Photos by Dori Arrington
Fort Pierce, Florida
A dredged inlet in 1921 allowed a vibrant community to blossom on the East Coast.
What do the Navy SEALs and Crayola crayons have in common? In 1911 Edwin Binney, the inventor of Crayola crayons, started spending winters in Ft. Pierce, Florida. As an avid yachtsman and fisherman, he wanted easy access to the ocean from his home, but unfortunately the natural inlet connecting the Indian River to the Atlantic Ocean was difficult to navigate and shoaled frequently. Under Binney’s leadership, funds were secured to dredge a wide, navigable inlet through Hutchinson Island, just north of the town of Ft. Pierce. Completed in 1921, Binney had his inlet, and Ft. Pierce had a fine new port facility.
Fast forward to 1943, when the Navy was looking for a place to train frogmen to clear beaches for amphibious landings. The barrier islands—known as Hutchinson Island North and Hutchinson Island South—at Ft. Pierce looked promising. The islands were divided by Binney’s deep-water inlet, and the sparsely populated south beach along the inlet proved to be the ideal training ground. This amphibious group of underwater demolition experts evolved into the modern Navy SEALs. Had Binney not led the way to create the inlet at Ft. Pierce, the Navy would not have secured this perfect location. The Navy SEAL Museum located on Hutchinson Island North celebrates this proud history. Today, the Ft. Pierce Inlet is the safest inlet in Florida between Jacksonville and Ft. Lauderdale, and one of the easiest to navigate on the entire East Coast.
Crayola crayons and Navy SEALs are just one of many unlikely combinations that come together in Ft. Pierce. The town sits at an interesting confluence in Florida’s climate and geography. There are few towns where one can find a high-quality supply of both salt-water fishing tackle and horse tack, but in Ft. Pierce, this seemingly odd pairing coexists quite naturally. On its eastern doorstep is the Indian River Lagoon and the blue water of the Atlantic Ocean. The lagoon is one of the most biologically diverse estuaries in the northern hemisphere and offers superb fishing. Beyond that, the prime fishing waters of the Gulf Stream run just offshore. On Ft. Pierce’s western flank are the tree-studded grasslands of a tropical savanna, perfectly suited to raising cattle and growing citrus. Large thousand-acre ranches produce some of the best beef in the world, and many of the ranches are still worked on horseback. We think of Florida for its flavorful oranges, but an equal number of acres raise cattle. Ft. Pierce is centrally located to both of these important industries.
Fort Pierce, Florida
Many towns in Florida have gone through boom and bust cycles, as industry and agriculture have given way to tourism and the benefits of a new digital economy. Through these economic ebbs and flows, Ft. Pierce retained the best of its past, in architecture, agriculture and natural amenities, and is now adding to its future with smart growth and visionary leadership. Once-empty storefronts are filling with a healthy mix of locally owned and national businesses, bringing a vibrant, refreshed feel to the historic downtown. One of downtown’s treasures is the growing Peacock Arts District. In the 1970s, a local businessman named Jack Crain opened a travel agency in a Beaux-Arts building on the edge of downtown. Crain had a love for peacocks and acquired two to live on the property behind his business. Since then, the flock has grown considerably and can be seen roaming freely around their namesake arts district.
When Ft. Pierce rebuilt the municipal marina following the devastating hurricanes Frances and Jeanne in 2004, it added innovative protective islands around the marina to shield it from future storms. The plan has proven successful, as the marina has weathered several storms since, with no damage to vessels or infrastructure. With its protected location near the inlet, the city marina has become one of the most popular and most secure in Florida. The marina is front and center in town and is the focal point for many of the town’s events, including a bountiful farmer’s market every Saturday morning.
The historic downtown is a short walk from the marina, and the beaches of Hutchinson Island are a short bike ride, or, even better, a short dinghy ride away. Ft. Pierce’s proximity to the inlet is one of its greatest features. The quality of the water and diversity of marine life along the town’s waterfront are some of the best on Florida’s coast. For the visiting boater, Ft. Pierce is the perfect place to play, relax and provision.
The quality of the inlet and large turning basin at the port recently drew the attention of Derecktor Shipyards, which is opening a state-of-the-art facility here. It will be the only repair and refit yard specifically built for yachts over 200 feet in length. The yard will have the world’s largest mobile hoist with a 1,500-ton capacity. To support this growth in business, Ft. Pierce has announced approval of a new development known as “King’s Landing.” It will include a Marriott hotel, residences, retail and restaurants, all located on the waterfront across the street from the city marina.
The St. Lucie County government seated in Ft. Pierce is also mindful not to let business growth affect the area’s valuable -natural resources. The county has been instrumental in placing artificial reefs in the nearby offshore waters to keep the indigenous fish stocks healthy, and it is working with local marine research facilities to plant sea grasses in the Indian River Lagoon to keep spawning beds viable.
It only takes a short visit to Ft. Pierce to see it’s on a trajectory to far exceed any of its past glory. Ft. Pierce is in the midst of an exciting transition, and it is continuing to make the most of its diverse assets.