West Palm Beach was the brainchild of Henry M. Flagler, Florida railroad magnate and Standard Oil partner. Founded as a commercial and residential center to support Flagler’s hotels, West Palm Beach rose from sandy scrub to become the leading metropolitan and governmental center for Palm Beach County. In 1894 it was much different. In fact, a resident described the town as “a stretch of the whitest of white sand, two steel rails, a few acres of pineapples, a couple of houses, and ‘scrub’ on every side!”
Henry M. Flagler visited the Lake Worth area in 1892 while scouting a route to extend his railroad south. He bought land on Palm Beach to construct the first of his two hotels, the Royal Poinciana (1894) on the west side of the island and in 1896 the Palm Beach Inn (later known as the Breakers Hotel) on the ocean. With the influx of workers, Flagler looked across the lake to the mainland to establish a residential and commercial center to support the resort. With $45,000, he purchased the O.S. Porter and Louis Hillhouse properties, creating the nucleus of downtown.
The area was laid out in the typical gridiron pattern of the day with the streets alphabetically named after plants common to the area. The town was only 48 blocks and stretched from Lake Worth on the east to Clear Lake on the west and from Althea (now Second Street) on the north to Fern Street on the south. The first lots were sold at auction on February 4, 1894, at the newly constructed, but not yet opened, Royal Poinciana Hotel.
At a meeting held at the “calaboose” (jail) on November 5, 1894, residents voted to incorporate as a municipality. Flagler provided much of the infrastructure for the fledgling town including land and money for churches, public buildings, and fire equipment for the Flagler Alerts, the volunteer fire department.
By 1895 the town had grown to a population of more than 1000 residents. In the first months of 1896, two fires, just weeks apart, destroyed much of the business district. This resulted in a change to the building codes, and structures had to be built of stone, brick, or brick veneer. By the time the devastated area was rebuilt, West Palm Beach could boast well-maintained streets, hotels, churches, stores, a post office, a library, schools, a water and electric plant, sewer system, city dock, railroad station, and a bridge crossing Lake Worth to Palm Beach. By 1903 the town had grown large enough for the town council to ask the state legislature for permission to become a city.
The city continued to grow, and its fate was sealed when the state legislature passed Senate Bill Number 18 in April 1909 establishing Palm Beach County with West Palm Beach as the new county’s seat of government. In 1919 West Palm Beach initiated several changes including reorganization of the police department, starting with eight men. The town marshal, Frank H. Matthews, was renamed police chief. The same year, the city built a city hall and hired its first city manager.
Despite the construction moratoriums created by World War I, the crown jewel of Palm Beach County and south Florida experienced a land boom that lasted into the 1920s. This pressure on the existing infrastructure caused a frenzy of construction just as the war ended. This, in turn, brought even more people seeking jobs to the land where “summer spends the winter” to fulfill the need for workers and those who could supply the variety of goods and services that such growth requires.
New construction, including office buildings (and the city’s first skyscrapers), hotels, hospitals, and housing subdivisions proliferated. In 1917 the West Palm Beach Canal was completed, providing access to the farming areas of western Palm Beach County. This made the expanding city the main distribution center for the county’s fruit and winter vegetables that were shipped throughout the United States. In 1925 a second railroad, the Seaboard Air Line Railway, arrived in the city, enhancing the long-distance transportation system. West Palm Beach became a popular tourist destination for the middle class.
The economic good times of the 1920s soon began to spiral out of control and quickly headed for a crash. During the boom, property values went up as investors and speculators bought and sold land (many times sight unseen) at alarming rates. In 1926 a terrible hurricane caused significant damage to south Florida that caused investors to lose confidence in Florida real estate. Northern newspapers and investors also began publicizing reports of unscrupulous real estate deals. When the Florida East Coast Railroad put a moratorium on shipping construction materials, building came to a halt. Local banks started to fail, which affected commercial and land investments. To top it all off, a second, and even more damaging hurricane hit south Florida in 1928.
This second hurricane laid waste to most of Palm Beach County and killed at least 3000 people. In the Glades area the Lake Okeechobee dike failed, flooding the communities on the southeastern lakeshore. These factors contributed to the end of the south Florida Land Boom causing the state to enter into a depression long before the rest of the United States did after the stock market crash of October 1929.
Property values dropped dramatically in West Palm Beach and elsewhere during the Great Depression. However, there still was some progress in the city during the 1930s. Palm Beach Junior College (today’s Palm Beach Community College) became Florida’s first junior college when it opened in 1933. The new county airport, Morrison Field (present day Palm Beach International Airport), was dedicated in December 1936. It was named in honor of the late Grace Morrison who had spearheaded the drive to establish it.
By the end of the 1930s, dark, forbidding clouds loomed on the horizon as Europe went to war. When the military began expanding, the US War Department approved a plan to lease Morrison Field as an Army Air Corps base, and in 1942 the Army established the Air Transport Command there. This brought thousands of servicemen to West Palm Beach. Other civilian facilities in the area were used to support the war effort and to entertain troops.
When World War II ended, veterans who had trained or passed through Florida during the war fondly remembered the wonderful climate and returned as soon as they could for work, vacations or retirement.
This migration began a new era of development for West Palm Beach and neighboring communities that has continued into the 21st century.
The City of West Palm Beach gratefully acknowledges the Historical Society of Palm Beach County for this information and photographs.