In the Fall of 1895, John Sewell was in Palm Beach, Florida, working for Joseph A. McDonald who was the head of the construction arm of the Florida East Coast Railway. It was during a brief meeting that McDonald informed Sewell that he had been selected to go south to begin work on the development of a new city located where Biscayne Bay meets the Miami River. Sewell gladly agreed and expected to get word soon thereafter on when he needed leave for this new venture.
However, Sewell did not hear anything until February of 1896 when McDonald summoned him to meet with Henry Flagler, the principal owner of the Florida East Coast consortium of companies. John would later find out that the delay was due to the complexity of getting title for land that was being given by Julia Tuttle. The claim to the land had at one time been part of Spanish grants and the perfection of the title for this property took more time than everyone expected.
When Sewell arrived in the boss’s office, Flagler informed him that he was ready for Sewell to leave for Biscayne Bay, which was how most people referred to Miami before it was incorporated as the city of Miami. Flagler advised Sewell not to take too many men because he would have trouble housing them. Along with his brother, Everest G. Sewell, John selected twelve of his most trusted black workers to join him for the trip south from West Palm Beach. He referred to this group as his “black artillery”.
Arrived at Biscayne Bay on March 3, 1896
When John Sewell was preparing his crew to depart West Palm Beach for the trip southward, he was greeted by Henry Flagler to wish him well and to provide him a letter of introduction to be given to Julia Tuttle when he arrived. His party consisted of his brother, Everest, and his twelve workers: A.W. Brown, Philip Bowman, Jim Hawkins, Warren Merridy, Richard Mangrom, Romeo Fashaw, Scipio Coleman, Sim Anderson, Dave Heatley, J.B. Brown, William Collier, and Joe Thompson.
The crew departed by train from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale on the morning of March 3, 1896, where they transferred to a steamer named Della to complete the journey by waterway, which was the only option to get to the shores of the Miami River at that time. The men arrived at five o’clock in the evening at the terminus of a street that was carved out of the piney woods along the north bank of the Miami River. This street ran south from the river northward and was given the name of Avenue D, a thoroughfare we know as South Miami Avenue today.
Sewell’s first impression of the area was that it was mostly woods offering little in the way of civilized amenities. It was the beginning of the transformation of dense piney woods into a city. He noticed a steamer that was moored on the Miami River at the base of Avenue D. This vessel arrived earlier in the day and was being setup to offer housing for those arriving by the day looking for work. The steamship was the Rockledge, and it was converted into a floating hotel by Captain Edward Vail.
After disembarking from the Della steamship, John found Julia Tuttle and presented Flagler’s letter as a form of introduction. He visited with Tuttle and her two children for a while and was quite impressed with Julia’s business acumen and with the entire family. They were building Hotel Miami, which was located on the east side of Avenue D near where the crew of fourteen were dropped off.
However, the hotel was still under construction when Sewell and his brother attempted to check-in. As luck would have it, Captain Vail’s Floating Hotel had vacancy and was able to provide lodging for the pair while the Hotel Miami finished preparing a room for John and Everest. Most of the men who arrived prior to Sewell’s crew setup tents or temporary shacks wherever they could find space in the piney woods, which is most likely where Sewell’s workers found accommodations.
The first job that John assigned to his brother Everest was to coordinate his workers to help Harry Tuttle raise the Hotel Miami three feet off the ground using jacks that John had sent a week earlier. This helped Harry Tuttle prepare a room for the brothers. Two days after they arrived, John and Everest were given a room on the second floor of Tuttle’s partially completed inn. The brothers were given a place to stay on the second floor which required them to climb up a ladder to reach a room that did not include an attached door. If one wanted privacy, they needed to lean the unattached door over the space where it would normally close.
Although the hotel was more of a construction zone than a finished product, John commented that it had two windows and was well ventilated. He said in his autobiography, Miami Memoir: “as I was the star boarder, I had more towels than the others, some with real handwork on them and fancy designs.” Sewell was enjoying the celebrity treatment, but it did not provide what many would consider contemporary perks.
Groundbreaking on March 15, 1896
Along with the Sewell brothers and their twelve workers, there were people arriving in Miami on a frequent basis. One of the arrivals in early March was a photographer by the name of J.N. Chamberlain. He had already rented space for his studio in the Royal Palm Casino, which had not been built yet. The casino referred to the bathing casino or hotel pool. Despite the status of his studio, Chamberlain planned to arrive early and photograph the work being done to prepare the city.
