Touring Miami River With Dr. Paul George
It’s only five and a half miles, but the Miami River is full of so many interesting tales, it takes three hours to hear them all. I’m born and raised in Miami and I never paid much mind to that winding body of water downtown – except of course, when I’ve had to stop in traffic for a drawbridge – but after taking a tour of Miami’s birthplace I realized something important: to know the river is to know the city.
One of the best ways to become acquainted with the river is to take a boat tour with Dr. Paul George, history professor at Miami-Dade Community College and historian for The Historical Museum of South Florida. This year, Dr. Paul George celebrates his 20th anniversary giving tours for the museum.
Dr. Paul George is no ordinary tour guide. A noted scholar, he’s what I’d call a walking encyclopedia of all things Miami. His passion and enthusiasm for the topic is readily apparent and it’s a pleasure to hear him speak. During our three-hour tour he only took one 15-minute break; he knows what has happened and what’s currently going on in every nook and cranny of the river!
Our tour began at Bayside Market Place in the morning with about 60 guests on board the Island Queen. The boat is comfortable and the ride is smooth. It’s a short sail from the bay to the mouth of the river.
The river really isn’t a pretty place – not in a Mickey Mouse tropical South Beach sort of way. The website of a popular riverfront restaurant calls it an “industrial wasteland.” But for my buck, it’s probably one of the most interesting areas of town and one definitely worth exploring.
THE RIVER TODAY
The Miami River spans five and a half miles from Biscayne Bay to Miami International Airport. The Miami Canal, which extends further west, was dredged between 1909-1912, but is not the original river.
Everywhere you look, you see evidence of maritime culture: freighters, tugboats, houseboats, commercial fishing fleets, lobster crates, luxury yachts, sailboats and even derelict craft stand out on the river. All these vessels share a relatively narrow body of water: 90 to 150 feet of is considered navigable by federal standards, although some spots on the river can be as wide as 225 feet.
Traffic jams are common. The captains of commercial and pleasure crafts must wait there turn for rising drawbridges – no less than 10 of them the entire length of the river.
All this traffic is a good thing, though – it spells big bucks for the local economy. The river is a busy port with thirty-two private, international shipping terminals handling over $4 billion a year in cargo. (The “port” area of the river technically begins around 27th avenue and stretches about 1 mile west.)
Cargo companies from over 50 Caribbean ports of call prefer the river to the Port of Miami because their ships are better suited to handle the shallow drafts, shorter seawalls and types of cranes available on the river. As well, the river’s port facilities are more affordable.
According to a 2005 Biscayne Bay Economic Study, this “working river” represents a flow of cash for the city: “waterborne commerce on the Miami River generated $805 million in output, $406 million in income, 6,700 jobs and $44 million in tax revenues in Southeast Florida.”
With numerous boat yard facilities, the river is also a stop for many a boat in need of maintenance. Every time a mega-yacht cruises in for service, it generates $385,000 in local economic input.
THE FUTURE LOOKS GREEN
The river was not always polluted; fresh water flowed from the Everglades through a series of rapids on the river’s north fork; the “fall” dropped about six feet over the course of about 450 feet.
Freshwater springs also bubbled up in numerous spots along the river. Over time, Miami’s population and industry increased. Poor sewage management, as well as chemical run-offs from surrounding terrain, polluted this once pristine body of water.
Today, the river is undergoing a massive dredging project by the Army Corps of Engineers, which will not only clean up the water, but also provide greater depth for freighters. The $88 million project is scheduled for completion this year in October and will restore the designated 15-foot depth of the federal navigable channel.
Those few extra feet make all the difference in the world for the economy and the environment. At 15 feet, freighters will be able to fill their cargo holds to 100% capacity and traverse the river even in low tides. The increase in trade and commerce means more local employment.
The Merrill Stevens Dry Dock Company, which has been repairing yachts on the river since 1923, is privately funding an expansion of its service areas for larger boats and is implementing a “green” initiative to use energy-conserving solar panels.
The dredging not only creates depth for navigation but also removes contaminated sediments. With a cleaner floor, the river will not push pollution further out into the bay during hard rain.
A proposal is in the works for the first biodiesel fuel manufacturing plant on the river. The fuel would be made from the oil-rich nut of the Jatropha plant, as well as recycled vegetable oil from restaurants. Potential customers for biodiesel would be the river’s own shipping terminals, as well as cruise ships calling in at the Port of Miami and Miami-Dade County buses. Currently, the State of Florida imports %100 of its diesel fuel.
