One of my favorite aerial photographs from my mother’s history books on Martin County is of the infamous Hugh Willoughby flying over the St Lucie River at Sewall’s Point and Willoughby Point. In more familiar terms for boaters, this location is known as “Hell’s Gate” due to the bottle-necking of the rushing tide.
Mr Hugh de Laussat Willoughby, one of the “early birds” of aviation, and a resident of Sewall’s Point, (http://earlyaviators.com/ewilloug.htm) had the idea of locating the New York Yacht Club at the southern tip of the peninsula as envisioned in the map below. It is difficult to see in the aerial, but the insignia of the New York Yacht Club is on the side of the biplane.
The yacht club never materialized as the market crash of the late 1920s and following depression of the 1930s dashed that dream. Today many local pilots fly over the St Lucie River at this same location to photograph a different dream. –By showing the devistation, inspiring a dream for our state and federal agencies, of clean water…
Would Mr Willoughby ever have imagined his paradise would be one of controversial pollution? Never in a thousand years….
This year, the ACOE has been discharging from Lake Okeechobee since January 29th 2016; in 2013 they released May through October, and in 2014 nothing…
May the photographs or today’s ailing river inspire change, and may the spirit of Mr Willoughby keep adventure and love alive in our hearts—and the wind— ever at our backs.
If you ever drive the easterly location of Indian Street in Martin County, you are in the historic subdivision for the proposed Town of Port Sewall. According to the “History of Martin County,” in 1910, Hugh Willoughby and Captain Henry Sewall established the Sewall’s Point Land Company which developed Port Sewall–of which Golden Gate is part.
I was taken by these old aerials from 1954 showing the straight roads of the Golden Gate section of the development with Sewall’s Point and St Lucie Inlet in the distance; I wanted to compare the photo to a cool old plat map and a Google map of today.
I love this old area of Martin County. So much history. It is fun to drive along Old St Lucie Boulevard and through Golden Gate. There are still remnants of the past. To visit the old Golden Gate building on Dixie Highway now getting a new life as the office of House of Hope—that was once a real estate office…..an awesome old Whiticar Boatworks from a bit later…
One of the long forgotten thing about this area is that Sewall and Willoughby’s vision for this development was a deepwater port off of Sewall’s Point. According to historian Sandra Thurlow, “The port was to be established at the junction of the waterways known today as the Crossroads. It would be called “Port Santa Lucia” and would handle the vast amounts of produce that would be shipped out of the interior of Florida via the cross state canal.”
The cross-state canal in this reference? Yes, the cross state canal of the 1920s was the dreaded St Lucie Canal or more lovingly know today as C-44…the canal that connects Lake Okeechobee to the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon.
Willoughby and Sewall’s development and the Port of Santa Lucia never succeeded as the Great Depression of the 1920s killed that dream. But unfortunately part of the dream of that era lived on. Today the cross state canal or since named “Okeechobee Waterway” (C-44 in Martin County) does not transport vast amounts of fresh produce, but rather is used to “manage” the waters of Lake Okeechobee and to send sediment and nutrient filled Agricultural run off to feed algae blooms and destroy the property values of Sewall’s Point, Port Sewall, Golden Gate, and the rest of Martin County.
Today I will share an historic aerial photo along Willoughby Creek together with a brief history lesson by my mother. Following, there are recent Google Map photos to compare…Stuart is still “paradise,” but sometimes I wish I were born 100 years ago. 🙂
“Jacqui, I came across this in my computer and thought it might be interesting for you to see. The date is Feb. 26, 1949. You can see Marvista… I think the house in the middle is the one that became Lee Rasch’s home. Patty Irons Child’s mother, Marge Irons was Lee’s second wife. The house at right was originally “Lagunita” built by Hugh Willoughby, Sr. (There is a big write-up on it on page 158 of the History of Martin County.) It later became a small hotel-like place call “Inlet Tides.” Both of the structures on the right side have been demolished… I am sure you know that Marvista was built by Hugh Willoughby, Jr. in 1924-25.”
—-Sandra Henderson Thurlow, Historian
You may have to “look” a bit, but if you do you will find Marvista and Lagunita today.
I have wanted to share this Port Sewall land development map for a while as it is so interesting to observe.
Port Sewall, established in 1911, was one of our area’s first “planned developments.” It consisted of lands from the Hanson Grant that Captain Henry Sewall acquired through his family line. The infamous Hugh Willoughby later joined him and they formed the Sewall’s Point Land Company, which according to Sandra Henderson Thurlow’s book The History of Sewall’s Point: ” built the Sunrise Inn, dredged for a yacht turning basin, and planned to develop a deepwater port.”
Due to the Great Depression of the 1920s theses dreams evaporated but left this map that became the basis for part of South Sewall’s Point, Stuart, St Lucie and Old St Lucie Boulevard, Port Sewall, and Golden Gate.
