If Washington Jenkins had ever contemplated the future, he likely never imagined the scene pictured here. In 1876, Jenkins was named keeper at a house of refuge for shipwrecked sailors, one of five stations in Florida placed approximately 25 miles apart, from the Indian River Inlet to Cape Florida. His station, New River House No. 4, was near the site of today’s Hugh Taylor Birch State Park in central Fort Lauderdale.
Back then, Florida was virtually uninhabited. Living with his wife and children on a paycheck of $400 a year, Jenkins walked the beach, especially after storms, to “afford succor to shipwrecked persons who may be cast ashore, and who, in the absence of such means of relief, would be liable to perish from hunger and thirst in that desolate region,” as the United States Life-Saving Service described his professional role.
By the mid-20th century, many decades after he’d died, Jenkins’ lonely piece of beach had become home to a yachting and marine center that helped transform the habits and expectations of boat owners. Bahia Mar, which is Spanish for “ocean bay,” opened its doors to the public in 1949. Geared to a new generation of recreational boaters, it was intended to set a standard as a modern marine facility. At the junction of the New River and the Intracoastal Waterway, it offered 400 slips, marina facilities and a hotel—amenities that Jenkins couldn’t have imagined.
The idea certainly caught on. Today, Bahia Mar serves yachts from around the globe and hosts one of the world’s largest in-water boat expositions, the annual Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show. The city of Fort Lauderdale is the home port for more than 40,000 boats. As for the houses of refuge, they were gradually abandoned over the years. Jenkins’ place of employment became a U.S. Coast Guard station located not far from Bahia Mar. An original station on Hutchinson Island in Martin County serves today as The House of Refuge Museum.
This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue.