Smith’s Casino: Miami Beach’s First Tourist Facility, Part I

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Paul S. George, Ph.D

Miami Beach has not always been the tourist paradise that it is today. Its popularity as a “sun and fun spot” is just a century old.  Hundreds, and even thousands of years earlier, Tequesta Indians, so named by Juan Ponce de Leon, a visitor to the area in 1513, lived on the then peninsula, as indicated by long ago archaeological excavations in today’s Town of Surfside.

Long after its aboriginal inhabitants had vanished, investors, in the late 19th century, attempted, without success, to create a coconut plantation on today’s Miami Beach. At the time, the area was swampland with mangrove trees clutching the west or bayside of this land mass while stretching deep into its watery, concave interior. On the east was a barren, wind-swept beach. 

John Collins, who was one of the investors in the coconut tree experiment, attempted to raise avocadoes around today’s Pinetree Drive and 41st Street.  Thomas Pancoast, Collins’ son-in-law, however, saw tourist possibilities for the area, and, with the blessings of Collins, began to plan a community centered around this theme on Collins-owned land.

By then, the City of Miami, a brash municipality just five miles west of Miami Beach, had incorporated, while many of its denizens began to see other possibilities in the future of the forlorn land sitting across the bay from them. Even before development took place, ferry boat operators began carrying visitors across the bay, from the tip of today’s Flagler Street to the southern edge of the peninsula. The cost of the ride was ten cents.

In 1904, Dick Smith, a schooner captain and the Dade County Tax Assessor, began operating a bathing house in a two-story, wood frame building whose roof bore the shape of a pyramid, at the tip of the beach.  Smith’s enterprise was, however, short-lived. In 1909, Avery Smith (no relation) and his friend, John C. Warr, two New Englanders, purchased the Smith property with the intent to “develop a day pleasure resort and institute a boat service to reach it.”   A Connecticut steamboat operator who provided excursions for paying guests in the summer, Avery Smith, had arrived in Miami only one year earlier. 

Years later, Avery Smith recalled his first view of Miami Beach, then known as Ocean Beach: “I stood on the shore of Biscayne Bay and looked across to where Miami Beach is now. All one could see was an impenetrable curtain or mass of mangrove trees reaching as far north as vision could discern… Our only guide through the tangled mass was an occasional view of the roof of an old building that had been built there as a clubhouse by one Dick Smith…The building was mostly roof, very high and shaped like the pyramids of Egypt, and it served us well as a guide through the jungle.” But Smith, like Pancoast, saw great tourist possibilities in this spit of land abutting the Atlantic Ocean and located in a warm, temperate climate.

Accordingly, Smith and Carr organized the Biscayne Navigation Company in 1909, to bring this vision to fruition. The company leased a swath of land stretching from the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay north for 132 feet.  There they built a bathing casino, or a small house, and a boardwalk from the bay to the ocean to deliver guests to it. Cocoanut Grove (sic), and other water-oriented resorts in Florida already offered bathing casinos for the growing number of visitors to the Sunshine State.

As their plan unfolded, Avery Smith recalled that “in the fall of 1909…(we) started building boats and wharves at Miami and at the beach, as well as bath houses and boardwalks, this really being the beginning of Miami Beach…” Smith continued: “We built two double-decked, twin-screw passenger boats at Miami in Huffstettler’s Miami River yards.” The boats Smith referenced bore the names of two famous ships: the Mauretania, a twin-screwed vessel, fifty-feet in length, and the Lusitania. Later, other boats were added to the company’s fleet.  The vessels were powered by naphtha, a flammable liquid hydrocarbon mixture. Their point of departure for the bathing casino was Henry M. Flagler’s Fair Building, a Bayfront structure near today’s E. Flagler Street and the bay that hosted small conventions of visiting organizations and exhibitions. 

In the next installment of this column, we will complete our examination of Smith’s Casino, early Miami Beach’s first tourist draw.

Paul S. George, Ph.D., serves as Resident Historian, HistoryMiami Museum.  He conducts history tours throughout the county and even beyond for HistoryMiami. Additionally, he teaches classes in Miami/S. Florida and Florida history for the Museum. Dr. George has also led, since 2002, tours of Little Havana as part of Viernes Culturales, a monthly celebration, every third Friday, of the culture and history of that quarter.


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