Sebastian Inlet, 12 miles north of Vero Beach, is famed for surfing and saltwater fishing. It’s also one of five channels that connect the 156-mile-long Indian River Lagoon to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s under the care of the Sebastian Inlet District, chartered by the state a century ago this week.
On May 23, the district kicks off a yearlong celebration of those beginnings, and in preparation, staff gathered records to tell the story of the inlet’s past. They’ve found that a fishing village existed in the 1870s, when the Rev. Thomas New applied for a post office named New Haven after himself. In the 1880s, the settlement was renamed Sebastian in honor of the saint of that name.
Making the ‘cut’
It fell to another early settler, David Peter Gibson, to first cut a channel from lagoon to ocean; he tried and failed in 1872 but succeeded later, and an 1880-1881 map of the area shows “Gibson’s Cut” — a precursor of Sebastian Inlet — as a feature.
Gibson first came to Florida from Georgia about 1859. Years later, a newspaper quoted his poetic advice on the route of a proposed road: “Don’t locate road old zig zag way, through knee deep sand and hot sun’s ray,” he wrote, “but on river front let it go, then solid comfort all will know.”
This appreciation for waterfront property shows a flair for real estate, and Gibson was indeed known for land deals. He returned to Georgia during the Civil War but came back to Florida, where in 1885 he was among the 23 adults and 16 children in tiny Sebastian.
If Gibson’s was the first “cut” at Sebastian, it was far from the last. By 1905, at least six attempts had been made, and all were closed by sand, storms or other natural causes. Roy O. Couch, who arrived in 1905, was able to see the project through to success. By 1914, he was among the supporters of a petition drive to again create an inlet.
At first Couch’s efforts went nowhere, but by the World War I years several factors aligned in his favor. They included the support of a pioneering woman journalist, Marie Ringo Holderman, who had sold a successful Bradenton newspaper and moved to Brevard County, where in 1917 she founded the weekly Cocoa Tribune.
Holderman went on to become one of Florida’s most powerful publishers, according to the Space Coast Daily, “swaying public opinion about women’s suffrage, taxation or that Sebastian was the best place to dig an inlet along the coastline.”
Finally, Couch’s efforts began to pay off in 1918, when the Sebastian Inlet Association was formed, and a year later, when the state formed the Sebastian Inlet District to create and maintain the inlet. A 1923 photo shows barges carrying rock for small jetties that were completed in 1924.
During the Great Depression, the inlet played a vital role in helping to feed Sebastian families through fishing. During the World War II years, the inlet was closed, however, and the use of lights of any kind was prohibited at night because of the danger posed by German U-boats off the coast.
There’s much more to the Sebastian Inlet saga, and this centennial year is a great time to explore the area’s rich history. Visit the district’s website at www.sitd.us. For Sebastian Inlet State Park, visit its section at www.floridastateparks.org.
‘Getting the Vote’ reading group
The History Committee of the League of Women Voters of Orange County is organizing a reading group titled “Women’s Lost History: Getting the Vote,” facilitated by Patricia Farless of the University of Central Florida History Department. Sessions are slated from 6 to 8 p.m., on May 30, June 13, July 11, and July 18, at the First Unitarian Church, 1901 E. Robinson St., Orlando. It’s open to the public, with preregistration requested. To register, visit the History Project at lwvoc.org, write firstname.lastname@example.org or call 407-443-2780.
Orlando Sentinel Article: https://www.orlandosentinel.com/features/os-joy-wallace-dickinson-0519-story.html