America’s First Resort Destination

By Rick Rose

     Palm Beach lays claim to the title “America’s First Resort Destination” as the first purpose-built, self-contained and fully inclusive resort destination in the United States, predating its own incorporation into a town later in the early 1900s.  During the peak of the American Gilded Age, Elisha Newton “Cap” Dimick, built the Cocoanut Grove House structure on the East bank of Lake Worth in 1876 as a private residence. He later expanded and converted it into an inn, which opened in 1880 as the first public lodging establishment in the region. It was during this era that the first affluent northerners arrived, mainly as adventurers and big game hunters.  Florida Panthers, alligators, crocodiles, and wild boar were the most popular trophies. Two years later Dimick sold the hotel to Commodore Charles J. Clark, who then founded the Palm Beach Yacht Club, which today is the oldest operating club in South Florida, currently located in West Palm Beach.

     Although Cocoanut Grove House prospered and pioneer families began settling along the banks of the lake in the 1880s, the area didn’t really take off as a winter haven for northerners until the industrial magnate Henry Morrison Flagler, cofounder of Standard Oil, discovered the Lake Worth region in the early 1890s. Flagler, purportedly enchanted by the tropical vegetation and thousands of coconut palms along the banks of the lagoon, was searching for a location to build a hotel where Northerners could escape freezing temperatures. The sensitive tropical vegetation was a good indication that the area rarely, if ever, had frost. Ironically, coconut palms (Cocos nucifera) are not indigenous to Florida. They were brought here when the cargo ship Providencia ran aground off the shores of current-day Palm Beach in 1878 and the crew and cargo of 20,000 coconuts were rescued by local pioneer families. The locals kept the valuable coconuts and created one of Florida’s first coconut groves along the banks of the Lake Worth Lagoon.

     The settlement became known as Palm Beach, and it was the perfect location to fulfill Flagler’s vision to build one of America’s grandest Gilded Age hotels, the Hotel Royal Poinciana, which opened in 1894. Enlarged twice and doubled in size each time, it became the largest wooden structure in the world (as reported by multiple historians) with 1,700 employees and accommodations for 2,000 guests. More than just another elegant seaside hotel like those at older Victorian era coastal towns on the Eastern Seaboard, the massive Hotel Royal Poinciana resort offered golf (which is now the oldest golf course in Florida), tennis, sailing regattas, hunting, concerts, dancing, fine dining, cycling and bicycle rickshaw excursions to Jungle Trail, along the Lake Trail and to the “beach”.  In sailors’ jargon, “on the beach” once connoted poverty and helplessness; being stranded or left behind. But by the late 1800s, beaches conveyed health, pleasure and a sought-after “escape” from the city and the drudgery of modern life.  Flagler’s completion of the Florida East Coast Railway to West Palm Beach in 1894 helped transform Palm Beach to become the preeminent winter destination for the wealthy elite, the only socioeconomic class able to afford to travel for leisure during the Gilded Age.

     As the growing affluent class of professionals and successful merchants began to travel in the early 20th century, summer destinations such as Newport, Rhode Island; the Hamptons, New York; the Berkshires in Massachusetts and several others also became popular. However, in the winter, Palm Beach remained the primary, most important destination in the continental United States for the next quarter century, resulting in a remarkable concentration of wealth and power on the 11-mile-long island during “the Season”— between Christmas and Easter.

     To meet the growing demand, Flagler built a second hotel in 1896, which would eventually become the famous Breakers Hotel. Still mainly a resort in the early 1900s, as the hotel expanded in capacity, the community prospered and incorporated into a town in 1911. The incorporation of the town also was prompted by, at least in part, the desire to prevent the nearby City of West Palm Beach from incorporating the island of Palm Beach into its city limits. Palm Beachers wanted the right to govern themselves.  

     On the other side of the Atlantic, the French and Italian Rivieras became popular winter and spring destinations for European royalty and wealthy U.S. industrialists after the train was completed to Monte Carlo in the mid-1800s. Heightened political tensions in Europe, leading up to and during World War I, affected the travel habits of wealthy Americans, many of whom had vacationed in or built residences on the European Riviera. With that region less accessible, Americans began to look to Palm Beach as an alternative. The destination was developing into an American Riviera, laying the groundwork for the next exciting chapter during the “roaring 20s” with the arrival of 2 other visionaries, Paris Singer and Addison Mizner. Although other winter destinations have since emerged, Palm Beach remains indisputably the preeminent exclusive winter resort destination for America’s “moneyed aristocracy.” Palm Beach’s 33480 zip code often tops the list of America’s wealthiest zip codes in terms of average income and household net worth, part of the legacy of Henry Morrison Flagler.

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