Flagler’s First Overseas Railroad was in Palm Beach

January 22, 2012 will mark the 100th anniversary of Henry M. Flagler’s “Overseas Railroad” completion and it’s arrival in Key West. But Flagler had built a tiny overseas railroad much earlier, right here in Palm Beach at the Breakers Hotel. Flagler’s first hotel

Breakers Pier

Breakers Pier from the south

in Palm Beach was the Hotel Royal Poinciana, which opened in 1894 and was expanded many times. His second hotel was originally called the Palm Beach Inn, and was located on the ocean, whereas the Royal Poinciana was located on Lake Worth. Guests would ask if they could book rooms “over by the breakers,” so the name of the inn was changed to The Breakers.

The research for this blog came primarily from a Tequesta historical journal article written by Sue Pope Burkhardt entitled The Port of Palm Beach: The Breakers Pier in 1973. She was married to Henry Burkhardt, one of the original Lake Worth region pioneers. At that time there was no port in Palm Beach; consequently Flagler decided to build not only a freight port, but also a passenger port which allowed guests to board or disembark from steamers. The steamers, part of the Palm Beach-Nassau Steamship Line, offered tourists direct passage to Flagler’s hotel in Nassau, the Royal Victorian.

Breakers Pier

The Breakers Pier with train and steamer

In 1895 Captain J. D. Ross was commissioned to build the pier of concrete,wood and steel, which when finished was 1,005 feet long, almost 1/5 of a mile. The train would travel across Lake

Breakers Pier

Breakers Pier

Worth and Palm Beach, and terminate on the Breakers Pier, where passengers then boarded steamers to the Bahamas. Steamships carrying cargo also docked at the pier, and offloaded much of the material that was used to build the original Breakers hotel, which burned in 1903.

The use of the pier as a railway was shortlived. By the time Flagler had built his magnificent residence Whitehall, the train had ceased its run to the pier. The train was moved to the north end of the Hotel Royal Poinciana, which became the new termination point of the railway. The Nassau steamships then began to run from the Port of Miami over to the Bahamas. The Breakers Pier then started a new life as a fishing and strolling pier, where guests enjoyed views of the coast line. Fishing was great at that time, being so close to the Gulfstream and its warm waters and not subject to today’s pollution and overfishing.

Boats and yachts continued to dock at the pier, including Admiral George Dewey and his

Breakers Pier

Fishing from The Breakers Pier

flagship Mayflower. There was even a fear at one time during the Spanish-American War that the Florida coast might be invaded, so the Coast Guard was stationed on the pier. Mrs. Burkhardt even relates that Springfield rifles were distributed to each household as a civil defense precaution.

The pier was severely damaged in the 1928 hurricane, and was demolished a few years later. I wondered if anything was left from the pier, so I walked there from Clarke’s beach at low tide. I knew where the pier was based on aerial photography, which still shows a long dark streak underwater where the pier was located. I also determined its location from looking at a 1920 Sanborn map of the Breakers Hotel.

There indeed was an old bulkhead, still visible on the shoreline with bolts intact,

Breakers Pier

Bulkhead at the Breakers Pier

probably of stainless steel to still be so shiny. The dark streak is still clearly visible under the water where the pier was located, even visible from shore. As I was there, a group of snorkelers led by a Breakers hotel employee were just emerging from the surf. The Breakers employee described what is left of the pier in this short audio interview – click on the following link – Interview with Breakers Employee.





Breakers Pier

Remnants of the pier underwater

I’m sure none of the guests who stay at the Breakers and few of the employees realize the magnificent pier that once stood on the shoreline by the hotel. Its ghost is still there, now an artifact, raptured in the deep.

breakers pier

Piling from the Breakers Pier

Vintage postcards are from the Florida Memory Project archive; underwater photographs are courtesy of Steve Anton.

Hands of Creation: Augusta Christine Savage

During this whole weekend, when I looked for something, I found something else, and each and every time it was much better than what I was actually looking for. So it was as I found Augusta Christine Savage, a famous African-American sculptor of the 20th

Augusta Christine Savage at work

century. Born on Leap Day 1892, in Green Cove Springs, Florida, she came from a poor family of 13 children. So many children and little money left the children with no toys. But the creative spirit in her found a way; in her case it was the clay pit near their backyard. She created sculptures of animals and often skipped school to create her animals. Her father, a minister, did not approve of her creating “idolatry” of God’s creatures and often punished her for the creations.

