Martin County History and Culture
From our earliest beginnings, the waters surrounding Martin County have shaped our history. From shipwrecks to pineapples, much of our past is linked to the innumerable estuaries, lagoons, rivers, and lakes that surround our region.
In 1715 a mighty Spanish treasure fleet was struck by a vicious hurricane off Hutchinson Island. Spanish Plate Fleet, sailing from Havana, included 15 ships carrying millions in gold, silver, and precious stones. The storm swirled through the fleet, scattering wrecks along the shore from the St. Lucie Inlet to Cape Canaveral.
One vessel is rumored to have sought refuge from the storm through an unsuccessful attempt to enter the St. Lucie River Inlet. What her fate was and where her remains lie are unknown. A 1716 Spanish salvage organization to recover as much as possible of the treasure was abandoned in 1719 after being met by harassment from pirates, privateers and even Indians. The Martin County Historical Society has recently been conducting an underwater exploration of area to possibly salvage any significant historic artifacts.
In 1875, a U.S. Lifesaving Station was established on Hutchinson Island, the site of the famed shipwreck, and still stands today as The House of Refuge at Gilbert's Bar. Converted into a museum, it was preserved as an historic landmark in 1955 when the Martin County Historical Society was formed.
Life On the River
In the 1840s, the only road in Florida covered the 61 miles between St. Augustine and the St. Mary’s River, so early settlers to the Martin County area lived along rivers and traveled mostly by boats. They built homes along the waterfront and opened shops, cultivated the land with pineapples and citrus, and fished in our abundant waters. The Indian, St. Lucie, and Loxahatchee Rivers were the streets and avenues of commerce, bringing the necessities of life.
One of our most prominent features Lake Okeechobee, is the largest lake within the US. Most river traffic was by sailboat until about 1885 when the steamer "Indian River" began its service. A year or so later, a small twin-screw steamboat, the Lake Worth, began making regular trips from Titusville to Jupiter. Over the years, the St. Lucie Canal has proved to be a good fishing hole and at one time was developed as a cross-state barge canal from the St. Lucie Inlet to the Caloosahatchee River on Florida’s west coast at Fort Myers. This opened the channels of travel bringing a new wave of visitors to the area.
Fishing became an important industry in the Jensen area in the mid-1890s. This was one of the first places on the east coast to have an ice manufacturing plant, which was essential to the operation of the commercial fishing industry. By 1919, seven wholesale saltwater fish houses existed with just three remaining today: Allman’s, Crane’s and Stiller’s.
Years later our waters are still recognized as a haven for fishing. It has been said that Port Salerno’s fishing grounds are the most noted along the entire Atlantic Coast. This sleepy village south of Stuart and north of Hobe Sound boasts some of the most colorful fishermen on Florida’s east coast. Our bountiful waters are renowned for salt, fresh, and deep-sea fishing. Known as the "Sailfish Capital of the World", the community also attracts numerous sports-fishermen looking to catch the coveted sailfish and other sport fish offshore and in local waters recognized as a sport-fisherman’s paradise.
Captains Thomas E. Richard and R.D. Hoke, founders of the Indian River Colony in 1843, were the first to recognize the region’s potential for citrus production. But after profits from cultivating citrus began to wane, settlers turned to new ventures like the cultivation of pineapples. Beginning in 1878 on a sandy ridge in Indian River, this settlement attracted farmers, field hands, tradesmen, craftsmen, and professionals, leading to the inevitable development of Stuart.
The pineapple industry’s hub was Jensen Beach, which at its peak of production in 1908 harvested a reported one million pineapples from Sebastian to Hobe Sound. During these "golden pineapple days" the Jensen Beach area was a center for social activities, and included Gilbert’s Bar Yacht Club on the beach and Mid-Rivers Country Club in Waveland. Shortly after the Great Florida Freeze in 1895, the pineapple "gold rush" died out.
As the region’s agriculture grew, planters pressed for the extension of the railroad down Florida’s east coast to reach deepwater ports where their produce could be shipped to northern markets. By 1861, two railroads were in operation across Florida: the Florida Railroad from Fernandina to Cedar Key and the Jacksonville-Alligator (Lake City) Railroad, intended to eventually reach Pensacola.
By 1894, the tracks from railroad magnate Henry Flagler’s East Coast Railway from Jacksonville to Miami reached Stuart, and opened up a whole new way of life to area residents. Citrus and pineapples could be shipped by rail; and tourists arrived by way of the first passenger train, Palm Beach Limited, seeking sunshine and a new place to visit. Once known as Potsdam, the town was renamed in 1895 in honor of Homer Stuart’s hospitality and business acumen, as well as to cease railroad conductors’ from yelling out "Pots, dam Pots!" as they announced the Stuart station stop.
The railway was so important to the area that there were stations in Stuart (Potsdam), Jensen, Rio, Salerno, Fruita, Gomez, and Hobe Sound. Once completed as far as Jensen, a railroad bridge was completed across the St. Lucie River and the name "Stuart" was used in place of Potsdam.
The Cities of Martin County
When Florida became the 27th State in the Union in 1845, there were only 21 towns in Florida, many of which were little more than outpost settlements. But with the advent of the automobile, and good roads, new Florida frontiers were forged, including Martin County. On May 29, 1925, Martin County was established, and soon blossomed into eight distinct communities: Jensen Beach, Indiantown, Hobe Sound, Palm City, Stuart, Rio, Salerno, and Port Mayaca. Stuart, FL (originally known as Potsdam) was named the county seat.
A veritable wilderness until 1924, Indiantown is located between Lake Okeechobee and the Atlantic Coast on the only cross-state canal, which was constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers around WWI. S. Davies Warfield, a Baltimore financier, attempted to build up the Indiantown area with a second railroad, today’s CSX Transportation System - resurrection of the Seminole Inn and plans for a resort community. He even had dreams of making Indiantown the county seat. Davies died in 1927, and with him went the many dreams he had for the community.
Palm City’s date of birth happened in either 1910 or 1912 and was considered a hunting and fishing area.
Martin County’s westernmost town, Port Mayaca is nestled against the eastern shore of Lake Okeechobee and shares its beginnings with those of Indiantown just 14 miles to the east.
Rio, though not large, is entitled to its own page in Martin County history with the earliest settlers arriving in 1893. The town is comprised of beautiful homes along the St. Lucie waterfront, a number of small and large businesses, as well as its own Volunteer Fire Department and a Civic Center.
The county grew through the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, with many new residents arriving from the north. Camp Murphy, an Army base at Jonathan Dickinson State Park during WWII, was home for many soldiers who later settled in the area.
During the ‘70s, the county started to feel the pinch of Florida’s sprawling landscape with an outpouring of the many south Florida residents exiting Miami and Fort Lauderdale to find a more tranquil home. That migration continues today as the county grows in leaps and bounds, making a new history for one of the fastest growing areas in the state.
One of Martin County’s most delightful and edifying attractions is the self-guided walking tour of the quaint and beautifully restored historic downtown district of Stuart, the county seat. Three dozen commercial and residential buildings comprise the self-guided historical walking tour. Several date back to the 19th century. The Stuart Branch of the American Association of University Women publish a free brochure with a map and detailed histories of each site on the tour, which is available at retail establishments throughout downtown. Click here to view a map highlighting the attractions of the walking tour.
Formed in 1970, the Barn Theatre is Martin County’s oldest community theatre. In addition to staging five main stage productions each year, including dramas, comedies and musicals, the Barn stages a Holiday show and the Studio Series of one-act productions.
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