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The History of Palm Beach Gardens

Imagine if you will, that you are living in the late 1900's and you were a typical "Snow Bird" who wanted to head south to Palm Beach Gardens for the winter, or perhaps a pioneer who wanted to establish a homestead to start a new life in South Florida. Seems reasonable and something easy to do, but the reality was truly difficult.

You would have to start by catching one of several trains that headed south and connected up with the FEC (Florida East Coast) railroad. The FEC train ride ended in Jupiter, since that's as far as the train could travel at the time. There was no bridge spanning the inlet that could carry the weight of the train.

The protected waterway, (called the Intracoastal Waterway) hadn't been cut between the Jupiter inlet and the north end of Lake Worth. You would have to boat across the inlet with all your baggage and personal belongings. Once you got off the transfer boat on the south side of the inlet you caught the Ox Train that carried you to the north end of Lake Worth where you then took a boat that headed south to the many destinations along the way where you could winter.

The Ox Train was just that: a train of passenger cars were pulled by oxen down the path which was called Military Trail. This was part of the route that connected military forts along the southern coast, connecting such places as Fort Pierce, Fort Jupiter and Fort Lauderdale. A paved Military Trail, like the I-95 "missing link," was not completed north of PGA Boulevard until the 1980's.

Man always finds a better way to do things, so in the mid 1880's the seven mile Celestial Railroad was built to eliminate the primitive ox train. The railroad had four stops: Jupiter, Venus, Mars and Juno. It cost $.10/mile to ride and usually made four trips a day. The railroad had only one engine which pulled the passenger cars from north to south, and pushed the train in the other direction.

Again, technology took over and Henry Flagler was able to convince the powers that be to build a bridge over the Jupiter Inlet so his trains could travel south to Miami and beyond (the overseas railroad). It was this extension of the FEC that opened up South Florida for development. The construction of the rail extension southward brought the demise of the Celestial Railroad. An old friend, Congressman Tom Lewis, noted that when they were building his home in Twelve Oaks development, at the end of Lake Worth, they found many parts of the old Celestial Railroad that were buried there when they halted service.

The combination of soil, water and warm temperature made agriculture prosper in this newly accessible area. So much so that the many small farms that filled the area became known as the Prosperity Farms. And now you know how the road got its name.

With the FEC connecting Miami to the Northeast Corridor it became necessary to have some stops along the way to pick up the crops from the Prosperity farmers and to receive needed supplies from the north. This is when the Prairie Siding was installed. This whistle stop on the FEC line was located at Monet Road. The residential developments, such as they were, were located between the railroad tracks and the ocean. The land in the area ranging from the tracks to the west became less desirable for use. In reality, old photos of that area show very little land that was useable, with most of it being ponds of water, palmetto and scrub.

There were numerous real estate Booms and Busts in the area from Jupiter south, and fortunes were made and lost during this period. One of the key figures was Harry Kelsey, a restaurateur from Springfield, Massachusetts, who, shortly after arriving here in 1919 to recover from pneumonia, acquired the land in North Dade County, which at the time ran from Jupiter south to Miami. Included in the purchase was some 14 miles of ocean front property. The original Dade County Court house was located on what today is US Hwy 1, about 100 yards north of PGA Boulevard.

In the late 19th century, to encourage inland water "protected" travel, with the ability to carry heavy loads of goods and material, the Intracoastal Waterway was dug from the Jupiter Inlet south to the north end of Lake Worth where it connected to the last, southern section. This completed the link from Trenton, New Jersey to Miami, Florida. Initially, it was 5' deep by 50' wide and has been increased several times to its current size of 10' deep to 120' wide in this portion of the waterway.

The land that Palm Beach Gardens now occupies was assembled in the mid-20th century by John D. MacArthur. The portion of his holdings that was finally packaged to submit to the State of Florida for incorporation reached some 4,000 plus acres. MacArthur believed the total land package was void of any inhabitants, only to find that there was one squatter, Charlie Cooper, who occupied a dilapidated house trailer. Mr. Mac, as he was called by many, quickly moved him to a home in Lake Park which had electricity and running water, thereby leaving the land clear of any obstructions to prohibit development.

Incorporating a city from scratch, so to speak, placed Mr. Mac in a unique position. He was not hampered with any preconceived notions or commitments that had to be maintained, or that might have occurred should there have been occupants of any kind on the property. This is where he excelled as a visionary.