In the meantime, John and Everest began developing friendships with several others who came to the area to find opportunity. Among the arrivals was James E. Lummus who rented space from Julia Tuttle to open a general store. Another was Charles T. McCrimmon who planned to go into the contracting business, and Thomas L. Townley who planned to open a drug store. The five men developed a friendship and as John stated in his autobiography: “we made a party of five that kind of ran together.”
John Sewell and his twelve workers were charged with clearing the grounds for the location of the Royal Palm Hotel. Sewell credited Reverend A.W. Brown with tossing the first shovel of dirt on the morning of March 15, which marked the official groundbreaking.
The crew was hard at work when Chamberlain asked to photograph the men who were charged with clearing the land for Flagler’s hotel. Despite not being a part of the project, John Sewell called for his brother, Lummus, McCrimmon and Townley to join him near the mouth of the river to pose for the photograph. He also gathered his twelve workers to be in the picture, with the five friends standing in the foreground and the workers situated in the background. The photograph was published in newspapers throughout the state of Florida and is still widely circulated to showcase the early work that would transform the hardwood hammock on the north bank of the Miami River into the Magic City.
On the same day, a second photograph was taken which positioned the black laborers working in the foreground, and Sewell and friends located in the background (cover photo). The perspective of the picture was from the west looking east toward the bay which also captured a large mound behind the gentlemen posing for the picture. This mound represented layers and years of sacred history. Given the sensibilities of the day, John Sewell saw it as part of the terrain that needed to be leveled to complete his job of clearing the land for the Royal Palm Hotel and adjacent Royal Palm Park.
Tequesta Indian Burial Mound
One of the distinguishable features of the relatively flat site of the future home of the Royal Palm Hotel was a large mound located on the northeast corner of the hotel’s property. As John Sewell wrote in his autobiography, the mound “stood up like a small mountain from the bay.” The height of the mound was about twenty feet above sea level, but the top of the trees growing on top of the mound extended as tall as sixty feet in height.
Sewell went on to say that to make room for the hotel’s veranda, the mound had to be moved or removed. As he and his men began to level the mound they found as many as fifty to sixty skulls as well as other human remains, some of which were placed into barrels and stored in a tool house on the property of the hotel. In addition to storing many of the human remains into barrels, Sewell stated that he “gave away a great many of the skeletons to anyone who wanted them.”
As the hotel was nearing completion, Sewell’s tool house was torn down and the barrels were relocated. John took about four of his most trusted workers and hauled the barrels to a hole at the northwest corner of today’s SE Second Avenue and SE Second Street for final burial. The location later became the lot in which John W. Watson built his residence. The Watson family was unaware of what was buried beneath the surface of their lot when they acquired the land and constructed their home. Incidentally, Watson Island is named for John W. Watson, who was a pioneer merchant and a two-time mayor of Miami.
Laying Out the City
Prior to the arrival of John Sewell and his twelve workers, the clearing of streets in the city was already underway. James Ingraham, one of Flagler’s most trusted executives, hired the firm Cabott and Correll to complete the task of clearing land for the roads within the city limits. This firm cleared the streets in Fort Lauderdale and agreed to bid on the same project in Miami.
However, the firm did not count on the different terrain they would encounter in Miami. Fort Lauderdale had a sand foundation whereas Miami had a hard rock foundation. The firm quickly realized that the effort to clear the streets in Miami would require a lot more time and men than the same project further north. Sewell recounted in his memoir: “Cabbott and Correll moved their force here from Fort Lauderdale and started to work, and in two months’ time they had lost on the Miami streets all their year’s profits made at Fort Lauderdale.” The firm gave up on their contract leaving Joseph McDonald, the man in charge of building the Royal Palm Hotel and overseeing laying out the city, to direct John Sewell to take over and complete the street clearing project on top of his responsibility to clear the site for the Royal Palm Hotel.
John Sewell agreed to accept the challenge and began immediately to come up with a plan to complete both projects in a timely manner. As Sewell took on the street clearing effort, the contractor who was responsible for laying the track from Fort Lauderdale to Miami completed their job early. The contractor, also hired by James Ingraham, offered to Sewell the use the one hundred and fifty convicts to help with the street clearing project. The firm that laid the track for the railroad used leased convict labor to accomplish their task and did so with time left on the contract.
Sewell quickly realized that the men who worked on the railroad extension were ineffective in clearing the hammock land along the bay front. There were many parts of the hammock that grew so thick that a man could not enter to get proper footing to clear the land. John decided to change his approach to clear the hammock. He said in his memoir: “Finally the convicts were moved, and I sent out word by all my negroes that I wanted one hundred negro laborers next Monday morning to start street clearing. When Monday morning came there were one hundred and ten negroes at my tool house waiting for me. I gave them tools until the hundred was exhausted.”
