Living on the water: origins of the canals of Fort Lauderdale

In Fort Lauderdale, river cruises, water taxis and gondolas take people out on tours to learn both the history and geographical past of the New River and canals that run through neighborhoods, with mansions by the water. These canals are all man-made, aside from the New River itself.

In 1925, a real-estate boom was in progress in South Florida and Fort Lauderdale had only 5,625 people. While the land rush was focused on the Miami area, communities throughout the region, including Fort Lauderdale, Pompano Beach and Boca Raton were swept up in the speculative buying frenzy.

Construction of the first canals in Fort Lauderdale began in 1920 by clearing the mangroves and creating the first “finger islands” that became the trademark of Fort Lauderdale. These canals made Fort Lauderdale be known as the “Venice of America” with some three hundred miles of inland waterways, lined with 42,000 resident boats and served by a hundred marinas and boat yards, and boat docks.

Las Olas in 1912. Tons of trees.
Las Olas in 1912. Tons of trees.

A little history on the old New River

The City of Fort Lauderdale is named for a Second Seminole War fortification built on the banks of the New River in 1838. That year, Major William Lauderdale led an army along the east coast of Florida to capture Seminole agricultural lands and battle the elusive Indian warriors.

Altogether, three forts named after Major Lauderdale would be constructed: the first at the fork of New River; the second at Tarpon Bend; and the largest on the beach at the site of Bahia Mar.

And you may ask, are there any forts in Fort Lauderdale? The answer is no: None of the forts survives today.

The world famous Las Olas

The most famous area of Fort Lauderdale because of the canals and waterfront houses is Las Olas. The Las Olas Isles are on the easternmost section of Las Olas Boulevard and are interlaced with canals and waterfront homes that will catch anyone’s eyes.

Las Olas Blvd. was constructed in 1917 when Las Olas was just a dirt road that crossed the swampy wetlands to the barrier island on the beach.

The Las Olas Isles were dredged in the 1920’s to create land for the area’s most picturesque waterfront residential district.

The engineering began when developer Charles G. Rodes studied the parallel canal system of Venice, Italy, and used a technique called “finger islanding” to create the most sought-after pieces of real estate in the country.

Another name was W.F. Morang which arrived in Fort Lauderdale from Boston in the early 1920’s and participated with other developers in the land boom era of 1923 to 1926. His company, W.F. Morang & Sons, Inc., helped develop and dredge some of the finger islands around the city including the 80 acres currently called the Seven Isles. You can see Seven Isles from Las Olas boulevard or from the Intracoastal north of Las Olas.

Within these 80 acres, his first projects included Rio Vista Isles where he dredged canals and built roads and bridges before dredging the area north of Las Olas Boulevard then called Lauderdale Isles and Lauderdale Shores.

Today these waterfront homes are available starting $1,000,000 and above. These waterfront homes are desirable for boaters due to deep water and ocean access without fixed bridges. The close proximity to the beach, Las Olas shops and restaurants, downtown, Port Everglades and airport is another driving force to the popularity of this area. 

Historic picture of Elbo Room on the beach.
Historic picture of Elbo Room on the beach. Traffic on A1A was still two ways.

Waterfront neighborhoods of Fort Lauderdale

The Las Olas Isles in Fort Lauderdale include; Coral Isles, Idlewyld, Riviera Isles, Stilwell Isles, Navarro Isle, Nurmi Isles, Hendricks Isle, Isle of Venice, Isle of Capri, Coconut Isle and Las Olas Seven Isles.

Idlewyld is a gated waterfront community just south of Las Olas Blvd. and west of the Intracoastal Waterway in the Las Olas Isles. It is one of the most sought after prestigious communities because of its proximity to the beach, shopping and restaurants of Las Olas and the short distance by boat to the ocean.

Idlewyld sits directly across from the Bahia Mar Marina – home of the world famous Ft. Lauderdale Boat Show. Prices range from $600,000 to well over $6 million.

For a bit more affordable waterfront homes, look up Citrus Isles, Tarpon River, Riverside Park and Shady Banks, all located on the Davie Boulevard area and further away from Las Olas and the beach but still with easy access to I-95.

The following map created by a user shows these neighborhood on Google Maps.

The term Millionaires Row was originally a pseudonym for the Las Olas Isles neighborhood, where Several waterfront houses in a row were owned by millionaires. This term is very used by the river cruises that take tourists on the New River everyday.

A few of the famous that inhabited or still do live in Fort Lauderdale are: Johnny Weissmuller, actor who played Tarzan and invented the signature yell. Wayne Huizenga, CEO of Waste Management, Inc, Blockbuster Video and AutoNation. Scottie Pipen is known to have a house on the water, and Roger Stone was recently arrested in a house in Las Olas.


Johny Weissmuller, the original Tarzan is known to have lived on Las Olas.

The movie Where The Boys Are helped to secure Fort Lauderdale’s reputation as a spring break destination, and there is a house on the river where that movie scenes takes place. We can’t forget to mention the famous Elbo Room on the beach, that hosted several tourists drunken nights while in town.

By the way, the full “Where they Boys Are” movie is available on YouTube.

But Las Olas, and Fort Lauderdale wasn’t always Glory. In 1929, The Great Depression had come to Fort Lauderdale earlier than to the rest of the country. In 1926, Fort Lauderdale was wiped out by a vicious hurricane. It was estimated that there wasn’t a single building that had escaped without some sort of damage.

Trees were down all along Las Olas Boulevard. Homes had been destroyed. Newer residents, those who had created the demand for new homes, left the area. They had mortgages on homes that no longer existed, there was no electricity and there were a lot of bugs. 

These outsiders had finally seen the not so paradise side of Florida, and that is a topic for another time.

For amazing historic pictures of Fort Lauderdale, check this article on Sun Sentinel and support the Historical Society of Fort Lauderdale.

Sources below, between others:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Las_Olas_Boulevard
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Isles_(Fort_Lauderdale)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Fort_Lauderdale,_Florida#Desegregation_of_Ft._Lauderdale’s_beaches
https://web.archive.org/web/20091027113149/http://geocities.com/sevenisles2001/history/history.html
https://www.jacquelynscott.com/neighborhood/citrus-isles/ https://historyfortlauderdale.org/museum/shopping-cart-categories/las-olas-blvd-1913-detail

Max Francisco