The South Florida connection emerges with the family’s move to West Palm Beach in 1907. That move, however, cut her off from her beloved clay. While on a school trip, she rode past a local business called “Chase Pottery” and she knew clay was there. She yelled for the wagon to stop and ran to the shop. The potter was so impressed with her excitement that he gave her three buckets of clay to take home. Her father still disapproved of her sculpting, but after seeing her sculpture of the Virgin Mary, he realized her talent and accepted her art. Several teachers at the school for Blacks also noticed her talent, and after graduation, she was asked to stay on as a teacher of art at the school for the salary of one dollar a day. She went on to study one year at Florida A&M University at the teacher’s college.

Mayor George Currie

George Currie

Among those who noticed her talent was George Currie, a local leader who was an attorney, developer and had also served as mayor of West Palm Beach. Artistic talent was his too; he wrote several books of poetry. At that time, Currie was serving as the secretary of the Palm Beach County Fair, which was held near the train depot. Over considerable objection from other fair officials, Savage was allowed to have her own display booth of her sculptures. Not only did she sell $175 in sculptures, she won a $25 prize at the fair.

1921 County Fair

County Fair Article

Currie knew her talent was there, so he helped her study in New York. With a letter of introduction from Currie to a sculptor he knew in New York, she studied at the Cooper Union, a tuition-free art school. She supported herself with a cleaning job, but the job was soon lost. The advisory board at the Cooper Union agreed to pay her board as they felt her Mention of Savage, 1921, Tropical Suntalent so great. She applied for a summer art program in Paris, but was solely denied because she was Black. The story of her denial was carried in several papers, and artists came forward willing to have her study with them. Among them was Hermon Atkins MacNeil. She continued her studies and supported her family through working in a laundry. Her family back in West Palm Beach soon had to join her as their home was destroyed in a hurricane.

She received her first commission, a sculpture of W.E.B. DuBois to be done for the Harlem library in 1924. In 1925, she won a scholarship to an art school in Rome, but was unable to attend because it only covered tuition. Her dream of studying abroad was finally realized in 1929 when the Julius Rosenwald foundation funded her study at a leading Paris art school. She toured Europe as part of the experience, displaying her works along the way.

She returned to the United States in 1931, ready to sculpt and create, but the nation was in the throes of the Great Depression. In 1934, she opened her own art school in Harlem, Savage’s Studio of Arts and Crafts. Many famous African-American artists emerged from

Lift Every Voice and Sing Sculpture

her studio. In 1939, she received a commission from the New York World’s Fair, and she created a sculpture entitled Lift Every Voice and Sing. The large sculpture was cast in plaster as she could not afford bronze. Small copies in metal were cast and sold as souveniers at the Fair. It proved to be one of the most popular attractions at the Fair.

Unfortunately the plaster cast of the sculpture was destroyed after the fair as there was no money to preserve it. It was at this time that Savage abandoned her art career. She moved to upstate New York and only occasionally created new art. She rarely spoke of her career and worked at a mushroom farm. Occasionally she would teach an art class.  As her health faltered, she moved in with her daughter in New Jersey. She died March 26, 1962.

Her works are real and captured the spirit of her time. Had not George Currie seen her talent and had the courage to stand up to the prejudice of the fair officials, her career and

Gamin Scupture

talent may have never been realized. Today the few surviving pieces of her work sell for thousands of dollars. In this way, she has suffered the same fate of many artists who never realize the monetary value of their talent. But by remembering her and appreciating her work, her spirit and message survives in the beauty of her art.

This article was researched through the Tropical Sun archives, Wikipedia, and Alan Schroeder’s book on Augusta Christine Savage, In Her Hands.

They paved Banyan Street and put up a Parking Lot

If you have visited downtown West Palm Beach, Florida to enjoy the Green Market, have dinner or shop, you probably have parked in the Banyan Street garage, which is on

Banyan Street

Banyan Street as it appears in 2011

the south side of Banyan Street from Olive Avenue to Narcissus Street. It’s a rather nondescript three-story building built in the 1970s, but in the early 20th century, it was the hot spot of West Palm Beach.

Most famous of all the businesses that were located on this block was George Zapf’s Seminole Hotel, first built in 1894 at the corner of Banyan and Narcissus. The Zapf family had bottling businesses in many Florida cities including Miami, Jacksonville and West Palm Beach. He was an alderman in the city, and certainly was one of the real characters in early West Palm Beach.

