Saturday, January 24, 2009

History at Your Feet


I was born in Miami, Florida.


When I was growing up, everyone I knew, except my brother, had moved there from somewhere else. Comparatively speaking, south Florida is 'new' compared to other parts
of the United States. Maryland, for example has had English-speaking people there for four hundred years. Of course the US has no history at all compared to Europe or the far east. In Europe, you can bump into two thousand year old structures with no trouble at all. It became a joke that whenever we were driving on a very straight road somewhere in Europe, it had probably started as a Roman road and often it was true. When the Romans built a road, it was straight!

Many of the roads in Miami are straight, too. The land is relatively flat and the grid pattern worked there. It's not like Philadelphia at all, where there is NO DISCERNIBLE logic to where roads go. Many go in circles and since signs are expensive and rare, you can be lost for days.


But the roads were not always straight in Miami, the first ones followed a low shelf of limestone that follows the coast a bit inland. You see, most of what is now Greater Miami (Dade County) was just Everglades when the first non-Indian settlers arrived in the mid-1800s.

By 'Everglades', I mean swamp. Swamp with gators and rattlers and water moccasins and cotton-mouth snakes and coral snakes and scorpions and mosquitoes and land crabs. Oh, my. South Florida is semi-tropical which means it has two seasons, the dry season and the wet season. During the wet season, before the canals were dug, you could canoe around most of the Miami area. Houses could only be built on the small pine-covered islands that would jut up out of the water every now and again.

Before the Civil War, a road was commissioned by the military to allow troops to reach South Florida overland to fight the Seminoles in the Seminole Wars. This 'Military Trail' was the first road all the way to south Florida and it connected Fort Pierce, Fort Lauderdale and Fort Dallas. See, the kids going to Fort Lauderdale on Spring Break just think it's a cute name, but it was actually a fort. That's a cool word - fort. Fort, fort, fort. We don't use it enough nowadays.


Oh, didn't recognize the name 'Fort Dallas'? That's because it's called Miami now. But what's left of the fort is still downtown and you can visit it.
The Military Trail became the County Road and later became part of the Dixie Highway. Long before there was an Interstate Highway System, the Dixie Highway was a marked route that ran all the way to Michigan.

Which brings me to the 'history at your feet' part of this story. When we were growing up, the only Dixie Highway we knew was West Dixie which ran on the west side of the Florida East Coast (FEC) railroad tracks. But the Military Trail route was actually East Dixie Highway. We never heard of it because it was decommissioned when Biscayne Boulevard was built. The Boulevard was built on part of the route but was straightened because it no longer had to follow the limestone shelf.

It wasn't until I started my research that I discovered that the house my parents were living in on NW
82nd Street when I was born (see the road to the left) was located right on the Military Trail/County Road/East Dixie Highway. When I visited there recently, in my mind's eye I viewed the Barefoot Mailman who walked the trail every week to bring the mail to Miami. I saw the covered wagons bringing the folks who would develop this swampy mess into farms and homes and schools. I saw the women in their long Victorian dresses and blouses buttoned to the neck (bikinis didn't come along until later). Covered head to toe in that heat! What suffering did they endure so we can sit in our condos and sip a gin and tonic?

But growing up, I was oblivious. The history is there at our feet, we just have to look down.

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