The tools and manual labor to remove some of the pine trees and hammock foliage was very time consuming and sometimes immovable. It was in those difficult spots that Sewell employed the use of dynamite to simplify the job. After clearing the difficult foliage with a controlled explosion, Sewell described his subsequent approach as follows: “I had to work my men in a V-shape, the head man with bush hooks, as it was such a thicket a man could not walk through it, the next row of men with axes, and the next row with grubbing hoes.” Even after the use of dynamite to loosen the thicket, workers were frequently breaking their tools while trying to remove stubborn members of the hardwood hammock such as the iron-wood tree.
After clearing the streets and avenues in and around the construction site of the Royal Palm Hotel, Sewell turned the remainder of the street clearing project over to Captain W.H. Weatherly to focus on the north side of the river and his friend, C.T. McCrimmon, to concentrate on the south side of the river, or what Sewell described as the Brickell’s part of the city. The street clearing was completed by late spring which was followed by the paving of the roads using crushed Miami rock. Some early pioneers described the crushed white rock used for pavement material as dusty and blinding on a sunny day. In its first few years, the city experimented with several different approaches to pave the streets of Miami, many of them proving to be ineffective. This is a story for another article.
Incorporation & Opening of the Royal Palm Hotel
As spring turned to summer, the area was bustling with activity as buildings began to rise along Avenue D (Miami Avenue), and the Royal Palm Hotel began taking shape. By the beginning of July, there were enough people in the area to initiate calls to begin planning for incorporation. On July 10, 1896, the Metropolis, the areas first newspaper, published a notice in the paper which called on all eligible voters to assemble to select officers and organize a municipal government. The notice went on to state that proceedings would take place in “the room over ‘The Lobby’ which is located on Avenue D.”
On July 28, there were 368 men who showed up to vote for officers, confirm the city boundaries and select a name. In accordance with Florida law at the time, a region needed at least 300 signatures on the charter document to incorporate as a city. Anything less than 300 signatures, a municipality could only incorporate as a town.
Despite the significant contributions of both Julia Tuttle and Mary Brickell, women would not get the right to vote in federal or local elections until the passage of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution. This meant that every eligible man in the city was being counted on to sign the charter.
Of the 368 men who did cast their vote, 162 were the city’s black pioneers, many of whom worked for John Sewell clearing the streets and leveling the grounds for the Royal Palm Hotel. Sewell got word out to all his men that he expected each of them to show up at the Lobby to ensure there were enough signatures to confirm that the municipality would incorporate as a city, not as a town.
One of the black pioneers who signed the charter, Alexander C. Lightbourn, was given credit by Isidor Cohen, who was one of Miami’s first Jewish settlers and a pioneer merchant, for providing the most inspirational speech he had heard during the entire incorporation proceeding. Cohen did not share the text of the speech, but he made it a point to mention that Lightbourn’s words were memorable. Earlier that year, on March 12, 1896, the Greater Bethel AME Church was founded in the home of Alex Lightbourn. The church is still an active congregation today and is located in the historic Overtown neighborhood of Miami.
When the incorporation proceedings ended, the city was given the name of Miami, selected for the serpentine river that runs through it, and the first mayor elected was John B. Reilly, son-in-law of Joseph A. McDonald, the senior officer overseeing the construction of the municipality. A city council was elected, and a single lawman was appointed. At the end of the proceedings, Henry Flagler sent a message congratulating all who were involved with the founding of the city. It was on July 28, 1896 that the city of Miami was officially born.
After the formalities of the incorporation proceedings ended, construction continued to provide the city’s infrastructure and to complete Flagler’s Royal Palm Hotel. The hotel was nearing completion as the city’s birth year was approaching its end. However, when one of the most recognizable families made an impromptu trip to the Magic City, the hotel’s staff made sure the hostelry was open and ready to accommodate its first guests.
John Jacob Astor IV, scion of one of the wealthiest families in America, and his son, five-year old William Vincent Astor, were the first to stay in Miami’s upscale inn during their visit to the brand-new city of Miami. While the hotel would not be ready for its grand opening for a few more weeks, providing rooms for the Astor family marked its unofficial opening. John Jacob and his son arrived shortly before Christmas Eve which prompted the hotel staff to fell and decorate a Dade County pine tree to offer a sense of yuletide spirit for young William Vincent.