George Zapf

George Zapf at his home – he is second from the left

The original wood structure burned in the Great Fires of 1896. First, on January 2, 1896 a fire started from an overheated stove in Nicoli and Puckett’s “Midway Plaisance Saloon and Restaurant” and the entire Banyan block was burned. Then on February 20, 1896, the rest of Narcissus Street burned to the south when an oil lamp overturned in a tailor’s shop. Zapf immediately had the hotel rebuilt, and the new Seminole Hotel was then constructed of brick as a “fireproof” hotel.

The Seminole Hotel

The Seminole Hotel in about 1900

The Seminole Hotel’s street level shops offered many services and businesses such as a lunch room, a tailor and barber shop, billiards, several saloons, cigars and candy, clothing and a drug store. The rest of the Banyan block had restaurants, offices, a grocery store, a bottling works and a Chinese laundry. At the corner of Narcissus and Clematis was the Palms Hotel, where the original Anthony Brothers store was located.

Seminole Hotel

Ad from The Tropical Sun for the Seminole Hotel

Of course, it was the saloons on Banyan Street that were the big draw, being the only place in West Palm Beach that served liquor. Many Palm Beachers also came across the bridge to enjoy late night drinking on Banyan. Some even called the street “Whiskey Street” and it drew the ire of Carrie Nation, the crusading leader of the Woman’s Temperance Movement, who showed up with her hatchet to clean up the place. The map of the entire block exactly as it appeared in 1903 is part of the Sanborn Fire Map series for West Palm Beach. These maps were produced to estimate fire insurance rates. Buildings in yellow were wood frame construction, and buildings in red were brick or brick veneer. The types of businesses are noted on the map. Several different years are available online at the University of Florida library (http://ufdc.ufl.edu/?c=SANBORN) and the maps provide a glimpse of how the city grew from 1903 through 1920.

Banyan Street

Banyan Street as it appeared in 1903

Zapf eventually sold the hotel, and it was renamed the Lake Park Hotel. It was razed sometime before 1950, but the exact date of the razing was not indicated in Palm Beach Post articles on the hotel.

So next time you park in the Banyan Street garage, think of the people who shopped in the stores, imbibed in some spirits or stayed in the hotel and enjoyed the good times of days past. Perhaps their spirits still walk Banyan Street.

This article was researched through the Palm Beach Post Historic archives and the Photographic Collection of the Florida Archives.

Ever drive through a Ballroom? You probably have in Palm Beach.

For whatever reason, I like to know exactly where important buildings once stood – where its footprint was, for somehow I think it lingers and makes a permanent impression on the

The Hotel Royal Poinciana

area. For Palm Beach, no other structure could be as important as the Hotel Royal Poinciana (HRP) once was. Envisioned as the grand hotel on Lake Worth, Henry Flagler built the hotel in 1893, and expanded it many times until it became not only the largest wooden structure in the world, but the largest hotel in the world.

I knew that the HRP was near where the Flagler Museum is today, and that it was on the Lake Worth (Intracoastal Waterway) side of the island. A historical marker in the area indicates that today’s Palm Beach Tower condominiums are on the land where the HRP once stood. But I wondered, where exactly did the hotel stand? Maps of the time didn’t really provide a clue, because so much has changed in roadways; houses and cottages once there are gone too.

Then I stumbled across detailed maps of West Palm Beach the Sanborn Company prepared to estimate rates for fire insurance (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanborn_Maps). The University of Florida has scanned the pre-1923 Sanborn Maps of Florida cities and towns, and the maps provide a rich history of buildings that once stood in many Florida cities (http://ufdc.ufl.edu/?c=SANBORN).


The Hotel Royal Poinciana

Included in the maps for West Palm Beach are the maps of Palm Beach, with incredibly detailed maps of the HRP, even listing how many night watchmen would be on duty and information on all buildings on the site. I took this map and overlaid it on a modern aerial photograph from Google maps. My only points of reference were the then Flagler residence with the small road in front, the shoreline of Lake Worth, and Royal Poinciana Way. These points allowed me to scale and place the hotel exactly on the modern landscape.

And then I saw it. Today’s Cocoanut Row roadway, just north of the Flagler Museum, cuts squarely through the ballroom of the Hotel Royal Poinciana! The ballroom is the small octogon shaped room on the picture above. Countless rich and famous people danced on that floor; the biggest event of every HRP season was the George Washington Ball, and the event would have had its grandest moments on that ballroom floor.

