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Palm Beach County as it was: The wide-open coastline

By BILL McGOUN

Fourth in a series.
Part 1, Memories of Palm Beach County, 1943-1954
Part 2, The war years
Part 3, Before the urban sprawl
Part 4, The wide-open coastline
Part 5, The wide-open west
Part 6, Changing times

Today it is hard to envision the beachfront east of Lake Worth as it appeared in the 1940s. It was quite truly another world.

There was no Sloan’s Curve. State Road A1A continued south along the ocean beyond Ocean Avenue in Lantana, curving over to the lakefront where Manalapan Town Hall now sits.

(It was State Road 1 when we came to Lake Worth in 1943. The As were added later to avoid confusion with U.S. 1.)

There was only one house between today’s Sloan’s Curve and the Lake Worth Casino area. I heard that it belonged to Lily Pons, then one of the world’s leading sopranos, but I never have been able to confirm that.

Across the street to the north of the casino was a nightspot named the South Ocean Club, which burned in 1957, after we had moved from S. O Street. Kreusler Park occupies the site today.

lakeworthcasino19381

The casino itself (pictured above in a 1938 Palm Beach Post file photo) was the original 1922 building, the north half of the present structure. There was a salt-water pool behind it and an underpass in front leading beneath State Road A1A to the beach. The walkway along the beach was wooden, with several gazeboes. At least two of them extended eastward over the sand.

At the south end of the Lake Worth beach were the studios and transmitter of radio station WWPG. I had an old console radio next to my bed and WWPG was the only station near enough that I could hear it.

South of WWPG there was nothing on the ocean until Manalapan.

lakeworthcasino1940s
This aerial photo taken from a 1940s postcard shows the Lake Worth Casino in the center with A1A running the entire distance north and south of the casino right along the beach. The road in this area was later moved away from the water. Photo courtesy: Florida Photographic Collection.

I’m sure there was a lot of open beach in south county but I don’t recall ever having been there before the Lake Worth High School graduation party of 1955. The party was held at the Boca Raton Club’s beach pavilion, south of the inlet, which has long since given way to more intense development.

To the north, Palm Beach was already developed but there was virtually nothing between Blue Heron Boulevard in Riviera Beach and Jupiter Inlet. All I remember are the Seminole Country Club and some houses in Juno Beach.

Singer Island was still empty in the late 1950s; I attended a beach party there while a student at Palm Beach Junior College (now Palm Beach State College).

Bridges were lower, one was manually-operated

Getting onto Singer Island was a bit of an adventure. The Blue Heron bridge was a low-level wooden structure and the floorboards bounced as we rode over them. The Southern Boulevard bridge was similar, but in better shape. The Lake Worth bridge of that era was concrete; a part of it is in use today as a fishing pier.

South of the Lake Worth bridge, roughly where the Bryant Park boat ramp now is, was a wooden dock. This structure served two purposes. First, it allowed people to tie up their boats. Second, it concealed the pipe beneath that dumped raw sewage into the lake.

Lake Worth wasn’t the only city polluting the lake. When I was in the PBJC choir, we appeared on the Today show when it was broadcast for a week from the parking lot of the Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach. To provide a backdrop, water skiers were enlisted to ride on the lake.

People watching elsewhere probably thought that was a natural occurrence. We who lived in the area knew it was an anomaly. Ordinarily, no one in his right mind would ski on that cesspool.

The most interesting bridge was the manually-operated turn span on Ocean Avenue in Lantana. After lowering the gates, the bridge tender would walk to the center of the span, insert a long steel rod looking like a giant Allen wrench into a hole in the floor, and walk around it in large circles to open and close the span.

lantanabridge
James Willard Easton and two unidentified women manually crank the mechanism that opened and closed the Lantana Bridge. Undated photo provided by Lantana Historical Society.

Inlets haven’t changed much…

Palm Beach County’s four inlets were pretty much as they are today, except for the extension of the north jetty at Boynton Inlet to shield the waterway from the prevailing rollers out of the northeast. Those rollers could be treacherous and the narrowness of the inlet, which was cut originally to improve circulation of lake water and not for navigation, allowed little room for error.

Once I rode a charter boat through the inlet. The skipper positioned his craft northeast of the opening and watched the sea behind him. When he saw what he wanted, he jammed both throttles wide open and the boat almost leaped toward the inlet.

Charter boats could outrun the rollers, but drift boat could not. In 1964, a following sea capsized the Two Georges as it tried to get into the lake and swamped it. Five people died.

When I got my first bicycle in 1945 I celebrated by riding out to the ocean, south to Lantana, west to U.S. 1 and back north to our home via Dixie and Federal highways. When I got home I was exhausted and my parents, whom I had neglected to let in on my plans, were frantic.

By that time, with World War II nearly ended, the beach was open day and night. During the early years of the conflict, when German U-boats attacked the shipping lanes off Southeast Florida, the beach was closed at night and patrolled by mounted Coast Guardsmen.

There was a wooden tower on the casino from which volunteers watched for enemy activity. I had a book with silhouettes of German and Japanese airplanes so I would know right away if one flew over.
I never saw one.

…but the beach has changed

To people in Lake Worth then, the beach was theirs for the asking. If they wanted to hold a beach party, they could do it just about anywhere. No one dreamed that someday that beach would be separated from the road by a string of condominium buildings.

The beginning of the end for an open beach came in September of 1947, when a powerful hurricane roared ashore. The ocean road was so badly damaged that it was abandoned. Lakefront land was filled and the road moved westward to its present location. In the process, Sloan’s Curve was created.

The casino and the boardwalk also were hammered. The casino was rebuilt and expanded and the wooden walk and gazeboes replaced with concrete structures.

A look at a map shows that Sloan’s Curve lines up almost perfectly with the West Palm Beach-Lake Worth border and the Palm Beach-South Palm Beach border similarly lines up with the Lake Worth-Lantana
border. That’s because what today is Palm Beach south of Sloan’s Curve once was part of Lake Worth.

In what must go as one of the most short-sighted decisions in history, Lake Worth gave all that land, except for the casino property, to Palm Beach.

I should have got a hint of the future one day about 1950 when Herb Engelman and I started walking along the lakefront south of WWPG, where the first apartment building in the area was being constructed. Suddenly a man came from the building waving a handgun and shouting, “This is private property! Get off!”

We did. Looking back I can see that this was a foretaste of what was to come. At the time all I thought of was self-preservation.

The beach itself south of Sloan’s Curve remains public, because the old right-of-way abuts it, making the county the upland property owner. Unfortunately, Palm Beach County has never done anything to
improve access, bowing to the will of affluent oceanfront residents who do not want to share “their” beach.

sloancurve1981
This 1981 Palm Beach Post file photo shows a path that used to be State Road A1A along the ocean from Sloan’s Curve in Palm Beach south to the Lake Worth Casino. The stretch of road was washed out in 1947.

NEXT: The Wide-Open West

billmcgoun1
Bill McGoun is a retired editorial writer for The Palm Beach Post. He is the author of four history books, including Lake Worth High School: A History and Southeast Florida Pioneers, which tells the history of Palm Beach County, the Treasure Coast and the Lake Okeechobee region through the lives of noted individuals. He is working on a history of the Palm Beach County school system.

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Posted in Flashback blog March 26, 2010 at 12:48 pm.

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