King of the River

He’s not as well known as the Stranahans, nor was he unfathomably wealthy like Henry Flagler. But like them, Edwin T. King was influential in the birth of Fort Lauderdale.

By: 

John Dolen

Published date: 

Nov. 1, 2017

When our city’s first teacher arrived from her home near Biscayne Bay in 1899, it was natural that Edwin T. King would greet her at the railroad station. He built the first school, a one-room affair with 12 used chairs and desks, in part to educate his own two kids.

The teacher’s name was Ivy Julie Cromartie, soon to become Ivy Stranahan, though she didn’t know it yet. She was only 18.

“At the Fort Lauderdale station, I was greeted by Mr. Ed King, a school trustee,” she wrote later. “He led the way to the railroad dock on the New River where his ‘pop-boat’ was moored. A pop-boat was a small craft, much like a rowboat, with a gasoline engine installed in the center…Mr. King steered down the river and up Tarpon Creek to his new home. Greeted by Mrs. King, a charming hostess, I was to live with the King family during the ensuing months.”

King built the wooden schoolhouse in an area surrounded by pine and palmetto, rich with wildlife. All kinds of animals could be spotted on the walk to school: quail, wild turkey, raccoons, turtles, snakes, even wildcats.

What Frank Stranahan was to trade, what Ivy was to teaching, Ed King was to building. He made real the dreams of those few who settled here then. He was the first here to buy land with the intention of farming it, the first to build a significant home, the first Council President when the town was formed. He also became the settlement’s principal builder.

King’s family in Roswell, Georgia taught him farming, boating and construction skills in his youth. But in the aftermath of the Civil War, the King family scattered. When Ed showed up in New Smyrna, Florida, in his 20s, he was one of three boarders on a farm, listing his profession as farmer. At 23, he married Susan Fox, the town physician’s daughter. She was 16.

King arrived here in 1895, at 31, with his younger brother Dick, 24. They set up camp next to the Stranahan trading post on the New River and began mapping out strategies for the 20 acres they had bought for $400.

Ed built a stately house for his family modeled on one in his hometown, and it was like nothing yet established here. It was the only place with a room big enough for town gatherings, and the Kings shared it generously.

It was said that King never fancied himself a builder. Building his own home was a necessity. Building a school was a necessity for his kids. He was also unable to resist the challenge of doing a favor for a friend, like building the Stranahan House we see today.

So, a builder he became. He knew carpentry, he knew masonry. King was also learned, diplomatic and had a sense of community. He had energy and the pioneer’s sense of adventure, and, it was said, he could get along with anybody.

His major home took years to build. His wife’s arrival to the area was similar to Ivy’s. King picked her up in a small craft near the train station. Unlike the other boat, this one had a small sail and “oars to skull with,” Susan King wrote in 1935. Eventually they landed “in a hammock, now Rio Vista Isles. At the end of the path, about one half mile, we came to a clearing where there was a little cabin made of tar paper roofing which was to be our home for six months until another small house was finished.” They lived there until the big house was done.

During his early years here King also accepted work from others. He built a summer home for Hugh Taylor Birch on the beach. He built homes for Philemon Bryan and his two sons. The Bryan houses, like the Stranahan House, still stand. He also built the city’s first boathouse on the New River, likely near the old railroad crossing adjacent to Second Avenue. Ed King’s stamp was everywhere in the new city.

Sadly, the big house that was so crucial to the new settlement burned down around 1907. King built a new, more modest home in what is now Smoker Park. That home survives, and for many years after King’s passing his daughter, who married the brother of Ivy Cromartie Stranahan, lived there with her family. Known as the King Cromartie House, it was saved from demolition in 1971 by the Junior League, which had it barged to Second Avenue with other historic homes.

Like the suddenness of disaster that took his dream home, so came Ed King’s death – by the 1928 hurricane. When trying to rescue two small children, he was struck and killed by flying debris. In his passing as in his life, it seems, he was looking out for others.