It is truly hard, if not impossible, for us today to imagine the grandeur, the elegance and prominence of the Hotel Royal Poinciana as a focal point for the Gilded Age. The construction of the immense place was an undertaking of its own, but to feed and pamper

Strolling at the HRP

thousands of guests among its 1,500 rooms at a level that wealthy persons would be satisfied with had to have been a monumental task! The local area supplied much of the fruits, vegetables and fish, but other meats and foodstuffs all had to arrive by train or steamer in an era with little or no refrigeration.

As time went by, many factors contributed to the HRP’s demise. It’s design was considered old-fashioned by the 1920s, the buildings were badly damaged in the 1928 hurricane, and the Great Depression all led to the hotel’s closing and demolition, completed by 1936.

Pat Crowley has a very informative blog on the HRP with great photographs and other ephemera – take a look at http://royalpoincianahotel.blogspot.com/

The photographs and postcards are a part of the Florida State Archives, the University of Florida digital collection and the Library of Congress Archives.

Going Postal, 1920s Style – The Strange Case of Lena Clarke

This is another blog posting that found its way to me in mysterious ways. I was looking for information on the Clarke family that farmed the Lake Clarke area in the old Tropical Sun newspapers online. What I found instead was a story that belies belief. My timing in finding this story also showed it to be another Orlando Florida murder trial that ended as no one expected.

Lena Clarke

Maude Clarke (standing) and Lena Clarke, dressed for the Seminole Sun Dance Festival, 1916

Lena Marietta Thankful Clarke was by all accounts an outstanding, intelligent young woman, born in 1886. Her father, the Rev. Almon Taylor Clarke was a minister, and Lena devoted much of her time to the Red Cross, the Congregational Church and selling War Bonds during World War I. Her sister Maude was the City Librarian for West Palm Beach, and the whole family had moved to West Palm Beach and lived on Poinsettia Street (later Dixie Highway).

Lena seemed to be a very intelligent and precocious child, reportedly reading philosophy books at the age of 6, according to author Stuart McIver who told of this twisted tale in his book Murder in the Tropics. Lena had worked at the West Palm Beach post office for 10 years, where her brother John Paul Clarke had served as postmaster. He met a strange and untimely death on Christmas Day, 1920 when he died of a Coral snake bite. Paul was a taxidermist and snake charmer, and had left the post office in 1918. After the subsequent postmaster resigned, the postmaster’s job was open; Lena was named postmistress in 1920 with support of the community through a petition signed by local businessmen.

Here is where the story begins to turn. Post offices took in quite a bit of cash beyond stamp sales and mailing parcels, mostly for money orders and war bonds. On July 26, 1921 she sent what was supposed to have been $32,000 in cash in two registered mail sacks to the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank.

When the sacks arrived, they were filled with mail order catalogs cut to the size of currency. A postal inspector arrived and questioned Lena about the theft. On Sunday, August 1, Lena hired a driver (Baxter Patterson) to take her to Orlando. There she checked into room 87 of the San Juan Hotel in downtown Orlando under an assumed name. She met up with a former mail carrier with whom she had worked, Fred Miltimore, who had left his post office job in West Palm Beach and was now running the Arcade restaurant in Orlando.

Later that evening, she walked into the police station in Orlando and into Chief E.D. Vestal’s office. She told how officers needed to go the San Juan Hotel and arrest Miltimore for the theft of the $32,000 that he had stolen from the West Palm Beach post office. She


Newspaper headline from the New York Times

claimed to have drugged him with a morphine pill. Vestal confirmed with West Palm Beach that she was indeed the postmistress. He sent officers out to the hotel, but they did not find a drugged Mr. Miltimore – they found a dead Mr. Miltimore, having been shot in the chest, with a gun lying nearby.

With Lena still in his office, the officers relayed the information on Miltimore’s demise back to the chief. He immediately accused her of killing Miltimore. She initially denied it, but did confess that yes, she had shot him because Miltimore would blame the theft on her. Within days, she was indicted on charges of first degree murder in Orange County.

