Tag Archives: Great Depression

Indiantown, “Air Line,” Connection–St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

Post card
Rail Company “Sea Board Airline” marketing the beauty of rail through South Florida. (Public photo)

In the days before air travel, the term “air line” was a common for denoting the “shortest distance between two points”–a straight line drawn through the air, or on a map–unaccounting for obstacles. Therefore, a number of 19th century railroads used “air line” in their titles to suggest that their routes were shorter than those of competing roads…in the 1920s, there was a famous rail company named “Sea Board Airlines” and Indiantown, was to be its South Florida headquarters…

Sea Board Air Lines map 1920s. (Public)
Sea Board Air Lines map showing extension of rail lines in the 1920s. Rail lines have changed since this time. (Public)

Lately, rail travel has been on everyone’s mind here along the Treasure Coast, as the controversy and indignities of “All Aboard Florida” play out. The power and transformation rail brought to the state of Florida is legendary, especially in the history of Henry Flagler’s East Coast Railroad. A lesser known entity that was perhaps equally competitive in its day, is Sea Board Airlines, a rail company whose history had a collision with Indiantown, Florida, in western Martin County, right in the area of Lake Okeechobee. If fate had just tracked a bit in the rail line’s favor, things could be very different today….

Solomon Davies, CEO of Seaboard Air who had a vision for Indiantown beyond anything existing today in our Treasure Coast region. (Public photo)
Solomon Davies Warfield , CEO of Seaboard Air who had a vision for Indiantown beyond anything existing today in our Treasure Coast region. (Public photo)

In 1924, Mr. Solomon Davies Warfield, amazingly related to the soon to be and iconoclastic Duchess of Windsor, became CEO of the Seaboard Air Line. He began building a 204-mile track extension, called the “Florida Western & Northern Railroad,” from the Seaboard mainline in Coleman, Florida,  ( just northwest of Orlando in Sumter County) to West Palm Beach. Previously these locations had been the exclusive domain of the Florida East Coast Railway. The Seaboard extension ran through Indiantown, which Warfield planned to make the new southern headquarters of the Seaboard. 

Many life changing things were happening in our region in the 1920s. The Florida land boom was in full swing, swamps were becoming real estate, and  the connection of the St Lucie Canal from Lake Okeechobee to the South Fork of the St Lucie River officially occurred forever changing the health of the area rivers. (1923) The canal, although primarily an outlet to control for the “southerly overflow” waters of Lake Okeechobee for farmers,  was also “flood control,” and on a business level, the canal  was meant and “sold” to be a trade route for shipping the riches of the interior of the state. The goal of backers of the canal was to compete with the railroads.

Well the frenzy of dollar signs came to a head and in 1926. The stock market crashed, and the horrors of the Great Depression for Florida and the nation ensued.  A stressed Warfield died in 1927, and Indiantown just kind “faded into history.” Dreams became memories. Life changed. Florida morphed….Nevertheless, Indiantown still sits positioned for a prosperous future. In fact, it’s waiting and ready to relive history. What do they say? “Location, location, location! ” What do you think?

Me? I have a funny feeling history will repeat itself for Indiantown; in fact, I see a train comin’ ’round the track! 🙂

Google map showing location of Indiantown with red pin. Sewall's Point is the blue do. Indiantown is 30 min from the coast and conveniently located along Highway 720.
Google map showing location of Indiantown with red pin. Sewall’s Point, where I live, is the blue dot. Indiantown is 30 min from the coast and conveniently located along Highway 720.
Seaboard Airlines marketed itself "Through the Heart of the South---through Indiantown..." (Public)
Seaboard Airlines marketed itself “Through the Heart of the South–thorough Indiantown…” (Public)

(Warfield’s name still remains on  “everything” in Indiantown today! (road, school. etc.)

Indiantown Chamber: (http://www.indiantownchamber.com/p/4/contact-us)

History Seaboard Air Line:(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seaboard_Air_Line_Railroad)

Soloman Davies Warfield history (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S._Davies_Warfield)

The Almost Great “Port of Stuart,” along the St Lucie/Indian River Lagoon

1911 Seawall's Point Land Company map
Portion of 1911 Sewall’s Point Land Company map showing area off of Sewall’s Point and Stuart where the great “Port of Stuart” was being developed.