While the Royal Palm Hotel unofficially opened to accept guests as early as New Year’s Eve, it did not have its official grand opening until January 16, 1897. The city and hotel welcomed many of Henry Flagler’s business and political friends, which attracted onlookers to take up a new pastime in Miami, people watching. Residents would stand near the hotel’s roundabout driveway waiting to see which celebrity would arrive in the procession of horse drawn carriages from the train station or by private railcar. There was a spur leading from the train station to the front entrance of the hotel for those who were wealthy enough travel in such a luxurious manner.
There was a lot of excitement for the opening of the hotel, and by association, the introduction Miami to the rest of the country. When Henry Flagler extended an invitation to Henry Plant, who developed the west coast of Florida like Flagler developed the east coast, Plant asked: “where is this place called Miami?” Flagler responded: “Go to Jacksonville and then follow the crowd!”
Reunion Photograph in 1921
In March of 1921, four of the seventeen men who posed for the groundbreaking photograph in 1896 reconvened near the same spot twenty-five years after the original picture was taken. John and Everest Sewell, James E. Lummus and Thomas L. Townley met on the grounds of the hotel to pose for a picture taken by J.N. Chamberlain as they did a quarter of a century earlier.
Charles T. McCrimmon, who passed away on May 14 in 1917, as well as all of Sewell’s black workers did not attend the reunion photo shoot. Sewell mentioned that he lost track of all but three of his former workers, which partly explains why the reunion photograph only included a subset of the men in the original picture, and none of the laborers who performed the job of clearing the land where both photographs were taken.
End of the Royal Palm Hotel Era
During the onset of the 1920s, the Royal Palm Hotel was less than 25 years old but beginning to show obsolescence. It was primarily constructed of wood while newer hotels were built with fireproof materials, a safety issue that was not lost on tourists visiting Miami after the turn of the century. Miami was the victim of two significant fires in its first four years and many of the original wooden structures had either been replaced or burned down. By 1920, the Royal Palm Hotel was one of the wooden structures still standing.
As the hotel progressed through the 1920s, it began to fall out of favor as a destination for younger tourists. When the 1926 Hurricane struck Miami, it damaged the Royal Palm Hotel significantly. It was upon the news that Joseph Greaves, the general manager of the hotel, died in 1928 that the Florida East Coast company decided to close and dismantle the Royal Palm Hotel. By 1930, the only thing left of Miami’s first iconic building was an empty parcel of land with the footprint of what was once a luxurious hotel that had arisen from a hardwood hammock just thirty-four years earlier.
Never a Town
As mentioned earlier, anything short of 300 signatures on the incorporation charter would have meant that our beloved city would have become the Town of Miami on July 28, 1896. The rules for the formation of a city in the State of Florida were clear and uncompromising. So was Henry Flagler. His intention was to build a city, not a town.
It was not just Flagler who advocated for Miami to think big. Years before her agreement with Flagler, Julia Tuttle envisioned that her land on the north bank of the Miami River would one day make a “fine southern city.” In the late-1880s, William Brickell shared his prophecy that everyone would soon hear the whistle of the train, implying that progress and development of their quiescent slice of paradise was inevitable.
Many of those who came to Miami looking for work soon understood that they were making history. They may not have envisioned the metropolis that Miami is today, but they knew that what they were building was bigger than a town. Whether it was Chamberlain capturing history through his camera lens, the pioneers who kept journals providing the city’s first history books, or those who, like Alexander Lightbourn, got inspired during the formality of incorporation, took a risk, and stood up to share his inspired words. It was that inspiration and vision that ensured Miami was never a town.Click Here to Subscribe
- Book: “Miami Memoirs” by John Sewell.
- Book: “Miami – The Magic City”, by Arva Moore Parks
- Book: “Black Miami in the Twentieth Century” by Marvin Dunn
- Book: “The Way We Were” by Howard Kleinberg (pages 46 – 47)
- Cover: Preparing Grounds of Royal Palm Hotel on March 15, 1896. Courtesy of State Archives of Florida.
- Figure 1: Hotel Miami in 1897. Courtesy of State Archives of Florida.
- Figure 2: Groundbreaking for Royal Palm Hotel on March 15, 1896. Courtesy of State Archives of Florida.
- Figure 3: Preparing Grounds of Royal Palm Hotel on March 15, 1896. Courtesy of State Archives of Florida.
- Figure 4: Avenue D in 1896. Courtesy of State Archives of Florida.
- Figure 5: The Lobby Pool Hall, two story location, where Miami was incorporated in 1896. Courtesy of State Archives of Florida.
- Figure 6: Royal Palm Hotel Gardens. Courtesy of author.
- Figure 7: James Lummus, John Sewell, Thomas Townley and Everest Sewell in March of 1921. Courtesy of State Archives of Florida.