The body of water in the Port Sewall map is today’s Willoughby Creek. The original name Oyster Creek, was changed. This is fitting as today when I look over the edge of the little bridge on Indian Street, I do not see many oysters, only manatees swimming around in dirty looking water.
Today, I pose what may be an odd question but it is one I think about in light of my Florida League of Cities meetings and friends that force me to think about climate change and where things are going in the future of South Florida.
This is not “bad,” it is just change. Just 12,000 years ago there were mammoths, mastodons, saber toothed cats, 17 foot tall sloths and broad horned bison walking around looking for watering holes and hoping not to get “bow and arrowed” by a paleo-Indian. Things change. Times change. Slowly. We must adapt.
As a side note, a few years ago my husband Ed and I visited his birth city of Buenos Aries, Argentina. We noticed, just like Ed’s father told us, Argentina’s development was further back from the river. Most of the lands along the water bodies were left for “everyone” along with wildlife and to promote the area’s fishing. This was prompted by periodic flooding and storms. Just like we have here….
“We,” on the other hand, have completely built out to the edge of the water, right up in fact or over every little creek and rivulet.
It may be a rhetorical question, but if we had it so do all over again, how would we develop our lands to ensure the integrity of the surrounding waters, giant hammocks, upland forests, forks, creeks, wetlands, and shorelines?
As a Sewall’s Point commissioner of seven years, one the “craziest” things I have ever heard was that FEMA would help our town buy out some of the shoreline houses that have experienced repetitive flood losses. Hmmmmm….But we would lose the tax base I thought…..but then if the water is coming up, and the storms seem to be getting stronger, and it is my responsibility to plan for the future of the town….is this really such a crazy thought?
Ft Lauderdale is doing this…..Miami is doing this…..
Most certainly many elements have added to the degradation of the St Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon. Intense coastal development is right up there.
As we move forward in light of climate change, there may be opportunities to offset that destruction. These changes are not something anyone is ready for or wanting to discuss.
Nonetheless, Mother Nature just may force the conversation. We should start thinking now, what exactly we are going to say to her, because she is coming…
If Hugh Willoughby had not been searching for a southern location for the prestigious New York Yacht Club in 1906, we would not have the remarkable hand drawn map above. The New York Yacht Club’s southern headquarters was never established at the southern tip of Sewall’s Point, but we can see the water depths in the area were substantial, at 20 feet, around the tip of the protected west side of today’s High Point subdivision.
I stumbled upon the information about the New York Yacht Club again, because of trying to track water depths in the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon over the past century in my mother’s book, The History of Sewall’s Point.
From my parent’s old timer friends, over the years, I have heard stories about the the water depth and clarity being extensive in many areas of the St Lucie River, from Palm City to Stuart to Sewall’s Point, and how over time the sediment, due to canal run off from C-23, C-24 and C-44, has “filled the bottom of the river” in many areas, even forming “islands” north of the Palm City Bridge. C-44, connected to Lake Okeechobee, was first connected in 1923, and then deepened and widened again in the 1930s, and 50s and “improved since.” C-23 and C-24 were built in the 50s and 60s. Tremendous amounts of sediment and pollution has filled the river over time from these once thought “harmless” canals.
Today this sediment fill is often referred to as “muck.”
Anyway, for a baseline comparison of water depths, I started looking thorough my historian mother’s maps and asking questions to my attorney brother, who is a wiz at any type of map old or new, and although I did not get mapping for all of the the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon, I did for my own beloved Sewall’s Point. I imagine it is a microcosm of the rest.
NOAA, 2014 electronic water depth map juxtaposed to hand drawn map of Sewall’s Point ca. 1906.
Comparing the two maps, one can see that the southern tip of Sewall’s Point in the NOAA map is not documented, I imagine because it is too far away from the Okeechobee Waterway. Disappointing. Nonetheless, if one looks at Sewall’s Point’s mid area, across and north of Hell’s Gate (the narrow part of the river) one can see water depth numbers like 19; 15; and 14 feet. Today those numbers on the NOAA chart read 4; 8; and 7.
Looking on the Stuart side, north of Hell’s Gate, the 1906 map reads 10; 8 and 12 feet. The 2014 NOAA map reads 2; 3; and 4 feet. Mind you, the channel has been dredged many times by the Army Corp, and Florida Inland Navigation District since 1906 and this certainly affects depths overall in the river as well. Nonetheless, for me, it is interesting to compare as even the channel depths in this area are no deeper than 11 feet and often more like 8 or 6 feet.
The famous mid 1900s environmentalist editor of the Stuart News, Mr Ernie Lyons, once said “Life too, is a changing river.” I wonder if he knew how much we were going to fill it in…
After I wrote this blog , friend, Kevin Stinnette, sent me the insert for south Sewall’s Point as he has experience as an avid sailer. I am adding for interest although I will not adjust my blog. The same principles hold true. 🙂 Thank you Kevin!
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 1924
“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.