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The Biscayne House Of Refuge And The Founding Of A City

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Seth Bramson is a professor and historian of South Florida, as well as the Company Historian of the Florida East Coast Railway. Seth has written "From Farms and Fields to the Future: The Incredible History of North Miami Beach", which tells the history of Fulford and the Biscayne House of Refuge.


One of the great names in Dade County is William Fulford. Fulford first arrived at the spot that would bear his name (now called North Miami Beach) in 1891, in an event that occurred almost by accident. Following the Civil War, and after several years of captaining a coastal ship operating out of New Smyrna Beach, just below Daytona Beach on Florida's upper east coast, the captain, in 1890, received an appointment as the keeper of the Biscayne House of Refuge, located toward the north end of what is now Miami Beach, between today's Seventy-second and Seventy-third Streets, the site now marked by a large, bronze memorial plaque.

One of several life-saving stations set up along Florida's lower east coast as havens for sailors whose boats were wrecked on reefs or in storms along the coast, the Biscayne House was not, by all accounts, overly busy as a life saving entity, but it would, because of Fulford's—and his wife's—warmth and graciousness—serve as a part-time hostelry.

While the Biscayne House of Refuge was first established in 1876 to help shipwrecked sailors and castaways it became progressively less important in fulfilling that function as ships and navigational guides improved over the years. But according to one account, Captain and Mrs. Fulford, gracious and genial as they were, had so many other visitors at the House that it must be concluded that at least some of them paid for the privilege of being the Fulford's guests. That same account goes on to state that, with three rooms and a kitchen on the main floor and a large dormitory-type room under the upstairs sloping ceiling, there were a surprisingly large number of applications for room and board for short-term visitors, some of whom were turned away due to lack of space. Utilizing fresh fruits and vegetables on their dining table, which were gathered from their farm (the farm was part of the requisite for property improvement necessary in order to prove a homestead claim), the House of Refuge also developed a reputation for fine and high quality board to go with its sometimes-available rooms.

With the revelation of those facts it might be argued that, in addition to being the Lifesaving Service's outpost on the lower east coast of Florida, the Biscayne House of Refuge was, even before the now-famous in Miami Beach history Brown's Hotel was built, that hotel's predecessor as the first hostelry on what would eventually become one of the world's most renowned winter resorts. People were, probably, paying to stay at the Biscayne House of Refuge before anywhere else in Miami Beach.

The first journal entry in the House of Refuge's log made by Captain Fulford was dated August 6, 1890 and he noted that both of the rescue boats as well as the contents of the wooden building which he had just been put in charge of were in poor if not deplorable condition. While he was making arrangements for the refurbishment of the life-saving station he made friends and began attending church in Lemon City, which, in those pre-Miami incorporation days, served as the only dockage for ships seeking to make port in lower Biscayne Bay.

At that time there was no water separation or "cut" between the still-unnamed Village of Bal Harbour and the county park that would, some years later, be known as Haulover Beach Park. Unlike today, with Haulover Cut enabling the tidal flow to flush the upper part of Biscayne Bay, the northern reaches of that bay were brackish and lagoon-like. Snake Creek, likely named for its meandering and multi-curved course through the northern reaches of the bay's mangrove-laden lagoons, flowed langorously through the area that would later be purchased by Harvey Baker Graves to form what would become known as the Graves Tract. Mr. Graves' 1919 purchase of 1800 acres of land for $60,000 from The Model Land Company, a unit of the Flagler System, also included what would later be known as East Greynolds Park as well as Sunny Isles, today the beautiful city of Sunny Isles Beach.

As Captain Fulford sailed up and down the Florida coast on his regular voyages he was intrigued by the tropical nature of the lower east coast and during his many trips was constantly alert to and aware of the conditions in the area of then middle Dade County. (The term "middle Dade County" is apropos here, as prior to the 1909 separation of Palm Beach County and the 1915 separation of Broward County what was then Dade County was an enormous entity, stretching from Indian Key in the Florida Keys—that section below the mainland now part of Monroe County—to just north of Stuart, which is now in Martin County.)

According to Jeanette Campbell, former director of the NMB Public Library, Fulford "kept his weathered eye peeled for ground that remained above water twelve months of the year." In a region surrounded by marshes and mangroves, with flooding on a regular basis a rainy-season reality, the finding of a homesite on high ground was nothing other than a necessity. Noting one particular ridge that was visible from the coast, Fulford, in a small boat, rowed west along the green-walled, winding creek to find the rise that he had seen from his ship.

Knowing exactly where he wanted his homesite to be, Fulford had a survey of the land prepared. Following the submission of his application to homestead said land he received his original 160 acre grant from the federal government. Although working on what would become Miami Beach, going to church and having friends in Lemon City, Fulford's property was a good ten miles north and west of the House of Refuge and approximately nine miles north of Lemon City, on the mainland.

Captain Fulford settled on the land in 1891, making the required improvements to it and building a house. After five years the land was deeded to him and with access to the bay via Snake Creek—today known as the Oleta River—and holding the most desirable location in the area, the Fulford property quickly became the center for what, a little more than three decades later, would become a town named for the captain. This town, originally called Fulford, and then Fulford-by-the-Sea, would in 1927 become the town and then the city of North Miami Beach.—Seth Bramson

· Seth Bramson [sethbramsonbooks]