- Strategic Priority: Community Culture and Character
- History of Palm Beach
Town of Palm Beach's History
When the first settlers arrived in what was to become Palm Beach, the entire area was known as “Lake Worth”, named for Major General William Jenkins Worth who fought in the Second Seminole War. Pioneers struggled to clear land for their houses and to make room for their crops. The first of the permanent pioneers arrived in 1872. According to early settler accounts, Palm Beach received its name from a shipwreck named the "Providencia." The ship washed ashore in January 1878 with a load of coconuts bound from Havana to Barcelona. Early settlers lost no time claiming salvage and planting the coconuts, which were not native to South Florida, in an effort to launch a commercial coconut industry.
History as a Tourist Location
Word of the area’s beauty spread northward and by 1880 the first hotel, the Coconut Grove House, opened to accommodate tourists. By the early 1890s the island community was well established with several hotels, businesses, and winter residents. The pioneer era ended in 1894 with the opening of Henry M. Flagler’s Royal Poinciana Hotel and the arrival of the Florida East Coast Railroad in 1896. The railroad tracks crossed Lake Worth so trains could deliver their passengers directly to the Flagler System hotels, which included the Palm Beach Inn directly on the ocean. Soon renamed The Breakers, because so many guests wrote asking for a room “down by the breakers,” fire destroyed the hotel in 1903. Henry Flagler ordered a larger, more luxurious hotel built at the same location, which opened for business the following year. The hotel was again destroyed by fire in March 1925 and was replaced by the magnificent stone structure which continues to serve as a Palm Beach landmark today.
The Town of Palm Beach was incorporated on April 17, 1911. Thirty-five men (women did not have the vote yet) met at the Palm Beach Hotel that night and voted to incorporate what was only the second recognized municipality in Palm Beach County. They also elected the first officials: Elisha N. Dimick, Mayor; John P. McKenna, Town Clerk; Joseph Borman, Marshal; and J. B. Donnelly, William Fremd, John W. Doe, Enoch Root, and J. J. Ryman, Councilmen. In 1929, the Garden Club of Palm Beach sponsored the preparation of a Town Plan.
After over 100 years of graceful evolution, Palm Beach today is a fully developed community, world-renowned for its beauty, quality of life and small-town character. It is home to “Captains of Industry” and the world famous Worth Avenue. Approximately 9,000 citizens make Palm Beach their year-round home, and about 20,000 more have a seasonal home in Palm Beach where they enjoy the winter months. Together, these residents of Palm Beach donate more money per capita to charities than any other community in America. The Town is governed by an elected Mayor and a five-member Council, operates under the Council-Manager form of government, and provides a full range of quality municipal services. It has an active historic preservation program, strict zoning standards, high levels of public safety and public works services, 3 miles of public beaches, and a wide array of recreation programs, including award winning golf and tennis facilities.
From St. Augustine to Key West, Flagler built a series of luxury hotels that quickly established tourism as a mainstay of Florida’s economy. His Florida East Coast Railway not only connected his hotels but opened the state to growth of all kinds. Through his Model Land Company, Flagler encouraged the agricultural development of millions of acres, thus establishing agriculture as another mainstay of the state’s economy. Flagler undertook and accomplished one of the most ambitious engineering projects ever attempted by a private citizen: the building of the Over-Seas Railroad, covering more than 155 miles from Miami to Key West.
Falling in Love with Palm Beach
Along the way, Flagler fell in love with Palm Beach, where a lush grove of coconut palms had grown up following the shipwreck of the Providencia in 1878. On the lakefront, he built the Hotel Royal Poinciana, which was both the world’s largest resort and the world’s largest wooden building. On the ocean, he built The Breakers. He also built his winter home (“Whitehall”) in Palm Beach. Today, Whitehall is open to the public and the National Historic Landmark is known around the world as one of America’s great historic house museums.
While a great many have helped to make the Town of Palm Beach the beautiful and special place that it has become over the last century, Palm Beach owes its existence and character more to Henry Flagler than to any other individual. More important to Flagler, without a doubt, would be the fact that so many have come to share his love of the place he thought of as “Paradise.”
Key Historical Dates & Events
- 1878: The Providencia wrecks off the coast full of 20,000 coconuts - they were distributed and planted
- 1893: Henry Flagler, Standard Oil Tycoon, declares Palm Beach a “veritable paradise”
- 1894: Flagler’s Royal Poinciana Hotel is completed. It is the largest wooden structure in the world.
- 1896: Flagler’s FEC Railway arrives in Palm Beach.
- 1896: Flagler opens the Palm Beach Inn which becomes The Breakers in 1901.
- 1902: Flagler’s winter home “Whitehall” is completed.
- 1907: Telephone service established with 18 phones.
- 1911: Palm Beach incorporated as a town.
- 1911: Original Royal Park Bridge opened.
- 1925: Palm Beach town Hall opened.
- 1929: “The Plan of Palm Beach” is sponsored by the Garden Club of Palm Beach.
- 1930: Addison Mizner’s Memorial Fountain built in town Square.
- 1938: Original Flagler Memorial Bridge opened.
- 1959: Second Royal Park Bridge opened.
- 1961-1963: President Kennedy’s “Winter Whitehouse is his family’s Palm Beach estate.
- 1971-1977: Earl E.T. Smith, the last United States Ambassador to Cuba, serves as Mayor of Palm Beach.
- 1995: Mar-a-Lago was transformed into the Mar-a-Lago Club.
- 2005: Current Royal Park Bridge opened.
- 2009: Palm Beach town Hall restored.
- 2010: Worth Avenue restored
- 2011: Town of Palm Beach celebrated its Centennial Year
- In 1879, early pioneers planted about 15,000 pineapple slips to establish a pineapple farm on the island.
- The first school (Little Red Schoolhouse) was built in 1886 and is preserved today at Phipps Ocean Park.
- Millie and Jacob Gildersleeve, two of the earliest African American pioneers on the island, purchased property from Elisha Dimick in 1890, which later became Riviera Beach.
- When Flagler extended his railroad to Palm Beach, it ran onto a 1,000-foot long pier in the Atlantic, making it easy for ships to deliver cargo and passengers. The 1928 hurricane destroyed it.
- In the early 1900s, the west end of Worth Avenue was home to Alligator Joe’s Farm, where Joe entertained winter visitors with his collection of alligators he often wrestled.
- The Town of Palm Beach, Palm Beach County’s second municipality, was incorporated on April 17, 1911, after it was discovered in January that West Palm Beach was going to attempt an annexation of the island resort during that year’s legislative session