The headlines of the South Florida Developer on December 29th, 1925 bragged about a Stuart along the St Lucie/Indian River Lagoon very different than the one we know today:

“Port of Stuart, Florida’s New Gateway. “

“The Opening of the St Lucie Inlet to the commerce of the world will bring to Stuart and all Martin County that belated recognition to which it is rightfully  entitled by virtue of its strategic geographic location.”

“W.B. Shearer, recognized international authority on ports and waterways, makes the positive statement that of all the East Coast’s four hundred miles of waterfront, the harbor at Stuart is the the only port with natural advantages suitable for a naval base…”

“St Lucie Ship Canal Locks- the first link in the chain of waterways that will eventually form a navigable canal from the Atlantic  to the Gulf of Mexico is the “St Lucie Ship Canal” now 95% complete. It’s completion will open up the fertile western portion of Marin County…”

As these headlines show, the “Port of Stuart” was not just a dream, in the early 1920s, it was a becoming reality.  Details of the port still exists in dusty federal, state and local documents. If it were not for the Great Depression of the late 1920s and the difficulty for the ACOE in dynamiting the Anastasia rock from the bottom of the St Lucie Inlet, it could have been a reality.

So how could this be? Today an idea like this would be heresy!

Well, Captain Henry Sewall, for which the peninsula of Sewall’s Point is named, was one of many responsible for this “heresy.”  Not only had he led locals  to  open the St Lucie Inlet by hand in 1892, he had served as county commissioner, and state representative. 

In 1910 Captain Sewall and his powerful business friends, including adventurer Hugh Willoughby, founded “Sewall’s Point Land Company,” as Captain Sewall had inherited the tip of Sewall’s Point and large portions of waterfront and other lands along Stuart through his family linage to the famous Miles-Hanson Grant.

According to Sandra Thurlow’s book: “Sewall’s Point, the History of a Peninsula on Florida’s Treasure Coast,” after the formation of Sewall’s Point Land Company, the men got right to work building the Sunrise Inn on Old St Lucie Boulvard, and miles of roads in today’s Golden Gate; (see map above), government, bonds were held by the county and a turning basin at the tip of Sewall’s Point was dredged; this fill created today’s Sandsprit Park.”

A turning basin at Sewall’s Point? You’ve got to be kidding.

They were not.

Even poetry was written for the dream, ironically by beloved environmentalist,  Ernie Lyon’s father: 

Just One Place for the Harbor
by Harry Lyons

“Brave sailors in Atlantic storms, 
A harbor need for aid.
 They skirt the coast of Florida,
Lest commerce be delayed.
When hurricanes sweep o’er the deep,
And ships grave perils face,
‘Tis the duty of all mariners,
To seek an anchorage place.
You’ll find the place for a harbor here,
Where the old St. Lucie flows.
There is room for ships at Sewall’s Point,
Where the Indian River goes.
No where else is there such an inlet,
Down below or up above.
There is just one place for the harbor!
Stuart the town we love!
From Stuart to Fort Myers at last,
We’ll have a waterway,
When the canal is finished,
And they’re hastening the day.
Across Lake Okeechobee,
From the Gulf of Mexico,
Oil and phosphate, fruit and lumber,
Into Stuart soon will go.”

Sewall died in 1925 and the bottom fell out of the real estate market around 1926. Around the same time, two devastating hurricanes put the nail in coffin of the Stuart Port at the St Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon.

It is interesting to note that the St Lucie Canal, C-44, between Lake Okeechobee and the St Lucie River was completed not only for transportation and trade, but for flood control of agriculture and people working south of the lake. The prosperity associated with the canal for the local people of Stuart never came and the canal ended up being a major factor in the destruction of their beloved waterways…

Well time goes on, new dreams come and go; new fortunes are made and lost. But for old times’ sake, one can stand at  Sandsprit Park, and look out to Sewall’s Point remembering  perhaps Stuart’s biggest dream, the lost dream, and for many, a dream well lost, the dream of the “Great Port of Stuart.”

*Thank you to my mother, Sandra Henderson Thurlow,  for sharing her historic articles to make this write up possible.