The Atlantic Ocean, the Indian River, the North and South Forks of the St. Lucie River, and countless creeks played major roles in the history of Martin County. Inhabitants depended on the bounty of the water, as did the pioneers who settled here in the late 1800s.
The Gulf Steam is a shipping lane just off our coast. In 1876, before the region was settled, the U. S. Government built Gilbert’s Bar House of Refuge on Hutchinson Island. A keeper and his family offered assistance to victims of shipwrecks.
Elliott MuseumIn the 1880s, Homer Hine Stuart, Jr. purchased property and built a bungalow on the north side of the St. Lucie River. He donated land for a depot and in return, his surname name was given to the railway stop after Henry Flagler brought his railway down the Florida east coast to Palm Beach. There was no vehicular bridge across the St. Lucie River at that time
When general store owner Walter Kitching convinced Flagler officials to move the depot to a site in front of his store, the name Stuart came to the south side of the river with the depot.
With the arrival of the Florida East Coast Railway, pioneer life changed dramatically. Reliable transportation made it much easier to ship fish and pineapples, the region’s major products. The tourist industry blossomed and social life revolved around the arrival of trains that now brought the mail.
After the Stuart railway depot was moved to the south side of the St Lucie River, passenger and freight depots, railway spurs, boat docks and a ferry landing formed the hub of pioneer Stuart. Today, Stuart’s Flagler Park is in the location of the community’s former commercial center. The only vestige that remains is the former General Merchandise Store, today’s Stuart Heritage Museum.
Our first tourists were outdoorsmen who came to hunt and fish. Maine hunting guide, John Danforth brought a houseboat down to serve as the first hotel, then later built the Danforth Hotel. The Stuart House, another hotel, evolved from Broster Kitching’s first combination post office and store.
Former President Grover Cleveland discovered the region’s good fishing and stayed at the Danforth Hotel. The news of Stuart’s fabulous fishing spread and other hotels, boarding houses and apartment houses were built to accommodate tourists. Boat building and commercial fishing changed to meet the needs of tourists and sports fishermen.
The Stuart Commercial Club, the forerunner of today’s Stuart/Martin County Chamber of Commerce, was created in 1911 to promote the region and facilitate road and waterway improvements. An auto bridge across the St. Lucie River was high on their wish list. Stuart was incorporated in 1914, four years before the bridge across the St. Lucie River was finally open for traffic.
The completion of the Dixie Highway that would cross the St. Lucie River at Stuart helped create the Great Florida Land Boom of the 1920s. The St. Lucie River Region was caught up in the development frenzy. The Commercial Club campaigned for the creation of a new county and key members went to Tallahassee to plead the cause. Things fell into place after the decision was made to name the new county after the incumbent governor, John W. Martin.
On August 5, 1925, Martin County was official. The Boom was beginning to waver so the grand plans for a new courthouse were scrapped and the new county government moved into an empty schoolhouse.
The former Commercial Club evolved into the Martin County Chamber of Commerce and was officially incorporated in 1928. There were many challenges. During the Great Depression of the 1930’s the Federal Government aided in the construction of the Roosevelt Bridge, the Woman’s Club and Library, the Log Cabin, used by the entire community, and in 1937, with the Art Deco addition to the courthouse.
During World War II, Witham Field was constructed in Stuart to train Navy pilots and Camp Murphy, a sprawling 35-square-mile U. S. Army Signal School, was built in Hobe Sound. Coast Guard facilities expanded on Hutchinson Island and lookout towers dotted the landscape. Some of the servicemen married local girls and many returned to the area after the war. Jonathan Dickinson State Park was created from the vast acreage that was formerly Camp Murphy.
The Chamber of Commerce worked to provide economic security and attract tourists and industry. In 1941 a phenomenal sailfish run brought attention to the waste of killing and discarding catches. The species needed to be preserved, as a result, the release system was established.
Stuart promoted itself as the Sailfish Capital of the World —. Stuart Fishing Guides, first published by the Stuart Daily News in 1935, and distributed by the Chamber of Commerce attracted thousands to the region. Ernest F. Lyons, longtime editor of the Stuart News was responsible for most of the text and the Fishing Guides were chock full of ads from local businesses. Lyons, an avid sportsman, and environmentalist, helped inspire local residents not only to enjoy our good nature but to preserve it.