In the months before trial, her story became more sensational and her celebrity status rose. She received fan mail and flowers on many occasions, and she redecorated and repainted her jail cell. She even wrote an autobiography of sorts from her jail cell which was sold through local newspapers for 25 cents. She soon recanted her confession, and claimed to have no recollection of making it to Chief Vestal. She also took to writing poetry in her jail cell:

A Fool’s Wisdom
I told you the course you pursued was wrong
But you laughed and said women are poor, weak fools
So I hushed on my lips life’s merry song
To pray, while you all disregarded God’s rules
I knew how your castle would crash on your head,
How the flowers would turn in your hands to weeds;
I saw when you turned from the ruins and fled;
Do you think I can meet, now, your soul’s sorest needs?
You expect I will comfort you and show you how
To bring your mistakes to successes still.
You look to my cunning to save you now.
Weak fool of a woman, perhaps I will.
Of course, love will fill the bitter years;
Perhaps was too cruel of a word to say.
Angels, blot from your records my prayers and my tears.
Lest they hide them from God at the judgment day.


As the trial approached, she once again changed her story about the money. Now she claimed that the money had really been stolen in 1918, and that another man, Joseph B. Elwell, had loaned her $20,000 to cover the theft. Except there was a problem – Elwell was dead! He had been shot dead in New York in 1920 in a murder that remains unsolved. The $32,000 was recovered among her belongings and bank accounts.

Lena hired two law firms to defend her – an Orlando law firm and the West Palm Beach law firm of Chillingworth and Chillingworth. Both firms had settled on an insanity defense and Lena did much to support their case. She testified for several hours. Imagine this scene – gazing into the crystal ball she brought with her on the witness stand, telling of the twelve previous lives she had lived. She had lived in the Garden of Eden, had been the goddess Isis in Egypt, then Berenice, the last queen of the Jews, then King Herod’s wife, then she was eaten by lions. Now we jump forward many centuries and she is with William Shakespeare, and served as the role model for the Ophelia character. Throughout these scenes, she claims Miltimore was also there, and always persecuting her in various ways.

She proclaimed that she would be found innocent and that this would be the start of her national career, serving as vice president of the United States and then president as the president (Eugene V. Debs, head of the socialist party) would be assissinated.


Ad for booklet of Lena’s life

Several psychiatrists, or “alienists” as they were then called, testified as to her mental state. Two found her to be insane, while one thought the whole thing to be a clever ruse. The jury recessed and came back two and a half hours later with their verdict – not guilty by reason of insanity. The judge committed her to the Florida State Mental Hospital at Chattahoochee. She was not happy about that, proclaiming she would have rather been sent to the gallows.

Alas, her stay was short at Chattahoochee, less than one year. She quietly returned to West Palm Beach and resumed her work with the church and the Red Cross. She lived in the house with her sister on Poinsettia Street, with neither woman ever marrying. The house, however, belonged to the Chillingworths; it was payment for their legal services. They trusted her enough to send her to England to research their family history. She shows up frequently in articles with her relief efforts through the 1940s and 1950s. She died in 1967, and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in West Palm Beach.

The echoes to an unexpected verdict from an Orange county jury after a short deliberation certainly brings to mind the Casey Anthony case. At the time, the Orlando Morning Sentinel relayed that more reporters were in town to cover the trial than at any other event that had occurred in Florida. That certainly can be said of the Anthony case as well.

Was Lena crazy? Perhaps…crazy like a fox!


Lena Clarke’s marker in Woodlawn Cemetery

This story was researched through the New York Times, the Tropical Sun and the Palm Beach Post archives, and the book by Stuart McIver, Murder in the Tropics.

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.

The Real Boynton in Boynton Beach – 100 years later

I was browsing through old Miami Metropolis newspapers online when I came across the obituary of Major Nathan S. Boynton, founder of Boynton Beach. I had heard and read some about Major Boynton, but more research into his past revealed him to be a very interesting person. The date too on the obituary was intriguing – exactly 100 years ago this month!

Major Nathan S. Boynton

Major Nathan S. Boynton was born June 23, 1837 in Port Huron, Michigan. Boynton was a descendent of Sir Matthew Boynton, credited with introducing sheep and goats to America. Boynton attended high school in Waukegan, Illinois and married Miss Anna Fidelei in 1859; together they had six children. Boynton began his military career in 1862, rising to the rank of major during his service in the Civil War. After the war, Boynton returned to Michigan and resided in Marine City. There he became Postmaster, Tax Assessor and eventually Supervisor of the town. He also served in the Michigan state legislature and owned a local newspaper. A true Renaissance man, Major Boynton also invented several pieces of firefighter equipment including the Boynton fire escape, the Boynton hook and ladder truck and a system for ladder rope trussing. He also founded the Knights of the Maccabees, a fraternal society that had over 200,000 members nationwide at its peak. In addition to the social aspect of the fraternity, sick payments and a death benefit were paid to members. It eventually became a full-fledged insurance company.

