Wild and Dirty

Hemmed in, polluted, under police guard, the New River is still as untamed as it gets in Fort Lauderdale

The Cooley Massacre essentially marked the end of the so-called New River Settlement and the start of the Second Seminole War. The war brought Maj. William Lauderdale and his soldiers in 1838 to establish his namesake fort near the fork that divides the New River into north and south branches, near the present-day Snow Reed Swing Bridge. Within months, however, the military abandoned the fort, and the Indians burned it to the ground. A new fort was built near the mouth of the New River within a year, and calm slowly returned to the river.

The number of white settlers remained few, however. Among the most notable newcomers was Frank Stranahan, today considered the father of the City of Fort Lauderdale. He moved down from Melbourne in 1893 to operate the post office, ferry, and trading post.

Like any good waterway, the New River attracted its share of buccaneers and rogues. At the end of the 19th Century, the river was a lair for illegal gunrunners sympathetic to Cubans fighting to overthrow Spanish colonial rule. In May 1897, U.S. authorities seized a cargo of arms and ammunition from a ship captained by Johnny "Dynamite" O'Brien, a legendary seaman who made a name for himself by smuggling explosives.

Colby Katz
Mystery novelist Christine Kling wants her readers to see Fort Lauderdale from a river's-eye view.
Colby Katz
Mystery novelist Christine Kling wants her readers to see Fort Lauderdale from a river's-eye view.

Even in the early 20th Century, piloting the river remained an adventure. The river still possessed three whirlpools, two smaller ones east of downtown and the largest near the present-day I-95 bridge. So great was the pull of one vortex that in 1912, it swallowed the Lola, a 36-foot launch boat. Its captain, Scott Holloway, who had worked at digging canals in the Everglades, was following a dredge boat when the Lola's stern was suddenly sucked down. Holloway ran to the bow, from which he was pulled aboard the dredger.

The Lola disappeared and was reportedly never recovered.

The whirlpools eventually died, done in, many believe, by the silt churned up by the massive canal digging projects in the Everglades.

Development along the river took its toll in different ways. Stranahan, who'd always felt a great affinity for the New River, grew more disheartened as the city grew up around him. Life had become too fast for him. He relished his annual swim in the river on Christmas Day -- regardless of temperature -- after which he'd send postcards to relatives up north boasting of the wintertime dip. The New River boom died in 1926 when a hurricane killed two dozen people and destroyed property worth millions. Already dispirited and now almost broke, Stranahan tied a cast-iron grate around his foot on May 22, 1929, and killed himself by leaping into the river that had become alien to him.

The narrative arc of Stranahan's life -- drawing life from the river only to end it with those very currents -- is the stuff of fiction. Indeed, the New River and its people do inspire storytellers.

The lush and untamed banks of the New River attracted one of the great, early American filmmakers, D.W. Griffith. In 1919, he used the shores as a proxy for a South Seas island in shooting The Idol Dancer. "There may be more beautiful rivers in the world than New River, which flows through the heart of your city," Griffith gushed at a dinner thrown in his honor by townsfolk, "but if so, I have never seen it." When he returned four years later to film The White Rose, however, Griffith was disappointed to find that rapid development had brought concrete and wood seawalls.

If development was a disappointment for Griffith, the gritty, overbuilt New River is just fine for mystery novelist Kling, who lives on the river.

Her fictional detective, Sechelle Sullivan, carries out her sleuthing from a 46-foot salvage boat on the New River. In Surface Tension, Sechelle hangs out at the Downtowner Saloon, a landmark joint the protagonist prefers because it's survived the "twin demons of taxes and gentrification."

Not that Kling's salvage boater-cum-detective is the first fictional sleuth to work the waters of Fort Lauderdale. That honor goes to Travis McGee, a crime-solver created by Kling's favorite mystery writer, John D. McDonald. McGee cracked the whodunits from his houseboat docked at Bahia Mar on the Intracoastal Waterway. "But the fact is," Kling points out, "he doesn't have Travis McGee traveling up the river. I can't even think of one time where he describes the New River."

Kling, on the other hand, depends on the river. "I wanted to get the idea across of someone who lives on the water and sees this town from the water as opposed to seeing it from the street," she says. "To me, the stories I write are so deeply tied to the setting. My setting comes first, and it determines my plot, my characters, everything. I need a milieu of a crime. I need to have a crime that's related to the world of the river and the water."

If riverfarers once proved their mettle by navigating around the New River's whirlpools, wild currents, and sharks, the modern adventurer does so by taking a dip in its tainted waters.

William Zenga, a 49-year-old Sunrise dentist, talks about braving bacteria and big boats last year to compete in the newly reestablished New River Swim, a race feared not for its length or difficulty but for downright filth.

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