In many ways, the City of Miami got its start with the completion of the FEC Railway extension in 1896. While there were some very important people and events that triggered the extension, it was the completion of the railway to Miami that initiated the domino effect that triggered the formation of a great southern city. There were freezes and offers of land from property-rich South Florida pioneers, including Julia Tuttle and the Brickell family, that preceded the extension of the railway, but it was Henry Flagler’s agreement and investment to lay track from West Palm Beach to the Miami River that provided the pivotal catalyst for the formation of the Magic City.
Given the importance of the railroad extension to Miami’s origin story, it makes sense that the arrival of the first train would be a seminal event in the city’s history. This milestone is often cited and commemorated in any list of important dates associated with Miami. It has long been believed that the train to make the first journey to Miami arrived on Wednesday, April 15, 1896. While it is true that the first scheduled train arrived on that date, there is evidence to confirm that there was an unofficial train that arrived two days earlier, on Monday, April 13, 1896.
Early Accounts of the First Train
As far back as one can search for information about the first train to arrive in Miami, they will find the date cited for the arrival as April 15, 1896. The Miami Metropolis, the forerunner of the Miami News, had consistently published that the first train arrived on Wednesday, April 15, 1896. However, the Miami Metropolis was not established and did not print their first edition until mid-May of 1896. The city’s first newspaper did not report on the arrival of the first train firsthand, and therefore, relied on the account of pioneers who shared their memories of the event.
There are plenty of notable pioneers who were interviewed or published their biographical accounts in memoirs they wrote later in life. Isidor Cohen, in his book ‘Historical Sketches and Sidelights of Miami, Florida’, remembers the excitement of the arrival of the first train and how a crowd of 300 people gathered to greet the incoming train. He also recalled seeing Henry Flagler and several other FEC dignitaries that joined Flagler on that trip. However, Cohen didn’t specify the exact date of this event and referred to it as occurring in the “last part of April” in his memoir.
J.K. Dorn, J.N. Lummus, Herbert Rogers, as well as others who relocated to Miami prior to the arrival of the first train, also shared their memories of early Miami and many recalled that the first train to Miami arrived on April 15th. It is the memories of many of these early pioneers who arrived before the train that provide us with the date of one of Miami’s most important milestones. However, given the amount of time that had passed when they wrote their biographies, some of the details were inconsistent with other sources.
Oral history is important and is often the only source of what happened and when it happened as historians try to piece together the early history of settlements prior to the establishment of a newspaper or other publications. Given Florida East Coast Railway records and the accounts of early pioneers, there was clearly a train that arrived in Miami on Wednesday, April 15, 1896, but was it the very first?
Evidence of an Earlier Train
By Friday, April 3, 1896, the tracks had been laid to Lemon City, an area that is now referred to as Little Haiti, and four days later, on Tuesday, April 7, the tracks had reached Miami. In the Florida Times-Union, a newspaper based in Jacksonville which began publishing in 1864, published a dispatch on April 10, 1896 (dated April 7th), which reported:
“The tracklayers on the East Coast Railway extension have reached Miami. There is a small amount of surfacing to do behind, requiring two or three days, when the road will be in first class condition from Jacksonville to Miami.”
In addition to the railroad tracks being laid, telegraph poles and wires were also installed near the right of way of the tracks to allow for field correspondents to communicate news back to established newspapers in North Florida. One of the newspapers that consistently published stories on the happenings throughout the state of Florida during the late Nineteenth Century was the Florida Times-Union.
Thanks to the diligent and thorough research of avocational historian Larry Wiggins in his article “The Birth of the City of Miami”, published in the 1995 edition of the Tequesta Journal by HistoryMiami Museum, there is evidence of a train that arrived two days prior to Wednesday, April 15th. The Tequesta article lists citations found in a couple of out-of-town newspapers which referenced the arrival of the first train to Miami. One of those citations was a dispatch published in the Times-Union on Tuesday, April 14th (but dated April 13th), which provides evidence of a train that arrived in Miami on Monday, April 13th. Here is the copy from that dispatch:
“Mr. Henry Flagler’s private car left for the south last night, with Capt. J.J. Vandergrift, of Pittsburgh, Pa.; Mr. J.E. Ingraham, Mr. Flagler’s general agent; Mr. C.B. Knott, superintendent of the East Coast hotel system; Vice President J.R. Parrott and Superintendent R.T. Goff, in the former’s private car, also went south. Messer MacDonald and W.H. Merrill will join the party at Palm Beach. At Ft. Lauderdale, contractor McLain will take the party to inspect the new extension of the F.E.C. railway to Miami, which is completed, and on which Mr. Joseph Richardson, general passenger agent, believes this summer schedule will be put in operation next Wednesday.”
