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United States historian says Mary Brickell of Albury is a forgotten magnate of Miami, Florida

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The history books have overlooked one of the founding mothers of Miami, according to a United States historian, and she was a woman from Albury in New South Wales.

The contested version of the birth of Miami, Florida revolves around Julia Tuttle, who is described as the only woman to have founded a major US city.

A portrait of Mary Brickell, who a US historian says is one of the forgotten founders of Miami, Florida.(Supplied: Cesar Becerra)

The story goes that Tuttle sent railroad magnate Henry Flagler a bouquet of orange blossoms after two brutally cold winters in the mid-1890s — known as The Great Freeze — devastated prominent orange groves in northern Florida.

The bouquet proved the cold didn’t extend to the Miami River and enticed Flagler to extend his train tracks south.

Shortly after, Flagler connected what would become Miami city to the rest of the state.

Historian Cesar Becerra said this version of events was only part of the true story, and Albury’s Mary Bulmer Brickell played an important but forgotten role.

Mr Becerra has devoted himself to tracing the steps of Mary and her husband, William Brickell, a little-known gold rush couple who met in Albury.

“Their journey was wild,” Mr Becerra said.

“This was a pioneer era; this was hard work. You couldn’t get things done easily here.”

A photo of sky scrapers with blue skies in front of a beach in Miami.
The City of Miami is the second most populous city in Florida, with close to half a million residents.(Supplied: Pexels, Tory Brown)

Early days in Albury

William Brickell arrived in Australia from San Francisco in 1852, and with an entrepreneurial spirit built a fortune with business partner Adam Kidd as they established businesses around Albury.

He co-owned hotels, a general store and a punt service, before going on to win the £7,000 contract to build Albury’s first bridge across the Murray River in 1861.

Greg Ryan of Albury and District Historical Society says William made a huge profit from the punt service alone.

“He paid £40 for the license to operate the punt on the Murray River,” Mr Ryan said.

“He operated it for about seven or eight years and made £40,000.”

Mr. Ryan calculated that it was about $3 million by today’s money.

A black and white photo shows two women standing on the upper balcony of a white mansion with Greco-style columns.
The Brickell family mansion in southern Florida.(Supplied: Albury and District Historical Society)

But information about the Brickells’ personal lives in Albury is “thin on the ground”.

“We suspect that Mary may have worked for William in the hotel, but that would just be a guess,” Mr Ryan said.

William and Mary married in Melbourne in 1862 and the next day began the “perilous” three-month ocean journey to the US.

The fortune William made in Albury financed the purchase of land in Florida.

Mr Becerra says records show this is where Mary becomes influential, with the land titles in her name.

A woman wearing a bonnet and a black coat is pictured in a black and white vintage photograph.
Julia Tuttle pictured in 1900.(Supplied: Wikimedia Commons)

“Mary becomes the person that actually takes the initial money and makes extra gold out of it in real estate,” he said.

“Later on, she plays an elaborate chess game with some of the most powerful people in America to bring them to their knees and cordon them to bring the railroad to Miami.”

Mr Becerra said Mary worked to bring more infrastructure to the area, like Tuttle.

The Miami-Dade Public Library System’s special collections include a dozen archived articles focusing on Mary, and eight with Tuttle in the title.

“But for many years Mary has unfortunately been left out,” Mr Becerra said.

“Back in the day, folks weren’t too keen on the Brickells, so the story of Julia Tuttle was touted despite being full of holes.”

Back to where it all started

Reviving the Brickells’ story has twice brought Mr Becerra to Albury.

“Albury plays a very interesting role. They met here, this is the moment,” Mr Becerra said.

Mr. Ryan developed a bond with the South Florida historian.

“It was only when Cesar first arrived here in 2019 that it really came to the fore and I realized what a strong connection and what a good story it is, this connection between Albury and Miami,” Mr Ryan said.

a street in Albury at night.
The dual city of Albury-Wodonga straddles the Victoria-New South Wales border.(Flickr: Richard Taylor)

In 1900, the Brickells returned to Albury for the first time since they left 40 years prior.

But Mary is absent in newspaper records about their trip.

“Mr Brickell, who was in business in Albury about 40 years ago, is at present staying at the Albury hotel,” read a Wodonga Towong Sentinel article.

William had taken up “large tracts of land in Florida”, the newspaper relayed, and made an “immense fortune” becoming the owner of “several towns which sprang into existence on his territory”.

“Mr Brickell says he expected to find a much larger population in Albury by this time.”

Mr Ryan said the Brickells’ departure likely played a role in the border town’s relatively slow development.

“Probably the reason Albury hadn’t progressed all that far was because William Brickell took all that money with him,” he said.

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