History of Fort Lauderdale

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Floridas Gold Coast, of which Fort Lauderdale is such an integral part, is proof that contemporary alchemy exists.

Seven decades ago, what is now seductive sands, swaying sea oats and glittering hotels and condominiums was palmetto scrub and swampland. Along these sands, only the occasional beached sailor and the fabled barefoot mailman strode.

Many generations ago, the Abaniki tribe of Native Americans lived beside the sea here, followed generations later by pirates who awaited an opportunity to attack Spanish galleons heading home from Central America, loaded with gold.

Some didn't just await an opportunity'they created it. Early entrepreneurs called "wreckers" lured ships onto the spiky shoreline stones that gave Boca Raton, which translates loosely to "rats mouth," its unglamorous Spanish name, a salute to the rocks' resemblance to rats teeth. Wreckers had a pretty easy job of it, however as hurricanes and inadequate navigational aids sent many a ship to a watery death. So often did this happen, in fact, that the locals often went to church to pray not only for booty, but for specific booty, designed to meet the need of the moment. So handsomely were some prayers answered that a massive party went on for days in Boca Raton when a Spanish shipwreck produced hundreds of barrels of sherry.

The wreckers were such a demanding crowd that, by the late 1800s, they were accusing shipowners of sending out worthless cargo to collect insurance money. Audacity like that is nothing new in these climes, where some of the nations most flamboyant characters have made miracles and millions, trading on pride and sunny circumstances.

One of these characters was long-ailing architect Addison Mizner, who rode railroad entrepreneur Henry Flaglers train to Palm Beach to swim in healing sunshine. He ended up swimming in millions of dollars, happily paid by those who commissioned him to build massive homes along the Gold Coast. Palm Beach and Boca Raton soon became the stronghold of Addisons flashy "Bastard-Spanish-Moorish-Romanesque-Gothic-Renaissance-Bull Market- Damn-the-Expense" architectural style.

In 1925, he created Bocas Cloisters Hotel, which stands still as part of a massive resort complex. He created the Breakers Hotel. He created Palm Beachs toney Worth Avenue. He created half of Palm Beach, at least, and what he didn't create, others created by copying his embellished style.

No shrinking violets when it came to promotion, he and his cronies lured the famed and infamous of the day, perfecting an enduring technique Mizner called, "Get the big snobs, and the little ones will follow."

Mizners boom spread southward to Fort Lauderdale and environs, where canny characters salted the seaside with "pirate gold" to lure buyers who already were pouring $2 million a week into Mizners sales coffers. So wildly farcical and often felonious did it all become that Boca Raton earned the nickname Beaucoup Rotten.

While this investors' feeding frenzy was luring wealth-seekers to the Gold Coast, down in Fort Lauderdale, a young man named Frank Stranahan was seeking his fortune in the sunshine along the citys New River. There he opened a general store and built a ferryboat to sail Miami-bound travelers across the river. To his humble home and store, which still stands, Seminoles paddled downstream from the marshes. They would sleep over on his porch before beginning the upstream return. Later, boarders of a more conventional nature slept in his extra rooms. When a young teacher named Ivy arrived, he married her, and the town of Fort Lauderdale, named for Maj. William Lauderdale, who had once commanded a fort on the site, was born.

All the bubbles burst when the Depression spread its depressing tentacles across the nation, but at least Addison Mizner sunk into fiscal gloom with characteristic style. Mizner sold a barren plot of land to an entrepreneur, whose efforts to grow coconuts failed miserably. The buyer sued Mizner, claiming he had been told he could "grow nuts" on the land. "Oh no," Mizner responded to the judge, "I told him you could go nuts on the land."

In the years that followed, some went nuts, some went broke, but as the decades passed, the lure of year-round sun, sparkling sea and swaying palms proved irresistible to buyers. Another spiral of good fortune began, rising to an apex when Mizners Cloister Inn was bought by financier Arthur Vining Davis in 1956 for $22.5 million - $17 million more than the United Stated paid for the entire state!

That booms continued, and continues, as Fort Lauderdale became Greater Fort Lauderdale, encompassing a host of smaller urban areas stretching from the southern border of Palm Beach to the northern edge of Miami, luring thousands to a golden coastline that has become one of the nations best-loved sunspots.