His plan was to develop a balance between three functions in the city. First, to have upscale homes and the necessary facilities to serve them and, secondly, to provide recreational facilities that complimented these new residences.

He started on this journey on June 20, 1959, when the city became incorporated by the State of Florida. Its original administrative makeup was five councilmen who were appointed by Mr. Mac to serve for the first three years of incorporation. However, to maintain more control, he had the State change the term of these first five councilmen to five years. Then they were fazed out of control and representatives for the residents were elected from the citizenry.

So, how did he propel his vision for the city? He started by blocking out the city in the areas with designated usage. Special considerations were made for land acquisition for schools and churches.

Two areas were originally designated for residential construction. The area around Lake Catherine was first presented to the public in the "Parade of Homes." Various builders constructed samples of their work for purchase consideration on lots within the city in various tracts that were established. These were moderately priced homes.

A section of more expensive homes was established in the "PGA Estates," located north of Holly Drive, west of Military Trail. These homes were designed and located to tie into the PGA country club.

The second vision was to provide a means of upscale recreation. He accomplished this when he sent his real-estate representative, Jerry Kelly, to Dunedin, Florida, to negotiate with the Professional Golfers Association of America who were headquartered there at the time, but had run out of space. The PGA was convinced to move . . . the price Mr. Mac paid was the cost of one new golf course and a commitment to loan the organization the money to build their clubhouse.

The third item to complete his vision of the city was to provide a clean environment with well paying jobs for the residents. Mr. Mac was very influential in getting Pratt and Whitney to build its plant in the area; however he felt that there should be job source, with these qualifications, within the city. With this goal in mind, Mr. Mac convinced General Bob Sarnoff to build the RCA computer plant on the site that today is the NorthCorp area.

A story that was revealed by a reliable source is that the RCA plant was to be built in Southern Georgia because the bid for the facility was a million dollars less than the one that was submitted by the contractor down here in Florida. Mr. Mac was reported to call the local contractor and told him to cut his price by a million dollars and he would make up the difference. He did and the plant was built here.

The city was incorporated with a Council and City Manager form of government. The council establishes the policy and the direction to take the city, while the City Manager is charged with the execution of the established policies.

The founding fathers determined the initial objectives that the city was to pursue. This is shown on our City Shield. The red diagonal display has five gold stars which represent the five elected council members. There are four sections that fill the remainder of the shield. They represent the MacArthur tartan; the beautiful beaches in the area; the family values of the city; and the Banyan tree which is the hallmark of the city.

In the past half century of the city's existence, many awards and accolades have been bestowed on our city and its residents. Additionally, many sporting organizations have headquartered here. These included the Professional Golf Association of America, the Women's' Professional Tennis Association, and the World Croquet Association. These associations have highlighted the city over the years by bringing major athletic tournament to the city and have created international awareness of the diversity of the city.

The paramount involvement in the development of the city's core is volunteerism. The Palm Beach Gardens Woman Club is the oldest of the many groups of volunteers. Other organizations formed at about the same time . . . the Volunteer Fire Department, the PBGYAA (Palm Beach Gardens Youth Athletic Association) . . . whose efforts have made our city great. Over the years the City Council has complemented these efforts by establishing special committees like Art in Public Places and B&E (Beautification and Environment). The National Gold Medal Winner in Recreation is one of the national accreditations that have been bestowed on our city's departments. Both the Police and Fire Departments have continually achieved the highest ratings from the certifying authorities.

In providing all of the necessary elements to the city's development, the Council realized that numerous capital improvements needed to be incorporated into our city's services, and various developers and contractors have continuously stepped forward and supplied them. Elements like fire stations, parks and even our first swimming pool were donated to the city.

As the saying goes, "We've come a long way baby." And nothing could be truer of the lifestyle that the residents of Palm Beach Gardens have been fortunate to enjoy.

Compiled by:

Donald L. Kiselewski Sr., Chairman
Palm Beach Gardens Historical Society
January 2016

Don Kiselewski Chairman

Ken Kelly Treasurer

Arline Kiselewski Secretary

Linda Smith Archivist

Kathie Arrrants

Debra Chandler

Ian Helsby

Veronica Helsby

Keeter Martinson

Paula Pappalardo