PEMBROKE PARK, Fla. – A devastating weather event took place across much of Florida 129 years ago. In fact, the only part of the state that made it out unscathed was South Florida. The warm winters South Florida is known for are not only to the delight of millions of residents and visitors each year, but it is part of the very reason for its existence as we know it today.
The winter of 1894-1895 was a brutal one. Two significant freeze events took place that would devastate the citrus crop of the region, greatly upsetting a major industry of the state. The first event took place in Dec. of 1894, which is said to have killed much of the citrus crop in Central and Northern Florida. A couple months later, on Feb. 8-9, 1895, an even stronger cold snap arrived. This one not only killed the fruit, but it killed the trees that produce them. All-time record lows were set in Orlando at 18 degrees and 27 degrees in West Palm Beach.
This is where a couple of titans in South Florida history enter the picture. Railroad tycoon Henry Flagler had built his Florida East Coast Railway from St. Augustine to West Palm Beach, where he had constructed the world-class hotel “The Breakers.” This was set to be the end of the line for the railway, but a homesteader in Miami (then known as Fort Dallas) had other plans.
Julia Tuttle had been campaigning to Flagler to extend his railway to South Florida, but he had little interest in the extension. That is until he witnessed the incredible loss that occurred with the Great Freeze. A savvy and persistent Tuttle promptly sent Mr. Flagler a fresh basket of oranges, demonstrating that Miami was unaffected, and its warm climate would make it a worthy investment. This great gesture is what prompted Flagler to agree to the extension, with the line reaching Fort Lauderdale by March of 1896 and Biscayne Bay the next month.
Miami was founded on July 26, 1896 with just 50 permanent residents. It soon became the boom town of boom towns, with its population just 24 years later hitting nearly 30,000 people (a 580 fold increase). The Magic City flourished, and it all began with two vigorous people... and the weather.