A Short History Of Stuart

The George Parks Store built in 1901 that is now the Stuart Heritage Museum

The Atlantic Ocean, the Indian River, the St. Lucie River with its North and South Forks, as well as countless creeks, played starring roles in the history of Martin County. The native inhabitants depended on the bounty of the water as did the pioneers who settled here in the late 1800s.

The Gulf Stream creates a shipping lane a few miles off the 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.

In the 1880s, Homer Hine Stuart, Jr. purchased property on the north side of the St. Lucie River and built a bungalow. When Flagler’s railway was constructed, Stuart donated land for a depot and in return his surname was given to the railway stop.

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.

The settlement on the south side of the St. Lucie River, originally named Potsdam, became Stuart after Walter Kitching convinced Flagler officials to move the depot to a site in front of his store. The name came across the river with the depot.

The depot, railway spurs, boat docks and a ferry landing formed the hub of pioneer Stuart. Today, Stuart’s Flagler Park is the location of the community’s former commercial center. The only vestige remaining, other than old dock pilings, is the former George W. Parks 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.

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 its 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 could now 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.

Hurricanes contributed to the boom’s collapse, but the new county it spawned endured. 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 1930s, the federal government aided in 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. Failed banks were replaced with the Citizens Bank of Stuart that evolved in to the Seacoast National Bank we know today.

During World War II, Witham Field was constructed at Stuart for training 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 and the release system was established. Stuart promoted itself as the Sailfish Capital of the World — the species needed to be preserved. 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.

Editor's Note: Sandra Thurlow is the author of several regional history books and many articles. The photographs and stories she and her husband have collected through the years will be merged with the archives of the Historical Society of Martin County at the Elliott Museum. 

Please visit www.SandraThurlow.com.