One of Boynton's Patents

One of Boynton’s Patents

As he approached his 60s, a desire for new frontiers and warmer weather brought him south to Florida with his fellow Michiganite, William S. Linton. They traveled to the area in

The Boynton Hotel on the beach

1894, guided by Captain Frederick Voss, sailing down the Florida East Coast Canal (today’s Intracoastal Waterway). Boynton purchased 500 acres in the area along the ocean and on the west side of the Intracoastal Waterway. In 1896, construction began on Boynton’s oceanfront hotel, primarily by Michigan families who had moved to the area. “The Boynton” opened in 1897, with a main building and small cottages. The hotel expanded several times, and remained popular with guests each winter season. A.E. Parker, who had married Boynton’s daughter Annie, served as hotel manager for several years.

Major Boynton spent each winter in his town until the year before his death in 1911 at the age of 74 in Port Huron. The Boynton Hotel continued on to 1925, when it was torn down so that a larger, more modern structure could be built. The 1926 hurricane and subsequent land bust put an end to those plans.

Boynon House

Major Boynton’s house in Port Huron

The families who had come to build the hotel stayed and began to farm the areas along the west side of the Intracoastal Waterway. The Town of Boynton continued its growth westward with citrus groves and dairies, which eventually became the manicured suburbs seen today. Today’s Boynton Beach has over 68,000 residents and is the third largest city in Palm Beach County.

So what would Major Boynton think of what has become of his tiny hamlet? Being a forward thinker, I don’t think he would be terribly surprised. He knew a good thing when he saw it.


Boynton Beach’s Most Wanted Man – Do you know him?

This week we have a guest blogger, Janet DeVries, archivist at the Boynton Beach City Library and author of four books on the history of Boynton Beach and Delray Beach. She tells the story of a mysterious picture found at the library.

The distinguished gentleman stares out of the old photograph. The handsome fellow sports short, carefully combed hair, a clean shaven face, and extremely long sideburns. Who is

The Mystery Man of Boynton

he? His identity remains a mystery. A news reporter for WPTV News Channel 5 in West Palm Beach was so intrigued with the image the station ran a story about the mystery man. Since then, people all over the country have been trying to identify him.

Why all the fuss over a guy in a picture? What archive doesn’t have unidentified photographs? The provenance of the 14” by 18” crayon portrait (a charcoal enhanced photograph) is also a mystery. Even the way the portrait was discovered is something out of a Nancy Drew book.

A furniture refinisher discovered a hidden drawer underneath an old display cabinet in the Boynton Beach City Library. Perhaps it wasn’t really a “secret” drawer, but it was stuck closed and no one knew of its existence until the refinisher revealed to us the contents of the drawer. Most of the items were Boynton Beach Historical Society papers and old newspapers, along with two old Boynton post office ledgers from 1913 and 1921.

I put the portrait on display in a vintage camera and photographic exhibition in the library. A news reporter for WPTV saw the “suspect,” I mean the unusual man in the image, and inquired as to his identity. When I simply said “I don’t know,” that question was followed by “where did it come from?” After hearing the story, WPTV broadcast the mystery man’s face on television along with the caption “Most Wanted.” Due to the far-reaching power of the Internet and social media, the image has made its way around the world.

Since then people have been sending in clues. One of the most noteworthy tips came from Maureen Taylor, the internationally recognized photo identification and history expert. Taylor has written several books on the intersection of history, genealogy, and photography including the title Fashionable Folks Hairstyles 1840-1900. The Bostonian called with evidence to the photos age based on hairstyle, clothing and type of photographic image.

Taylor said the photograph dates from around 1880. She concurred that his notable hair were “Burnside” style sideburns, but noted that by 1880 they had become quite exaggerated. The photo detective said “The short hair combined with the facial hair confirms the date. His jacket and tie are also the style from the circa 1880 period. He really liked to show off!”

WPTV once again showed the story on television with some of the new clues. The furniture with the hidden drawer was traced to Mr. G.A. Stevenson, owner of Stevenson Feed & Seed. The old store was located next door to the Seaboard Railway, just west of present day I-95. The place closed years ago and Mr. Stevenson himself is gone.

