Getting Here: From Iron Horses and Tin Cans to Silver Birds and SUVs

By Robert Sanchez

Florida, now world famous as a great place to visit, wasn’t always easy to reach. Sure, in 2014 alone the state attracted a record 97.3 million visitors. Some — the proverbial “snowbirds” from Canada and other points north — stayed for months on end to bask in the Sunshine State’s warmth while the snow and ice piled up back home. Many of the other visitors — spring breakers, bikers, and vacationing families enjoying the state’s theme parks, beaches, and pubs — stayed for only a couple of weeks until jobs or school summoned them back home. Still other visitors were in and out of the state in two or three days to attend a convention or seal a business deal.

Yet given Florida’s current status as one of the world’s top tourist destinations, it’s hard to believe that the situation was very different throughout much of the state’s history. Indeed, would-be travelers encountered so many obstacles that their predicament brings to mind the punch line in the old joke about a farmer giving directions to a stranger who got lost en route to Atlanta. The hayseed prattles on about various potential routes before finally scratching his head and concluding, “Mister, you can’t get there from here.”

For much of Florida’s early history, that was essentially the problem facing residents of America’s major population centers — even if they somehow had yearned to visit the exotic place known as Florida. By the time of the 1820 U.S. Census, the nine northeastern states altogether had more than 4.5 million residents. Yet even a decade later, in 1830, the first U.S. Census conducted in Florida put the state’s total population at only 34,730. Moreover, about half of those residents were clustered in four counties — Leon, Jefferson, Gadsden, Jackson — surrounding the then-primitive capital city of Tallahassee. It was not exactly an area with the cachet of today’s South Beach.

When statehood arrived in I845, Florida was still a sparsely populated frontier zone with fewer than 80,000 residents. Mind you, that was a total including almost 40,000 slaves. Moreover, in a bit of prudence on the part of the enumerators, the census tally that year excluded what must have been several thousand Native Americans who were then believed to be living in the state’s southernmost regions. In that part of the state, hostilities were to fester for decades. The First Seminole War (1814-19) had occurred when Florida was still a Spanish possession. The Second Seminole War (1835 to 1842) was fought to a standstill just prior to statehood. The Third Seminole War (1855-58) began a decade after statehood.

These hostilities, from which the Seminoles retired unconquered, didn’t exactly add to Florida’s allure as a tourist destination. Then, alas for Florida’s prospects as a tourist draw, things got worse. By the time the last of the Seminole wars was in the rear-view mirror, the U.S. Civil War loomed. Although the state was the scene of relatively few major battles, the necessity of traversing or circumventing a war zone to reach Florida undoubtedly discouraged the Northeast’s 11.3 million-plus residents from visiting Florida during the war.

Unfortunately, after that war, the Reconstruction era in Florida and much of the rest of the South was plagued by endemic corruption, lawlessness, and violence, including terrorist acts incited by the Ku Klux Klan. Equally discouraging for would-be tourists, Florida’s otherwise attractive coastal areas were also plagued by, well, plagues. Malaria and yellow fever, spread by mosquitoes, were common enough and deadly enough to scare off visitors.

As a result of these problems and the lack of convenient modes of transportation, Florida’s first 75 years in U.S. hands and its first 50 years as a state saw relatively few visitors save for carpetbaggers, fugitives, and a few curious naturalists, poets, and authors.

Then, seemingly all of a sudden, everything began to change. In the relatively brief span of 20 years beginning a half century or so after Florida had become a state, a series of developments primed Florida for its role as a tourist hot spot. The revolution arguably began a bit earlier, in 1884, when Henry Plant’s railroad reached the port city of Tampa. But the revolution didn’t really get rolling in earnest until 1895. That’s when Henry Flagler agreed to extend his Florida East Coast Railroad — already drawing visitors to a string of resorts that Flagler had built farther up the state’s east coast — to a small settlement known as Fort Dallas. At that time it was little more than a trading post on the Miami River near Biscayne Bay. A year after Flagler’s plans were announced, the area incorporated as the city of Miami. Dade County, which in the 1890 Census had only 861 residents and ranked dead last among Florida’s then-45 counties, soon began to grow, moving up in successive censuses to 37th, 24th, fourth, and third before concluding its 50-year-long climb in the 1940 census, when it was first — a ranking it has yet to relinquish.

The growth along Florida’s coasts was also buoyed by a medical advance that began in the 1890s and spilled over into the start of the 20th century. Building on the work of a Cuban physician named Carlos Finlay, a U.S. Army surgeon, Major Walter Reed, led a campaign that ultimately resulted in conquering yellow fever and reducing the incidence of malaria. This advance, in turn, not only helped the U.S. complete the Panama Canal, which the French had abandoned in part because of yellow fever, but it also popularized the concept of mosquito control. Eradicating mosquitoes is a practice that — along with air conditioning — made life in Florida’s torrid summers more tolerable.

