Departments — 05 October 2018
A look back at Fort Lauderdale’s long love affair with boats and boating

By John Dolen

 City & Shore Magazine

Before there was an Intracoastal Waterway and a Port Everglades – much less a Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show – there was boating and yachting in our fair waters.

With reports like this from a Field and Stream writer in 1882, what big-time anglers could resist?

“New River, for six miles above its mouth, is the straightest, deepest and finest river I have seen in Florida… It is famous for its … immense number and variety of its fishes.” Running in and out with the tide, the writer noted, “they can be seen by the thousands.”

With no city yet, early visitors often anchored at Frank Stranahan’s trading post, alongside Seminole canoes. Stranahan, who had arrived in 1893, also operated a cable-driven ferry service across the New River. The 20-by-30 foot wooden structure, looking like a primitive houseboat, hauled loads of cargo. For individual passengers, he simply rowed them in small boats or canoes across the river, to eventual beach access.

Our first solid construction bridges – at Las Olas Boulevard and Andrews Avenue – weren’t built until 1917.

One of the more incongruous crafts to dock in those early days was a 90-foot steamboat named the Wanderer. Owned by famed naturalist Charles B. Cory, it foreshadowed the massive gasoline-powered party boats of today. With a giant paddlewheel at one end and steam pipes at the other, it had expansive decks for champagne-sipping sightseers and lavish lounges for celebrity guests. Inside was storage for all manner of fishing and hunting gear. Cory and his retinue partied like it was, well, 1899.

Geologically speaking, the New and Middle Rivers originally flowed into the New River Sound. This emptied into what was called Lake Mabel, and finally over silt beds to the ocean. Without a deep-dug port yet, steamboats like the Wanderer came down inland waterways from Lake Okeechobee.

By 1928, Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood teamed up to deep-dredge Lake Mabel and make the cut to the ocean, now Port Everglades.

The gates were open to all manner of craft, including massive triple-masted schooners and freighters taking vegetables north. And later, of course, came colossal cruise ships.

Boating also benefitted from the so-called “Big Dig,” stretching from Maine to Key West, which redirected and connected natural north-south waterways. The Intracoastal Waterway became US 1 for boaters. And to drain the Everglades, engineers dug the east-west canals.

And finally, after a visit to Venice, land developer Charles Rodes came back with a dream to create canal living here. Waterfront homes where you could motor your yacht up to your backyard deck. Rodes built his isles off of Las Olas Boulevard, and W.F. Morang replicated this in Rio Vista.

Maritime stories abound: FDR’s visit to Cap’s Place where they had to make special provisions on the little ferry for his wheelchair. Rum-runners in deadly waterway shootouts with the Coast Guard.

Then there was the time in 1921 that yachtsman Commodore A. H. Brook learned from Thomas Stilwell (later to become publisher of the Fort Lauderdale Daily News) that President-elect Warren G. Harding was on a cruise down the Intracoastal headed to Miami. They arranged the grounding of a barge on the planned route, blocking the vessel. Brook’s yacht auspiciously came to the rescue and brought the president-elect to town for a round of golf and dinner with local officials. Sneaky, but good PR.

Yachting magazine tells the story of Frank Denison, who in 1948 purchased Dooley’s Dry Dock on the New River and renamed the boatyard Broward Marine. Shortly after the purchase, he won a contract to build a dozen 146-foot and 172-foot minesweepers.

Locals called this “Denison’s folly,” believing it impossible for such large vessels to navigate the New River to the port. But Denison had a plan: He built the wooden hulls at the Broward yard and then floated them downriver to Port Everglades. There he added the superstructures and armaments.

Soon Broward Marine became the largest private employer in Broward County, trading minesweepers for yachts – and megayachts. In 1954, it built the 96-foot Alisa V, then the largest motoryacht launched in the United States in decades.

A year later came the next fortuitous event in yachting – the city’s purchase and development of Bahia Mar. Once a refuge for survivors of shipwrecks, and then a Coast Guard station, it was gradually becoming a favorite place to dock.

Joseph C. Mackey, founder of Fort Lauderdale’s first air carrier (later Eastern Airlines), often cited Bahia Mar as the city’s biggest step forward. It would draw the North’s wealthy down here via their yachts. They’d love the place, buy homes and invest.

And so right he was. In less than a hundred years, we went from dugout canoes and a clunky looking ferry to home port for over 42,000 boats, with close to 100 marinas and boatyards.

Not to mention the world’s largest boat show.


To see all of the photos, please see our digital edition,




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