Originally appeared in The Palm Beach Post, Saturday, October 28, 1995, page 1D, by Candy Hatcher, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
One of Palm Beach’s most indispensable and elegant structures, having weathered two replacements, several makeovers and a century of traffic, is ready for travelers again.
Flagler Memorial Bridge, stronger and better looking after a 6 1/2-week rehabilitation, is scheduled to reopen by 6 a.m. today, although one lane in each direction will be closed for several more days.
It’s opening in time to do what it was designed to do 100 years ago, when Henry Flagler linked the mainland with the playland: Allow the rich to get to Palm Beach for the winter.
The bridge was first a one-lane wooden railroad trestle that provided access to Palm Beach, via the Florida East Coast Railway, in the 1890s and early 1900s. Then it became a toll bridge – pedestrians paid a nickel and horseback riders a dime to cross. In 1938, the wood gave way to a concrete-and-steel, four-lane structure that cost the county $725,000.
And now, after a $2.5 million makeover with new concrete, steel, paint and wiring – and 44 days of headaches and inconvenience for tourists, residents and merchants who had to find another way to the north end of the island – the bridge is horizontal again.
No offense to the other two spans, say historians, but of the three bridges that come to Palm Beach, this is the bridge.
If only it could talk.
It might tell us the real scoop on Henry Flagler’s wife, Mary Lily, who moved to Whitehall in 1902 and immediately began complaining about the bridge next door. She griped about the trains’ noise and smoke, so the next year, her husband moved the bridge.
If the bridge could talk, we might hear about the extravagant parties at Whitehall and The Royal Poinciana Hotel, where guests came from all over the East Coast. They brought their private rail cars and parked them at the depot near the hotel. One party drew 46 rail cars, said Tim Frank, Palm Beach’s
If the bridge could tell stories, we’d probably hear a few about the construction crews, such as the time in 1902 when a worker finished his job on the bridge, retired to a Banyan Street saloon and drank five half-pints of whiskey. He was thrown out of the bar and told to go home and sleep. That night, friends found him in bed, lifeless. The newspaper headline the next day: “Drank Too Much Whiskey and Death Soon Followed as a Result.”
Norman Latham, whose father won the contract in 1936 to replace the wooden bridge with a concrete-and-steel structure, remembers coming to work for his father shortly after he earned his engineering degree. “He was a tough taskmaster,” recalled Latham, now 84.
The son knew the bridge would require five coats of paint, and he suggested it be painted with spray gun instead of by hand. He said he’d build a spray machine with a 15-foot handle and rig cables so the machine could be turned off and on.
“My father said, `You’re not dry behind the ears yet. You don’t know what you’re talking about,’” Latham remembered. So he offered to do the job under subcontract for what his father said it would cost to paint by hand.
“I did it for half,” he said with a grin. “I made big money. He didn’t ever say so, but I think he was proud of me.”
The bridge was dedicated in July 1938 – the only four-lane road in Palm Beach County. A plaque on the east end commemorates its construction and lists Latham’s father, E.H. Latham, as well as the county commissioners in office at the time.
Historian James R. Knott, an 85-year-old retired judge, remembered details about the bridge’s construction and opening, but he wanted to be sure of the dates, so he telephoned Latham to discuss it.
Knott was sitting in his West Palm Beach condo overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway, and Latham was sitting across the waterway in his Palm Beach home, and the two octogenarians were trying to trip each other’s minds to remember the little things.
Latham: There’s steel underpinning in one end, but not the other. Two crews of workers were involved in the construction. Rinker’s plant was on the north side of the bridge, remember?
Knott did. And he recalled other details, such as a Jacksonville engineer telling a county official that the state Democratic party was expecting a $1 million kickback from the bridge contract (It didn’t get it).
Dressing up the bridge
He also recalled the concrete structures on the Palm Beach side of the bridge – gifts from a British man who “thought the bridge should have something to dress it up.” And the wrought iron lamps at the east entrance, given to the town by Col. E.R. Bradley.
The bridge has been in the news a few times in the past 20 years. In 1980, boats and barges ran into the bridge seven times in two months, forcing it to close for repairs. In 1983, the bridge closed again for $670,000 in repairs.
And now it’s open again, and lots of people, especially Latham, are glad.
He calls it “our bridge.”
“It stood up better than any of the rest,” he said. “Most are torn down by the time they’re 40 years old. . . . It’s never given any structural trouble.”
The Flagler Memorial Bridge
Vital stats: 2,299 feet (.43 mile) long, 52 feet (four lanes) wide, weight limit 32 tons.
Originally built: 1895.
Steel replacement opened: 1938.
Original form: wooden railroad bridge.
Bridge traffic in the early 1900s: 552,630 people crossed the bridge in the year between March 1901 and March 1902.
Bridge traffic in the 1990s: 23,000 vehicles a day, or 8.4 million vehicles a year.
Sources: Florida Department of Transportation; the Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
In 1903, Henry Flagler had the bridge torn down and rebuilt farther away because noise from the trains running beside their new house disturbed his wife.
Flagler Memorial used to be a toll bridge. In 1913, pedestrians and passengers in street cars paid 5 cents to cross the bridge; it cost a rider on horseback a dime; one horse, buggy and driver, 15 cents; each driver with automobile, 20 cents; and each additional automobile passenger, another nickel. The toll was lifted in 1928.
The bridge was designated a historical landmark in 1989.
Cost of construction in 1938: $725,000, with 9,700 cubic yards of concrete, 4,240 linear feet of concrete handrail and 587,600 pounds of structural steel.
Cost of construction in 1995: $2.5 million to repair the sidewalk, replace some of the structural steel, rewire some of the electrical works, renovate the bridgetender’s house and install lights.
Sources: Florida Department of Transportation; the Historical Society of Palm Beach County; the Flagler Museum; and Palm Beach County: An Illustrated History by Donald W. Curl.
Henry Flagler, the man who turned a stretch of swamp into the fanciest winter resort in the world, was the first to link Palm Beach with the mainland. In 1895, he built a one-lane wooden railroad and foot bridge. In 1901, half a million people used the bridge. (Photo courtesy The Historical Society of Palm Beach County)