When you drive along famed Miami Beach’s Collins Avenue, do you think of its history or who it was named after?
John Stiles Collins (1837-1928) is the name behind the street and an American Quaker from New Jersey who originally moved to South Florida for agricultural purposes. He was born on December 29, 1837 in Moorestown, New Jersey and was the sixth generation of Collins’ to farm the family’s western New Jersey homestead since 1678. His passion for farming extended beyond his own land and led him to invest in a potential area within Florida where he bought acreage in 1891. Although he did not move to the state until 1896 he envisioned an enterprise in growing vegetables and coconuts along the swampy stretch of land between Miami and the Atlantic Ocean, now known as the barrier island of Miami Beach. Adventurous in his investments, he was captivated by the land and bought additional acreage with fellow New Jersey partners. Collins wanted to grow exotic crops which hadn’t yet been introduced to the market such as mangoes, avocados and ‘alligator pears.’ The partnership did not last and Collins eventually bought out his partners making him the sole owner of five miles of land, or roughly 50 blocks in modern-day Miami Beach.
By 1907 his groves were successful and in addition, tourism was also beginning to flourish. Collins now focused on improving transportation. But it was with his crops in mind. Transportation was too slow and he wanted a canal. Collins’ canal would cost more than he could afford so he turned to his children for financial assistance. They had been responsible for the success of the New Jersey family business while their father was planting in Miami.
Collins’ children saw potential in Miami Beach however their vision extended beyond horticulture and towards tourism. They agreed to finance the canal if their father would agree to build a bridge across it opening traffic to the beach area and thus enhancing real estate value similar to that of Atlantic City. Together the Collins family founded the Miami Beach Improvement Company and construction on the bridge in 1912 began and triggered a flurry of real estate potential activity.
But money ran short, and so too did the completion of the 2.5 mile intended bridge. With half a mile remaining to be built, Carl Fisher, an Indiana auto parts mogul, agreed to give the now 74-year-old John Collins $50,000 in exchange for 200 acres of land on the beach. In 1913, the bridge completed and also became the longest wooden wagon bridge in the world, ultimately giving rise to the great boom of the 1920’s. Collins, his family and Fisher all became very wealthy alongside the development of Miami Beach, which ultimately resulted in a 400 percent increase between 1920 and 1925. But John S. Collins never lost sight of his trees. By 1922 Miami Beach boasted the largest avocado and mango groves in the world. However its historical roots in agriculture would not last much longer, sacrificed for the tourist trade and a future in residential and hotel mega success.
When John S. Collins died at the age of 90 on February 11, 1928, Miami Beach bore little resemblance to the wild swampland of years before. However both the Collins Canal, the catalyst for the 1915 incorporation of Miami Beach as a city, and Collins Avenue were named in his honor!