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The Forgotten Town of Port Mayaca

Previously, I had written about John Ashley and what was happening in his life leading up to his death 100 years ago this year. According to records, John over the hot summer season of 1924, probably was laying low. Even though John Ashley was out of the papers and seeking refuge, his nemesis, Sheriff Bob Baker, was soon-to-be off the hook on a prohibition law conspiracy trial because the witnesses who testified against Bob were indicted on perjury charges. While we take a break from the Ashley story, we will shift our focus to western Martin County to a forgotten town called Port Mayaca.

Lake Okeechobee during the time of John Ashley was full of catfishermen, farmers, and pioneering families. Before the great hurricane of 1928, Lake Okeechobee’s shoreline was teaming with life. Herbert Hoover’s dike had not yet blocked the view of endless water. Model-T touring cars could putter up and down the poor quality road that took you into another ancient world. For hundreds of years, the area of Port Mayaca was a meeting place. Before the canal was built, there was most likely a natural river that flowed out of the lake and to the east or southeast. To the south east starts the Everglades and to the east lay cypress, pine, and prairie. It didn’t take long before this beautiful and unique spot in Martin County was discovered and developed.

The St. Lucie Canal which connects Lake Okeechobee to the Atlantic, was approved for dredging in 1914. The dredging of this canal created jobs locally and sparked an agricultural boom with Port Mayaca’s Valencia orange citrus. In an article from the South Florida Developer in 1926, the eastern shore was described in a way we will never see today.

How the tropical beauty of Lake Okeechobee’s eastern shore is to be transformed into a model city of magnificent proportions and how western Palm Beach and Martin County farmers and citrus fruit growers are to be provided with a new and worthwhile shopping and jobbing center in the new city of Port Mayaca, was made public today for the first time by Mr. George M. Osborn, general manager of Mayaca Company – a Phipps corporation of which Mr. John S. Phipps is president and Mr. W. J. Conners a director and large stockholder.

One of the intentions of the St. Lucie Canal was to make Stuart the gateway to the Everglades. The first tangible result of the canal for large-scale agriculture was the pioneering effort of the Port Mayaca development around 1925. Port Mayaca was created by Bessemer Properties, Inc., a Phipps company which saw the opportunities for agriculture through scientific water control by tapping on to St. Lucie Canal with pumps to provide irrigation in dry spells.

The fledgling town of Port Mayaca installed a water pump, fire hydrants, and a handful of residential homes along Kanner highway. On the east side of the lake sat a few stores, a church, and a general store. A few miles east, between Port Mayaca and Indiantown, lies the Port Mayaca Cemetery, run by the city of Pahokee. A few years later in 1928, a post office was established.

When the hurricane hit in 1928, the town came to a stop. All efforts were focused on finding the lost living or deceased. Within the Port Mayaca Cemetery is the mass burial of the unclaimed bodies discovered in the area around the Lake. Florida at this time, especially around the lake, entered into a depression long before the rest of the country. The 1928 hurricane did put a temporary hold on agricultural production, but the area still remained a stop for tourists who wanted to see the unrivaled beauty of Lake Okeechobee’s shores. This was short lived, however. The River and Harbor Act of 1930 authorized the creation of the Herbert Hoover dike between 1932 and 1938. The Flood Control Act of 1948 added further flood protection and water control and by the 1960’s the Herbert Hoover dike received upgrades that made the canal a major Port. Agriculture continues to flourish in 2024 but what is left of the town is either paved over or in a sugarcane field.

Today, very little remains from the old times of Port Mayaca. When the new bridge was built over the canal and Port Mayaca lock and dam, the town of Port Mayaca became a memory. The area slowly began disappearing to the unobservant eye. This new bypass was the beginning of the end. All that remains is the Cypress Lodge from the 1930’s and the ancient sandy ridge line which is walkable today on a scenic nature trail. If you want to see some old train engineering, to the east of the Port Mayaca lock and dam, near the town of Indiantown, is the old train bridge that crosses the St. Lucie Canal. In operation, the bridge is a must see! One of the last historical buildings was knocked down this month of May 2024, marking the end of a time when you could stop on the corner at the Port Mayaca general store and buy a Pepsi to sip at a nearby bench while taking a break to enjoy Lake Okeechobee’s once pristine vistas.

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