Get-rich-quick schemes have periodically seized portions of the U.S. populace like a contagion, writes frequent contributor Doug Stewart, but few have been as virulent as the great Florida land boom of the mid-1920s. What started with chilly Northerners seeking a slice of America's newly civilized frontier on which to vacation or retire, soon turned into "one of the greatest social and economic movements of population and capital in the history of the world," wrote one Florida land mogul exultantly.
To Northerners at the end of the 19th century, Florida usually meant St. Augustine, a winter resort for the wealthy, less than a hundred miles from the Georgia border. South Florida was like a different country, marked by sweltering heat, alligators, trappers' cabins and fishing camps. In the 1890s oil baron Henry Flagler changed all that when his railroad opened the peninsula's east coast to development. Miami's population grew from a few dozen year-round residents before the railroad arrived to more than 1,500 people four years later, then surged to nearly 30,000 by 1920.
During the early 1920s, real estate developers and promoters, such as Carl Fisher and George Merrick, jumped in and built grand hotels and lured prospective buyers by staking out plots and marketing them with hyperbole. By 1925, Coral Gables had become a real estate sensation, aided by 3,000 salesmen coast-to-coast and a $3 million advertising budget. Suddenly, everybody wanted to own a piece of Florida, and speculation skyrocketed.