscayne House of Refuge.”

    There was an October hurricane that year, but it was well offshore..170 miles from storm center. It DID stall and was slow moving. I have not seen the Journals from Ft. Lauderdale House of Refuge, but there was nothing worth noting at Orange Grove House of Refuge (think Delray Beach) who’s journals I DO have. I discussed this hurricane with Dr. Chris Landsea of the NOAA Hurricane Re-evaluation Project, but he had no further insight.

    An aside, your Mom, I and others tried for years to recover the original color of the first 5 Houses of Refuge. It was in Thelma’s article all along and we all missed it. April 1, 1890; 23 1 gal. buckets No. 14 light green paint. 4 1 gal. buckets No. 76 brown paint.

    Thanks for all you do Jacqui!!

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