Not all the industry on the river is marine-oriented. Our tour ended where a scrap iron recycling factory meets the train tracks. The factory grinds away noisily twenty-four hours a day, turning landfill material into reusable metal. According to Dr. Paul George, China is the factory’s biggest customer.
Obviously, industry is extremely significant on the “working river,” but the rest of the river – stretching from the port area to the mouth, is being developed as a “living” river. It’s refreshingly eclectic, with riverside parks, quaint (if sometimes rickety-looking) homes, historic residences and rising, brand new condominiums built close up to the river’s edge.
There are a total of nine parks off the waterway. E.G. Sewell was the most scenic I saw on the tour.
Lush and green, the park is the former garden of wealthy snowbird and botanical enthusiast Gen. Samuel C. Lawrence who planted palms and trees in the late 19th century. Some of those royal palms have survived hurricanes and still stand today.
The Miami River Greenway is a long-term improvement project advocated by the Miami River Commission. Some sections of it are completed and others are about to break ground. The Greenway represents a 10-mile pedestrian pathway on either side of the river, as close as possible to the seawalls, wherever feasible.
IN THE BEGINNING
The Miami River is clearly evolving as a mixed-use community, but it’s the river’s deep past that really captures the historical imagination. People have been living, working and playing at the river’s edge for at least a couple thousand years!
Juan Ponce de Leon first set eyes on Biscayne Bay in 1513 and spotted a Tequesta Indian village on the river’s shore. The Miami Circle – an archeological site that dates back to at least 750 B.C. —is all that remains of Tequesta culture. You can see a statue that pays tribute to the Tequesta on the Brickell Bridge, humbly dwarfed by surrounding high-rises. (The irony never ceases to nudge me whenever I drive by.)
The area between the mouth of the river and southeast 2nd Avenue reads like a who’s who of Miami pioneers. In the 19th century, when Florida became part of the United States, the Seminole Wars brought soldiers to the river and Fort Dallas was established near the bay. (Today, a city park called Fort Dallas is at the site of Bijan’s restaurant at the base of the Riverwalk metromover station.)
Namesake William Brickell came to the river in the 1870s when he began establishing trading posts. Julia Tuttle, the “mother of Miami,” brought land here in 1887. It was Julia who convinced Henry Flagler to extend his East Coast Railway to the Miami River, where the latter built a luxury hotel called the Royal Palm on the northeast bank.
Flagler cleared land and began construction of the hotel in 1896, the same year his first train arrived and the city of Miami was founded. At 680 feet long and five stories high, the grand hotel boasted 450 rooms, a ballroom, elegant furnishings, electricity, ice and elevators – not the kind of amenities usually available in the wilderness!
Such pomp and circumstance in the middle of a mosquito-infested swamp seems only fitting considering the skyline today. Behemoth towers and giant ships overtake this dynamic body of water in nothing less than a dramatic flourish. Cruising by the mouth of the river is something every Miami lover must experience in person.
TOURING THE RIVER
The Historical Museum of South Florida offers three different Miami River experiences throughout the year (2008/09 season), all guided by Dr. Paul George.
The Miami River Boat Tour
Downtown Architecture and Miami River Walking Tour
Miami River Architecture
For information and reservations on all activities, call 305.375.1621, Monday through Friday, 8:30 am to 3 pm (or leave a message at anytime).
The Historical Museum of South Florida is located at 101 West Flagler Street in Downtown Miami. Municipal parking is available at the multi-story garage on 50 N.W. 2nd Avenue. Take the second level skywalk to the museum and bring your parking ticket to the reception desk – discounts are available for museum visitors.
MIAMI RIVER INFORMATION & RESOURCES
No serious Miami history buff should go without reading Donald C. Gaby’s The Miami River and Its Tributaries (ISBN: 0-935761-04-7). An easy read, the book is chock full of facts and is available at the museum store.
To learn more about political, environmental and other issues affecting the river today, visit the Miami River Commission’s website. The commission is a watchdog, advocate and clearinghouse for the river.
Download the Miami River Commission’s map (PDF) for information about Greenway areas and parks that are completed and open (see the legend for the dotted green lines). My favorite public-access walk is the one starting at the bay at the mouth of the river.
RESTAURANTS & SEAFOOD MARKETS ON THE RIVER
Bijan’s on the River
Finnegan’s on the River
Fish Houses and Markets:
Casablanca Seafood Bar and Grill
García’s Seafood Grille and Fish Market
Miami River Lobster and Stone Crab Market
Prime Blue Grille
The Capital Grill
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