I love old Florida pictures, especially those that capture a time or a place that is today completely transformed. An old photo intrigued me on Facebook; its owner was looking for the location of where the photo might have been taken. The image, seen below, is of a smiling young woman fishing from a bridge. On the right was an intriguing clue – a vessel called The Circus Ship. The name was stenciled on the side of the ship along with several painted animals. A small sandy parking lot and a roadside sign also announced the ship’s berth. Many of the early comments on Facebook speculated that the picture was taken in the Sarasota area, given that the Ringling Brothers Circus had its winter headquarters in Sarasota.
My first look at the picture though told me it was probably South Florida, given the coconut palms in the photo. I went to Newspapers.com to see if any mention was made of The Circus Ship. There were many articles from 1947 about a tragedy at sea with a circus ship in the Caribbean, where many lost their lives, but that didn’t seem to fit. I found a small classified ad from the Miami News, January, 1950, that began to tell the story: “Eat, drink and be merry? Don’t you miss! You’ll always remember The Circus Ship. Board at MacArthur Causeway. Dancing, entertainment, free parking. $1.50 plus tax. 3 hour voyage.”
I then found an article by Carlton Montayne of the Miami News that gave the history of the new attraction. The ship was a surplused World War II Navy Landing Craft Infantry (LCI) troop carrier that had seen action in the Pacific. It was repainted in bright colors and animal murals, and would set sail from Watson Island by the MacArthur Causeway, opposite the Goodyear Blimp station. It sailed the Intracoastal Waterway to Ojus, where the Cole Brothers had their wintering grounds for the circus. Montayne wrote “And so the weapons of war have been changed to the panoplies of peace. The swing of the pendulum of events, changing the whole pattern for which this former navy vessel and other implements of war were originally created, seems to paint a graphic topsy-turvy that parallels the summersaults of a clown.”
The ship was again in the news in March, 1950 when the 185-foot vessel ran aground five miles south of Miami. This article provided the actual name of the ship as the Delphi. Then, inexplicably, the ship is never mentioned again in the newspapers. A Google search also failed to find any more information about the ship. I knew that Watson Island was the original “cruise terminal” of sorts in Miami, and I was lucky to find an old linen postcard that provided a view that was the
exact location of where The Circus Ship docked, and where the woman was standing on the bridge. The key feature was a small rounded embankment at the causeway, clearly visible in both the fishing picture and the postcard and noted with the arrow. The woman was standing about where the small red box is on the postcard. There was the small man-made Watson Island on the MacArthur Causeway, with the Goodyear Blimp base and several small ships moored along the western edge of the island.
Watson Island of course is still there, now home to the Miami Children’s Museum and Jungle Island, the renamed old-time Parrot Jungle attraction. The cruise ships now dock a few hundred yards away on Dodge Island.
The small round embankment is long gone, encased in layers of concrete, and today no one fishes from the MacArthur Causeway. But 1950 was a very different world, as Miami emerged in post-war America. That casual fishing shot captured a little piece of forgotten Florida history, and The Circus Ship’s place in history is assured.
Special thanks to Lawrence Kraemer for permission to use the photo of the woman fishing from the causeway.