Furthermore, in the weekly Indian River Advocate, a newspaper in Titusville which reported on Florida east coast news, published in its edition of April 17th (Friday) the following dispatch:
The First Passenger Train Over the New Extension
At noon Monday last the first passenger train over the new extension of the Florida East Coast Railway rolled into Miami. Among those on board the train were Mr. H.M. Flagler, president of the road; Vice-President J.R. Parrott, Land Commissioner J.E. Ingraham, Supt J.T. Goff, General Freight Agent W.J. Jarvis, Contractor J.A. McDonald, C.B. Knott, superintendent of the East Coast Hotel System; H.W. Merrill, manager of Hotel Royal Poinciana; Dr. Andrew Anderson, St. Augustine; Captain Van Dergriff, Pittsburgh, P.A.; A.E. Robbinson, John B. Reilly and D.C. Sutton. Most of the party, soon after their arrival, started for a few days’ cruise on the steamer Biscayne among the Keys.
Mary Barr Munroe, a prominent Cocoanut Grove pioneer who moved to South Florida in 1886 with her husband, writer Kirk Munroe, kept a daily diary during Miami’s founding year of 1896. In her diary entry for Monday, April 13th, she wrote:
“Miss Avery and Miss Commodore both came over in the afternoon. Mr. Flagler came on the ‘Biscayne’ late in the evening. I did not see him, but the Commodore did.”
Each of these sources indicate that there was an unscheduled, possibly ceremonial, first train that carried Henry Flagler and other FEC dignitaries to Miami as a test run from West Palm Beach to the end of the rail line as it was configured in April of 1896.
First Official Train
While the train that brought Flagler and his associates to Miami on Monday, April 13, was unofficial, the first officially scheduled train arrived on Wednesday, April 15, 1896, to what was described by Seth Bramson, historian for the Florida East Coast Railway, as a “temporary box-like structure at the southeast corner of what is now Flagler Street and NW First Avenue.” April 15th had long been the date given as the arrival of the first train through oral history, as well as the documented records of the FEC Railway and the organization’s historian.
However, the dispatches published in the Florida Times-Union and Indian River Advocate provide evidence of an unofficial train that preceded the official first train. In addition, Mary Barr Munroe’s journal entry for Monday, April 13th, provides evidence that Henry Flagler was in South Florida on that Monday, and not two days later, on Wednesday, April 15th, as originally thought.
Whether the unscheduled train carrying Henry Flagler and his associates on Monday, April 13th, or the officially scheduled train that arrived on Wednesday, April 15th, should be considered the first train to Miami has been debated over the past couple of decades. In the centennial edition of ‘Miami – The Magic City’, Arva Moore Parks revised the milestone date of the arrival of the first train to April 13, 1896, likely based on the evidence discovered by Larry Wiggins. However, there are still those who prefer to recognize April 15, 1896, as the milestone date of the first train to Miami.
Early Train Schedule
The train that arrived on Wednesday, April 15, was described as a “wood burning locomotive carrying supplies.” It has been portrayed that the first week of train service was primarily to shuttle supplies, equipment, and materials to Miami and that the first passenger service did not begin until Wednesday, April 22, 1896.
According to an article written by Howard Kleinberg in the ‘Miami: The Way We Were’ series for the Miami News, the printing press for the Miami Metropolis was transported to Miami during that first week of train service. However, in that same article, Kleinberg also mentioned that the first Florida East Coast Railway timetable, published in the first issue of the Miami Metropolis on May 15, 1896, had an effective date of April 16, 1896, and included a final southbound stop in Miami. The schedule seems to imply that there was passenger service in effect beginning on the 16th, which would also cloud our understanding of the milestone of April 22nd as the beginning of passenger service into Miami.
Either the effective date on the schedule was incorrect, or our understanding of when passenger service began is also a bit murky. As more information becomes available over time, it is common that new sources of information may add to our understanding of what happened and when it happened. Regardless of your proclivity to one date versus another for any given milestone, the arrival of train service to South Florida set the foundation for the formation of a magical city that continues to evolve, grow, transform with each passing decade.Click Here to Subscribe
- Tequesta Journal: “The Birth of the City of Miami”, by Larry Wiggins (1995)
- Book: “Miami Diary 1896”, by Ann Spach Chesney, Frances G. Hunter, Harriet Stiger Liles, Ann Josberger McFadden, Eliza Phillips Ruden and Larry Wiggins.
- Book: “Miami – The Magic City”, by Arva Moore Parks (1996)
- Book: “Speedway to Sunshine – The Story of the Florida East Coast Railway”, by Seth Bramson.
- Miami News: “Flagler’s First Train into Miami”, by Howard Kleinberg on April 14, 1984.
- Miami Herald: “Pioneer’s Paper a Rich Collection of Miamiana”, by Lawrence Thompson on July 15, 1956.
- Miami Herald: “Pioneer Recalls Exciting Days of Early Miami History”, on July 29, 1934.
- Miami News: “These Brothers Were Pioneer Miami Realtors”, by Ruby Leach Carson on February 2, 1957.
- Cover: Painting by artist Ken Hughes depicting arrival of first train on April 13, 1896. Courtesy of HistoryMiami Museum.
- Figure 1: Ad in Miami News on March 7, 1958. Courtesy of Miami News.
- Figure 2: Photo of Florida East Coast Railway train in Miami in April of 1896. Courtesy of the Florida State Archives.
- Figure 3: South Bound portion of Florida East Coast Railway schedule effective on April 16, 1896. Courtesy of Miami News.