The man who knows everything about Miami

“Are you ready?,” I asked.

He looked over confidently and said with a relaxed smile, “Always.”

Dr. Paul George, Miami’s premiere historian, was about to lead a group of 50 brave explorers down the Miami River. The boat was supposed to set sail at 7:00 p.m.. After spending the day teaching four history classes at Miami-Dade College’s Wolfson campus, he hustled over to the Bayside port clutching a stack of folders. He made it with 5 minutes to spare.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m the busiest man in Miami,” he said, smiling as he rushed by.

The bridges went up and we set sail along the river.
The bridges went up and we set sail along the Miami River.

We set sail just as the sun was setting and traveled the course of the 5-mile river cutting straight through Miami’s urban sprawl. A born presenter, George grabbed the microphone and effortlessly narrated for more than an hour and a half, only stopping once to replace the microphone’s batteries.

Did you know that Miami’s earliest settlers, the Tequestas, used to live along the banks of the Miami River? Or that Henry Flagler would later build the famous Royal Palm Hotel on top of the former Tequesta villages? Dr. Paul George knew. And he taught me, too.

After the boat tour, we took a walk around downtown, and Dr. George told me a little bit about how he fell in love with our wonderful city — interrupting, of course, for little historical tidbits along the way.

So you must have been a straight-A student, right?

I was a terrible student in high school — played sports, stuff like that. But I had a great history teacher my senior year in high school. It was American History and he lectured and it was anecdotal. He just taught it in such an interesting way. So when I got to college and had to decide on a major, I’d already taken a lot of history classes and had such a positive feeling about it, so I just picked it! People always said, “Don’t do it, there’s no jobs.” But I said, “No this is what I like to do.” And it was the best thing I ever did.

The Freedom Tower in Downtown Miami. (Courtesy of Ed Webster/Flickr Creative Commons)
The Freedom Tower in Downtown Miami. (Courtesy of Ed Webster/Flickr Creative Commons)

What’s your favorite spot to walk through?

Well, I love to walk [through] Little Havana and The Roads neighborhoods, but Downtown is my favorite place to tour.
It has more history, archeology, and architecture than anywhere else. It’s the oldest part of Miami and it was the most important part of Greater Miami.

What do you think is the importance of knowing a city’s history?

History gives us perspective on what’s happening today. With anything, you can look at the Middle East crisis and know there are many other ones and some of the issues are very similar. You can also really understand how crazy Miami’s development is. We’ve got links to the Caribbean and South America and understand where those links came from.

What’s your favorite bar in Miami?

This sign is new, it is a copy of the original sign that was there when this club was originally opened many years ago. (Courtesy of Phillip Pessar/Flickr Creative Commons)
Ball and Chain in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. (Courtesy of Phillip Pessar/Flickr Creative Commons)

It was Tobacco Road [before it closed], because it was an old and traditional bar. There were some real characters there. It had good music. It was kinda sketchy and in an old neighborhood. My favorite bar now is the Ball and Chain in Little Havana. I actually wrote the history of it for their website. It opened up as a bar and operated from 1935 to late 1957 under that same name. I loved it because of it’s history. It had black entertainers before a lot of places had that, including Harry the Hipster piano player, Count Basie, and Billie Holiday, who was incredible. So it was way ahead of it’s time and it was in a neighborhood. It wasn’t on a boulevard, it wasn’t on Miami Beach, and when these buddies of mine bought it, we decided to put that name back on it. Plus, it’s in the neighborhood I’ve grown up in.

And your favorite drink?

Oh, the Mojito!!! It’s just great, it’s my wife’s favorite too!

I want to know all of the things about Miami! How can I do that?

You must come on my Little Havana tours. They’re free every last Friday of the month. I’ve been giving walking tours all over Miami for almost 27 years now. It started as a classroom tour with some of my students, and then I teamed up with HistoryMiami in 1988 to open it out to the public.

Dr. Paul George gives tours through HistoryMiami, including boat tours, walking tours, and even a ride through the enigmatic remains of Stiltsville out in the bay. And to get into the Halloween spirit, Dr. George is giving a spooky Miami Cemetery tour on Oct. 30. Who knows, you might even run into the ghost of Julia Tuttle.

Special thanks to the Association of Fundraising Professionals Miami Chapter for allowing us to tag along on their river cruise.