Let there be light…and there was light!

Today as I watched the Riviera Beach FPL power plant implosion, I wondered when electricity first came to Palm Beach County. Electricity was a marvel in the late 1800s, and really centered around one thing – lights! The ability to light streets and provide light in homes and businesses was not only convenient, but much safer than lanterns, candles and gas light, all sources of combustion and fire in the mostly wooden structures of the time.

My search began in old issues of The Tropical Sun, the area’s first newspaper. The earliest articles first mentioned electricity as part of the Royal Poinciana Hotel in Palm Beach. The hotel was opened in 1893, and it was planned from the beginning to have electricity. They had their own power plant on the island to provide for the hotel’s needs.

Article on Gas Lights in Boynton, 1899

Obviously, others in the county wanted power too. Many streets and homes around the nation had been lit for years with “gas light”, an intensely bright light that is produced with acetylene gas. Such “light” even was found in the fledgling Boynton at the Boynton Hotel as early as 1899, and The Tropical Sun proclaimed gas light as the “greatest of all modern inventions.”

Notice in the Tropical Sun for power plant bids

The first idea for electricity in the city was to simply run electric wires across Lake Worth from the power plant at the Royal Poinciana over to West Palm Beach. That did not happen, so in 1902 the City of West Palm Beach took out an ad in The Tropical Sun for a new electric power plant. The West Palm Beach Light and Power Company was formed, with A.R. Beaujohn in charge. I was not able to find a paper online with the exact date that the power plant was activated, but I do know that the franchise for the plant was won by none other than Joe Jefferson, one of the most famous actors of the 19th century. He was best known for portraying “Rip Van Winkle” on the stage. Mr. Jefferson was a fixture in Palm Beach, and did much to develop downtown West Palm Beach. He owned six houses in West Palm Beach, along with the Jefferson Hotel, and several stores. Reportedly he uttered the words “Let there be light” when the switch was flipped on the plant and electric began to flow in West Palm Beach.

Through the years, other towns and cities began to generate electricity, first through the small independent types of plants such as West Palm Beach had. For example, electricity came to downtown Boynton in the early 1920s, being wired by G. C. Meredith. As the land boom

Early FPL Plant

approached, American Power & Light began to purchase many of these independent plants and consolidate them under the Florida Power & Light name, which began in 1925. The first large scale plants were at Fort Lauderdale and Sanford. Consolidation continued, but a few cities remained as independent power producers; in Palm Beach County only Lake Worth has its own municipal power plant.

In some ways, I was sad to see those old smokestacks go down today. They were such a part of the landscape and a real landmark. I remember driving from Lake Worth back to Jupiter along Flagler Drive and US 1 as a child, and the power plant was always the point where Flagler ended and you had to get on US 1. I know many considered the smokestacks an “eyesore,” but it is another element of our landscape forever lost to history.

FPL Plant Implosion, Riviera Beach, June 19, 2011

This article was researched through The Tropical Sun and Palm Beach Post historic archives, and Pioneers in Paradise by Jan Tuckwood and Eliot Kleinberg.

How about a drive to Cuba – It was possible in the 1950s

Now more than 50 years after Fidel Castro’s takeover of Cuba, it remains a mysterious, forbidden and foreign place. Few of us can picture a time when Cuba was a friendly neighbor of the United States, and a place for a quick weekend getaway. When Flagler’s train reached Key West in 1912, some of the trains were loaded onto 300 foot long barges to continue on to Havana for gambling and exotic rum drinks, especially after Prohibition took hold in 1920.

Cover of Havana Ferry Folder

Even up to the late 1950s though, a car ferry service ran from Key West, with a connection for freight in West Palm Beach (see this web page for a great history on freight to and from Cuba from the Port of Palm Beach - http://www.portofpalmbeach.com/photo-gallery/port-rail-history.php). So you could saunter down to Key West in your car, drive to Stock Island and catch the ferry, which was operated by the West India Fruit and Steamship Company.

A map of the ferry route

The ferry left Key West Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 11:00AM. The S.S. Havana could accommodate 500 passengers and 125 cars. Arrival in Havana was at 6:00 PM, so the crossing took about 7 hours. The fare was $13.50 one way, or $26.00 round trip (about $190.00 in 2010 dollars). The ship then left Havana for the trip back to Key West at 10:00AM, so you were back in Key West at 5:00 PM.

The ship was air-conditioned and offered snack bars, lounges, a gift shop, and small day cabins. As relations with Cuba eroded in 1959 with the trade embargo emerging in 1960, the ferry service ceased and the ships were sold in 1961.

Interior view of the S.S. Havana

Could we ever see such a service again in our lifetimes? It could be possible. The Tampa Port Authority has proposed a car ferry service to Havana from Tampa. Approvals would have to gained from both U.S. and Cuban authorities, plus the logistics of taking a car to Cuba…there would be no calling AAA for a tow, and it might be a bit hard to fill out a claim form for your insurance company and list the place of accident as “Havana, Cuba.”

Still, the prospect of visiting a place essentially hidden from Floridians for more than 50 years is quite inviting.

Images courtesy of the website www.timetableimages.com,  from the collection of Björn Larsson.