Delray Beach: From sparse beginnings, a century of progress


Only a few beach cottages like this one occupied the barrier
island around the time of Delray’s incorporation.
Photos courtesy of the Delray Beach Historical Society


Delray Beach Centennial Events


By Paula Detwiller

Climb aboard the time machine. Set the dial to 1911, the year a seaside community in South Florida named “Delray” voted to incorporate. 

Now, sit back and watch as the voters elect their first mayor, aldermen, town clerk and marshal. Witness the drafting of the town’s first ordinances and applaud as the residents of newly incorporated Delray christen their first bridge across Henry Flagler’s East Coast Canal (known today as the Intracoastal Waterway). No longer would they have to drag themselves, their horses, their crops or fresh-caught fish across the canal on a hand-pulled barge. 

Delray’s incorporation 100 years ago this month was indeed a turning point for the town, according to local historians. 

“Prior to incorporation, the Ladies Improvement Association did all the civilized things,” says Delray Beach Historical Society archivist Dorothy Patterson. “But after incorporation, the men who’d been busy establishing farms and businesses got more involved in improving the town.”

By then, Delray already had a canning plant and was promoting itself as the agricultural capital of South Florida, shipping trainloads of pineapples, tomatoes and other produce to the North.

Soon after incorporation, workers finished building the first bridge across the canal, the first bank opened, a jail was constructed, a newspaper was begun (The Delray Progress), and the first theater began showing silent films.

Incorporation also led to a flurry of new laws. “The town had existed since 1895. I figure by 1911 there were probably a lot of things that were irritating people,” Patterson says. 

Apparently, vagrancy was high on the list. Here’s an excerpt from one of the new town ordinances, a copy of which resides in the Historical Society archives:


  Nets hang out to dry at the fishing camp operated by a group of 

Bahamian immigrants on Delray’s beachfront, which was not
incorporated until 1923. 

“Sec. 9 —  All rogues and vagabonds; idle and dissolute persons, tramps who go about begging; persons  who use juggling or unlawful games or plays; common pipers or fiddlers; stubborn children; runaways; common drunkards; common night-walkers; pilferers; thieves; lewd, wanton and lascivious persons, in speech or behavior; common railers or brawlers; persons who neglect their calling or employment, or have not visible means of support, or who misspend what they earn, or do not provide for themselves or families; and all other idle or disorderly persons... shall be considered vagrants, and upon conviction of vagrancy, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding fifty dollars or imprisonment not exceeding thirty days, or both.” 

Barrier island not part of town

Newly incorporated Delray did not include the barrier island, a sparsely inhabited area at the time. Its only permanent structures were a few rustic beach cottages, a small public bathhouse, and the Orange Grove House of Refuge, which served as emergency lodging for shipwrecked sailors. A group of 49 Bahamians and their families operated a fishing camp on the beach, and pineapple plantations occupied the land between the canal and the waterfront.

Delray’s first bridge over the present-day Intracoastal Waterway
helped spur residential development of the coastal area.


“In 1911, the beach in Delray was not anything other than a place you went to occasionally enjoy the ocean,” says Bob Ganger, vice chairman of the Historical Society of Palm Beach County. “It was difficult to get there across the canal, and you couldn’t build anything on the sand. Even the sand road would be tough to negotiate on your horse and buggy.”

As a result, property values on the beach were very low. “One of the pioneer families owned a large oceanfront lot with a small cottage that he tried to sell for $60, but had no takers,” says Ganger. “That wouldn’t buy you a tenth of an inch of coastal property these days!”


Growth and prosperity

The area sprang to life after the Atlantic Avenue Bridge opened, and by the 1920s, Ganger says, advertising for beachfront property had become vigorous and widespread. Beach residents wanted to put in electric streetlights, pave the roads and install indoor plumbing. 

But joining the town of Delray, which had a shaky credit rating, would mean paying higher-than-desired rates for capital improvement bonds. 

So in 1923, coastal residents sought their own charter and voted to incorporate as “Delray Beach.” 

Four years later, the two communities were joined and re-chartered as the city of Delray Beach. 

For history buffs interested in more details about early Delray life, a series of commemorative events are planned this month. They include the unveiling of a new historical marker for the Cason Cottage, an effort financed by the late Robert Neff, who died at age 95 on July 24.

“It’s a shame Mr. Neff couldn’t be here to see the festivities,” says Patterson. “He was such an ardent supporter of our local history.”       Ú

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