Meanwhile, in 1903, up at Kitty Hawk, NC, a couple of bicycle entrepreneurs, brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright, managed to get a flying machine off the ground. Within eight years, in 1911, aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss had begun operating a flight-training school in Miami during the winter months. In the following decade, South Florida was to become a key hub for the newly formed Pan American World Airways and, eventually, a hub for other carriers, notably Eastern Air Lines and National Airlines.

Nowadays it would be hard to imagine Florida as a worldwide tourist draw without the role now played by travel to and from the state’s bustling airports. Indeed, Florida counts four of its airports among the nation’s 30 busiest in terms of passenger count — Miami (11), Orlando (14), Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood (21) and Tampa (29). Moreover, by some measures, the passenger count understates the importance of Florida’s major airports, which are the end destinations for most of their travelers while some of the higher ranking airports in places such as Atlanta and Charlotte are merely spots where people wait — and wait — to change planes.

But perhaps the most profound change affecting the future of Florida tourism culminated in 1915, when it became possible — theoretically, at least — to travel by automobile all the way from Maine to Miami using the road that eventually would become known as U.S. 1.  As vehicles became more affordable for the growing middle class, more and more tourists began exploring Florida’s charms during the 1920s. Floridians responded with a mix of warm hospitality and cheesy attractions that came to be known as tourist traps. As early as the 1920s, some of the thriftier tourists — perhaps wanting to avoid the higher rates that hotels imposed on their guests during the peak of the tourist season — traveled in trucks or cars they had converted into homemade campers. This was the modest beginning of what later came to be known as “Tin Can Tourism.”

Yet the peak of the Tin Can era had to wait. Tourism of all kinds suffered during the Great Depression and World War II. When that war ended in 1945, the pent-up demand for travel could not be denied. One factor fueling the desire to visit Florida in the post-war era was the fact that many of the recruits had undergone all or some of their military training in Florida. In fact, thousands of the trainees had stayed in some of Miami Beach’s finest resort hotels. No doubt the drill sergeants didn’t provide room service or mints on the pillows, but many of the GIs who underwent their military training in Florida were so impressed by what they experienced that they wanted to return with their wife and kids.

So, after World War II, it was no surprise that a Florida tourism boom began in earnest, and “Tin Can Tourism” was a major component. By then, instead of homemade campers, many of the Tin Can Tourists traveled in accommodations especially designed for the purpose — whether self-contained camper vans or trailers towed by the family car or truck. Airstream trailers were especially popular, and the manufacturer’s founder — Wally Byam — lent his name to an organization, the Wally Byam Caravan Club — that still promotes this relatively comfortable variety of “Tin Can Tourism.”  To serve these visitors, an infrastructure of campgrounds and parks has sprung up. Most of Florida’s state parks have accommodations for campers, whether or not the visitors are traveling in “tin cans,” and the largest national chain, KOA, has 23 campgrounds in Florida.

While “Tin Can Tourism” is still alive and well, it is dwarfed by other forms of tourism. Convention delegates flock to capacious facilities in Orlando and Miami. Cruise ship passengers arrive and head straight to one of the state’s bustling ports, which are among the nation’s busiest. Indeed, in terms of passengers boarding at U.S. ports, Miami ranks first, Fort Lauderdale second, Port Canaveral third, Tampa eighth, and Jacksonville 16th.

Then there are all those families “boarding” an SUV, a minivan, or an old-fashioned sedan or station wagon and heading toward Florida along the Interstates jammed with travelers seeking their place in the sun. And no doubt some of the visitors from states such as New York and Illinois will be visiting their former neighbors who fled the cold weather, high taxes, and economic stagnation to seek a better life in Florida.

Lately there is even a growing trend called “medical tourism.” It seems that more and more foreign nationals are traveling to state-of-the-art hospitals and clinics in Miami, Tampa, and Jacksonville to seek better treatment and care than they can receive back home. These paying patients are doubly welcome in an era when Medicare, Medicaid, and various other insurance schemes fall short of covering the full cost of providing care.

So there you have it. Whether via the iron horses that travel along the tracks laid by the two Henrys, Flagler and Plant, or via the campers and trailers of “Tin Can Tourism,” or via the silver birds of the airline industry, or via the family SUVs,  it appears that no matter where you start nowadays with a desire to visit Florida, you can get here from there.

Images Courtesy of Boston Public Library

Editor’s Note: This Florida Verve article was originally published in 2015.