The Historical River

Aerial photograph of the pre-drainage Little River, 1924

When south Florida was first settled—and up until the first canal drainage projects in the late 1920s—the only solid mainland was a narrow string of islands or keys between the Biscayne Bay and the Everglades on the Coastal Ridge.

Rand, McNally, and Co. 1884 (Bloomfields Illustrated Historic Guide) Library of Sandra Henderson Thurlow. via

Before the drainage projects of the late 1920s and 1930s, the Everglades flowed south from lake Okeechobee, hemmed in by the coastal ridge on the east. Where breaks in the coastal ridge allowed water to pass to the sea, small rivers formed. Biscayne Bay has four of these original rivers.

The Transverse Glades are clearly visible in this historic flow map—from Landscapes and Hydrology of the Predrainage Everglades by Christopher W. McVoy

The Transverse Glades became the Little River at about NE 1st Avenue: a trickle in the dry season and a torrent in the wet season. It was joined by a spring trace that was harnessed to power a coontie mill near Sherwood Forest Park. The river flowed past the Tequesta Indian mound, where there was a bubbling spring in the middle of the river, according to early plat maps of the area.

Charles Torrey Simpson

The Big Mangroves at the Mouth of the Little River

At the beginning of 1903, Charles Torrey Simpson, the famous naturalist and shell specialist, retired from the Smithsonian Institution and bought 15.5 acres of land with 600 feet of bay front comprising what is today N.E. 69th Street from Biscayne Boulevard to the bay. Here he built a most unusual house he called “The Sentinels” that survived until 1963. He used this house as a base for exploring the environment of South Florida on this property, he also established Miami’s first botanical garden.

Mr. Simpson Jeft us this description of the land that is now Belle Meade:

” … Little River, a small stream from the Everglades, emptied into it (Biscayne Bay) north of us and had formed a sort of fan-shaped flat, composed of silt, sand and marl to the southward, the entire area having brackish soil.

In this littoral a large variety of trees and plants grew, red mangroves, Rhizophora mangle, the largest and finest I ever saw, some of which were four feet or more in diameter and one hundred feet high, with enormous arched roots springing out from a height of over thirty feet. The white mangrove (Laguncularia) became a lofty tree, sending up its curious quills, and just north of my line there was an immense black mangrove (Avicennia) with perhaps a half acre of strong quills a couple of feet high. Here the Pavonia, which ordinarily is a moderate sized shrub, became a small tree, and two species of large swamp ferns (Acrostichum aureum) and A. excelsum grew in great abundance, the former rare on the southeast coast and the latter reaching a height of fourteen to fifteen feet. On a sandy point along the bay grew a single shore grape, a tree which generally prefers the open beaches. Farther back were many giant buttonwoods, a few of which stood erect like respectable trees but the majority of which had fallen and were sprawling aimlessly over the mud, and on their trunks grew that curious little cryptogram, Psilotum, with scale-like leaves, looking somewhat like a club moss but having an orange colored, berry-like fruit. Here grew in great luxuriance seventeen royal palms, certainly the farthest north of any on the eastern side of the state. South of Little River there was a dense growth of limes and lemons which were perfectly naturalized and to the west was a series of freshwater ponds in which were willows and many low growing things.”

This information collected by Antolin Garcia Carbonell, R. A. at

Charles Torrey Simpson’s book In Lower Florida Wilds is available online for free.