A number of people are on the case, following leads and tracking down clues. The local Daughters of American Revolution chapter, historical societies and libraries locally and nationally, even postal history experts are conducting their own investigations. Meanwhile, the kindly looking gent in the photograph continues to patiently peer out of his frame as if looking for a relative.

80 Years Ago Today, a College was Born.

Imagine it is 1931 in Palm Beach County. The land bust has left many residents penniless and land speculators long gone. The Great Depression is in full swing, and just three years earlier, the worst hurricane in Florida history in terms of loss of life had occurred. So what to do to help the community prosper again? Propose something that was a radical concept at the time – establish a public two-year college so that local residents could achieve the dream of higher education for their children.

Joe A. Youngblood

This idea was quietly announced April 13, 1931 by the County Superintendent of Instruction at that time, Joe A. Youngblood. Youngblood hailed from Arkansas, and was elected in 1925 to the superintendent’s post after a successful career in insurance. Youngblood’s political advertisement from 1932 described him as “a college man”; Youngblood earned a Master of Arts degree from Vanderbilt University. On page 7 of the Palm Beach Post Youngblood told of the idea to offer college classes at the Palm Beach High School. Howell L. Watkins, the principal of Palm Beach High School, and Youngblood worked together to gain support for the idea. At that time, parents had to send their children to a private college, to the University of Florida at Gainesville, or the Florida State College in Tallahassee (later called Florida State University). Many parents simply could not afford room, board and tuition during the Depression, so Watkins and Youngblood thought of offering college classes at the high school so young adults could live at home and still attend college, at least for the first two years of college studies.

Howell L. Watkins

What we consider commonplace today in having a community college was not common at that time. There were a handful of what were then called “junior” colleges around the nation, but only one other one in Florida, St. Petersburg Junior College, which had opened in 1927 and was private. The University of Florida was a key player in helping the fledgling college design its curriculum and make sure that the faculty were ready and able to teach college-level classes. Classes started in 1933, with Watkins serving as Dean, and the entire class schedule was published in the Palm Beach Post (see below). That first semester, 41 students took classes in mathematics, science, music, education, foreign language and English. Mr. Youngblood’s wife Ethel was among the original faculty and taught German and Latin.

The University of Florida continued to supervise the curriculum, and the college continued to expand its classes and curriculum.The first graduating class in 1936 numbered 3 students – Charlotte Cross, Franklin Kamiya, and Virginia Cunningham. It is interesting to note that Franklin Kamiya (in the black cap and gown below) was born in West Palm Beach, and his family was part of the Yamato Colony of Japanese immigrants in the Boca Raton area, who arrived in the early 1900s. His uncle was George Morikami of the Morikami Museum and Gardens fame.

The College’s First Graduates in 1936

The first president of the college was John I. Leonard, who succeeded Youngblood as superintendent and guided the college from 1936 til 1958. Leonard and Watkins were also

John I. Leonard

instrumental for having the college accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which occurred in 1942. The college soon outgrew it’s Palm Beach High School home, and moved to a larger facility at Morrison Field in 1948. The mobilization of Morrison Field for the Korean War caused the college to move to the Lake Park town hall, until land was granted from the Palm Beach County Commission for the 114 acre Lake Worth site.

Junior colleges continued to spring up around the state; one of the college’s 1941 graduates, James L. Wattenbarger, went on to become the architect of Florida’s junior college system through his doctoral dissertation which presented the plan that was adopted in 1958. In the ensuing decades, Palm Beach Junior College became Palm Beach Community College in 1988, and finally Palm Beach State College in 2010. Additional campuses were added in Palm Beach Gardens, Belle Glade and Boca Raton to provide easy access to all citizens of Palm Beach County. The college also has the original historic building on the Palm Beach High School grounds among its facilities.

Dormitories at Morrison Field

I recently corresponded with a great niece of Mr. Youngbloods; she had no idea of his role in helping to form a college. In her mother’s garage she had discovered a few items he had on his desk. I am sure not even in his greatest imaginings could he have foreseen what the college is today. This May, Palm Beach State College will confer its first bachelor’s degrees;

1935 Biography of Joe Youngblood

the “little college that could” has become the big college that can. I am among the over 90,000 people who have graduated from the college over the years. It is amazing how one idea can transform a community and a state through education, the greatest emancipator ever known.

Complete Schedule – 1933