Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series marking the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Sebastian Inlet District.
Charlie W. Sembler II, 54, of Vero Beach can still see a glimpse of the original Sebastian Inlet in his mind’s eye: vivid memories tied to his great-grandfather Charles W. Sembler, aka “The Boss Man,” who was among those hardy pioneers who cut the inlet a century ago using an early form of a hydraulic dredge.
The younger Sembler still sees a meandering shoreline with the banks lined with Australian Pines iconic to Old Florida, dangerous shoals to avoid. His senses recall coming in after a long day fishing and being greeted by the heat of the land and the distinct smell of mullet being cooked over a small campfire of burning pine.
“You were tired and hungry and you would smell that smell. It’s that visual, and all around sensory (memory) of the way it was, that is burned into my psyche,’’ he said.
History shows that creating the inlet was no easy feat. And it sure didn’t take the first time. Or the second. Or the sixth.
Much earlier, when the first settlers began to arrive in the mid-1880s, several attempts were made to “open a cut” near the present-day inlet including attempts by D.P. Gibson (1872) and Rev. Thomas New (1881). There were at least six attempts made in 1905, all closed by sand, including one by Roy O. Couch.
In 1915 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wouldn’t issue a permit for the inlet because it didn’t want the expense of maintenance dredging to keep it open. The corps insisted on the formation of a local taxing district for the work and the concept of the Sebastian Inlet Association was hatched in 1918.
That year, Couch built a 6-inch suction dredge and hired Charles W. Sembler to dredge the cut, which was initially successful, yet again filled with sand about a year later. But important progress had been made.
In 1919, the Sebastian Inlet District was created, hence the 100th anniversary celebration this year in 2019. The following year a dig permit was issued, starting a 16-year run of the inlet being open, but running more north-south than the present-day inlet.
In 1941, the inlet was again closed, this time by a strong Nor’easter storm, and remained closed during World War II for fear of German U-boats entering the Indian River. Military tracking stations dotted the Atlantic coast with spotters on the lookout for enemy vessels.
In 1948, with the help of massive blasts from the use of surplus U.S. Navy munitions, Sebastian Inlet was opened for good.
Charlie Sembler II said the blasts from the surplus bombs – some causing huge explosions – made a key difference. “It loosened everything up. As primitive as it seems now, it’s done that same way today,’’ he said.
In 1965, the inlet was configured more east-west and the State Road A1A bridge opened, linking Brevard and Indian River counties. In 1970, the jetties were extended and Sebastian Inlet State Park was created.
In 1987, Gov. Bob Martinez appointed 21-year-old Charles Sembler II to serve on the Sebastian Inlet Commission to fill a vacancy, in effect starting a political career that led him to Tallahassee representing Florida House District 80. He tried to emulate the leadership style of his grandfather, known as “The Boss Man,” which emphasized self-reliance, independence and building relationships – even with those of opposing views, he said.
Of all the lessons taught, it is the patriarch’s frequent advice concerning the importance of family that echoes the loudest, he said. “Remember your name.”
“When I got into politics, I felt a different responsibility internally. Average wasn’t going to cut it. Anybody can do average. I had to run up the score because I was Charlie William Sembler II, named after the family patriarch. There was going to be no shortcuts,’’ he said.
Reflecting on the anniversary, the younger Sembler remains humble about his role, but thankful of his family history and childhood memories of Sebastian Inlet.
“I was kind of a keeper of the flame for a very short time that we were able to do a lot of good things,” Sembler said, as he looked out over today’s bustling inlet. “A lot of people all worked together and for that part I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“But if I could go back to those days when I could see all those Australian pines and the campfire cooking just one more time, to feel the heat of the land when you break that jetty. I’m not sure what I would give to feel that again,” Sembler said. “I would probably trade years off my life. My eyes still see it, but you can’t sense now it because it’s so different.”