Imagine yourself visiting Miami Beach, Florida, not today amidst throngs of residents and tourists, but in the winter season of 1921 when the town could boast of a residential population of less than a thousand souls.

Far from being a glamorous tourist destination, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the island had been a mosquito-infested mangrove swamp, home to land crabs, rabbits, wood rats, and poisonous snakes. While a few pioneers had tried planting coconut palms on the barrier island in this period, it was John Stiles Collins and his son-in-law Thomas J. Pancoast—(New Jersey nursery owners and farm machinery suppliers)—and J. E. and J. N. Lummus—(local Miami bankers)—who made the first serious and successful investments in the island’s future development.


By 1912, Collins and Pancoast were working together clearing the land, planting crops, supervising the construction of canals to get their avocado crop to market, and setting up the Miami Beach Improvement Company.

With loans from the Lummus brothers, Collins had begun work on a 2½-mile long wooden bridge—the world’s longest—to connect the island to the mainland. When funds ran dry and construction work stalled, Indianapolis millionaire and recent Miami transplant Carl Graham Fisher intervened, providing the financing needed to complete the bridge the following year in return for a land swap deal.


That transaction kicked off the island’s first real estate boom. Fisher helped by organizing an annual speed boat regatta, and by promoting Miami Beach as an Atlantic City-style playground and winter retreat for the wealthy. By 1915, Lummus, Collins, Pancoast, and Fisher were all living in mansions on the island, three hotels and two bath houses had been erected, an aquarium built, and an 18-hole golf course landscaped.

The Pancoast residence on Miami Beach

Fisher’s ocean-front residence (designed by George Pfeiffer) was the first edifice erected on Lincoln Road in 1915.

 It was followed in quick succession by his office on the corner of Lincoln and Washington in 1917, and by his star attraction, the Lincoln Hotel.

While land crabs still outnumbered bathers on the beach, and one might still catch a glimpse at night of the luminescent eyes of the occasional wildcat, luxury hotels like the Lincoln ensured that nature made way for society, and the luminaries whose faces splash across the pages of the Social Register. Although an automobile enthusiast, Fisher recognized the need for bringing tourists and electricity to Miami Beach; towards that end he and other investors created the Miami Beach Electric and Miami Beach Railway companies; by December 1920, tracks for an electric streetcar looped Miami Beach south of 47th Street and crossed over a second bridge spanning Biscayne Bay (where the McArthur Causeway now stands) to link up with those laid down for Miami’s trolley.

Fisher’s mother had taken up residence in the Lincoln Hotel in the 1920/21 winter season, and her son continued to encourage politicians, sportsmen, celebrities, and the cream of society to come down to this tropical winter retreat.

 Strolling down Lincoln Road, one would have had a view of the polo fields stretching south between Alton and Meridian. Moving in the direction of the beach, one would have been able to peer into Fisher’s glass-enclosed tennis courts, laid out where the Albion Hotel now stands.

Guests at the Lincoln Hotel would have had numerous options for entertainment. With Fisher’s encouragement, horseback riding had also become a popular pastime along the surf, down the center of Pinetree Drive, and along the bridle paths circling the golf links adjacent to the hotel. If pleasure cruises, fishing, tennis, polo, or golf were not your cup of tea, there were tea dances, and opportunities to gamble or imbibe prohibited spirits. Guests could walk the six blocks to the Miami Beach Casino (not a gambling establishment despite its name, but rather a bath house founded by Quakers), or catch a ride north along Ocean Drive’s narrow sand road to the Jungle Inn speakeasy and gambling establishment, carved out of the wilderness in the vicinity of 67th Street.

The Lincoln Hotel catered to the needs of the most influential of visitors that January 1921. When President-elect Warren G. Harding decided to spend some of his pre-inaugural vacation time in South Florida with some of the men he was considering for cabinet posts, the houseboat party stopped in Miami Beach and rendezvoused with Senator A. B. Cummins at the Lincoln. There the politicians stopped for lunch and played a round of golf on the course adjacent to the hotel.

Crowds had gathered outside the Lincoln to catch a glimpse of the presidential party as they entered the hotel for an exclusive luncheon in the elegant hotel dining room.

Carl Fisher was seated on the right hand side of the President-elect. The Miami Beach real estate promoter must have been elated to hear Harding speak enthusiastically about Miami Beach, telling the press that “This beach is wonderful,” and that it was “developing like magic.” The presidential party did not stay overnight in the Lincoln. Instead, Harding lodged for the weekend in one of the villas on the grounds of one of Fisher’s newer ventures—the Flamingo Hotel, which had opened for business with a gala party on New Year’s Eve of 1921. But more on the Flamingo in another blog post…

~ by "The Chief" on October 24, 2012.


  1. Wonderful blog. Thanks!!!!!

  2. I love this!!! Anything on the cities of Hollywood, Miramar, Homestead or Pembroke Pines? How about Florida City or the old Hacienda Village or Andytown? I’m a history teacher, so I love learning about the area. Thanks!

  3. […] 1916 and 1919, Fisher had financed the construction of the Lincoln Hotel, and in January 1921 had opened the grand Flamingo Hotel and even managed to woo President Coolidge […]

  4. […] have written in an earlier blog about Carl G. Fisher’s contribution to the early development of Miami Beach, but the visit last week of a gentleman who […]

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