Cruising back in Time: The History of South Florida’s ports

July 27th, 2016


Norway ship at the Port of Miami. Photo courtesy of

During the height of the cruise season millions of passengers will board luxury liners. How did South Florida’s cruise industry begin? Embark on a high-seas adventure featuring the history of two of the world’s largest and busiest sea ports, PortMiami and Port Everglades, and get a sneak peak at the largest cruise ship coming to Port Everglades. 

Henry Flagler was instrumental in developing what became the Port of Miami. After extending his East Coast Railroad to Miami in 1896, Flagler merged his shipping company with Florida’s West Coast Rail Road owned by mogul Henry Bradley. This merge led to the creation of the Peninsular Occidental Steamship Company or P & O. The new port was built in Biscayne Bay and was on land already owned by Flagler, who financed construction of the Port of Miami.

The P & O Company operated ferries from Key West to Cuba, and Flagler wanted to extend that service to Miami. In order to facilitate larger ships, he needed to create a deeper channel from the ocean to the downtown port area. In 1902, Flagler was able to convince Congress to approve construction of a man-made shipping channel named Government Cut. This channel-deepening project allowed the Port of Miami to also become the command center for shipping to and from South Florida.

During WWII the United States Navy took control of port operations and used the location as a training camp for members of the armed forces. Because of military exercises, all cruise activity and coast-wide waterborne imports and exports were ended. When WWI ended, the Navy returned control of the port to the city of Miami.

In the early fifties, the P & O Company resumed cruises throughout the Caribbean with a new ship called the SS Florida; thus the modern cruise industry was born.

While the Port of Miami established itself in Dade County, Port Everglades in Broward County was also influential in the development of leisurely travel and commercial shipping here in South Florida.



 Cargo ship docked at the Port Everglades Refrigerating Company. Photo courtesy of

In February 1928, 5,000 people gathered for an official ceremony to open Port Everglades as a deep water harbor. As part of the ceremony, President Calvin Coolidge pushed a button at the White House that was meant to ignite explosives and remove a rock barrier separating the harbor from the ocean, but, to the great disappointment of the huge crowd, nothing happened. Soon after, the barrier was removed and Port Everglades, a natural basin, was blasted out to increase its depth.

Shortly after being designated an official port of entry in 1931, Port Everglades received its first two passenger ships, the Talamanca and the Pastores. Both were operated by United Fruit Company, a produce business with created in Central America.

The Pastores, at 7,782 tons, was built in 1913 and was initially used as troop transport for the U.S. Navy during WWI. The newer Talamanca, at 6,963 tons, was built in 1931 and was used as a transport during WWII.

In 1932, a much larger vessel, the Anchor Line’s Caledonia, arrived at the port. Built in 1904, it was 500 feet long, weighed 9,223 tons and held 1,468 passengers in three classes.

By the 1950s, the port was attracting ships from around the world. Adding to its popularity, the Fort Lauderdale Rotary Club began greeting ships with Florida orange juice, a tradition that continued for 20 years.

By the 1960s, modern ocean liners were arriving, including the Cunard Line’s RMS Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Elizabeth 2. The advent of jet travel made the port even busier, as travelers preferred to take cruises to the Caribbean rather than across the ocean.

Today, Port Everglades is home to some of the biggest cruise ships in the world, and this fall will be the home of the largest cruise ship in the world, Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas.

At 226,963 tons, this floating mega-resort contains three main pool areas, a water-slide complex, an adults-only solarium, an ice skating rink, two rock climbing walls, a basketball court and a mall-like indoor promenade with shops, and a bar with robot bartenders. Seventy of the inside cabins feature “virtual balconies,” with floor to ceiling LED screens designed to mimic real drape-framed balconies.

The ocean views come from cameras mounted on the exterior of the ship, recreating the exterior view in real time. The screen also includes a computer-simulated balcony railing providing guests with a sense of security. Harmony of the Seas will be docking at Port Everglades this fall for future Caribbean cruises.


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