A historic marker provided by Robert Hudson Neff and his family will document
the opening of the Boynton Inlet, seen here after sand had temporarily filled it in.
BELOW: Harvey Oyer III (left) confers with Robert Hudson Neff during a 2008 ceremony
to install a marker honoring the three pioneer women who donated the land
that’s now the Delray Municipal Beach.
INSET BELOW: Robert Hudson Neff was 95 when he died in 2011.
By Ron Hayes
Robert Hudson Neff made his mark on history simply by marking history.
When he died at 95 on Sunday morning, July 24, 2011, Mr. Neff left behind a widow, three daughters, seven grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren and a generous legacy of historical markers.
The words “Sponsored by The Robert Neff Family” grace several descriptive markers in his hometown of Canfield, Ohio, and several more in Palm Beach County.
On Oct. 28, 2008, he was present when a coquina and bronze marker was unveiled, honoring three pioneer women who, in 1899, donated the mile of beachfront property that’s now the Delray Municipal Beach. That marker sits just across South Ocean Boulevard from the Sea Fields Club, where the Neffs spent much of their time since 1972.
In 2009, Mr. Neff paid for a marker at the First Presbyterian Church on Gleason Street to celebrate its recognition as a State of Florida Point of Historical Interest.
In 2011, he received the Historical Society of Palm Beach County’s annual award for historical contribution. Among those contributions is a marker on the south lawn of the society’s museum, the former 1916 courthouse in West Palm Beach.
He died still looking ahead for ways to honor the past.
“In July 2009, Mr. Neff sent me a check for $500 toward a historical marker he wanted to see erected at the Boynton Inlet,” recalls Janet DeVries, president of the Boynton Beach Historical Society and a longtime friend.
Seated on a picnic bench at the northern end of Ocean Inlet Park, she pointed to a spot just west of the picnic pavilion. “It’s going to go right there.”
The state Division of Historical Resources is expected to approve the society’s application this month.
The remaining cost of the $2,110 marker is being donated by Mr. Neff’s survivors, the Neff Family Charitable Trust.
“He would be absolutely thrilled that it’s going to happen,” said his daughter, Jennifer Neff, in a statement. “He wasn’t really able to handle the politics and applications, but he would be so thankful for the people who have carried on the work to get it done. He was committed to this, and so is the family.”
Why a historical marker at the Boynton Inlet?
To remind people that it wasn’t always there, and its arrival changed the area immeasurably.
The inlet we commonly call the Palm Beach Inlet was dug at the northern end of that island in the mid-19th century and stabilized by 1917. But by the early 1920s, a second was needed to improve water quality and circulation to the south, where both West Palm Beach and Lake Worth dumped sewage into the lake.
The South Lake Worth Inlet District was formed in 1923 and $225,000 appropriated for the work.
Dredging began that September, and in August 1924 a concrete bridge was completed to accommodate traffic along State Road A1A while the work continued below.
And then, at 11:18 p.m. on March 16, 1927, with dozens of spectators watching from the bridge, the Atlantic Ocean met the Lake Worth Lagoon, and Boynton Beach hasn’t been the same since.
“The coastal tomato and strawberry farms were dying out,” says Ginger Pedersen, the historical society’s vice president. “Saltwater from the Palm Beach Inlet spoiled the farmland, but this inlet gave the area a whole new purpose. We got the whole Boynton Beach fishing village. A lot of men made their living with commercial fishing.”
And, of course, also the charter boat industry, ferrying tourists in and out of the inlet for day trips.
“The wives and children would stand on the bridge and wave to their husbands and fathers as they came back through with the day’s catch,” DeVries adds.
Robert Neff’s son-in-law, Gordon Broom, remembers visiting the inlet with him.
“I loved the guy,” he said. “We fished and talked, and he was very excited about marking that inlet because he had studied the history and how it had opened that part of South Florida to fishing. He was worried that he wouldn’t live long enough to see it happen.”
Mr. Neff didn’t live long enough to see it happen, but because of his generosity, it will.
“After we get the official approval, it will take two or three months to have the marker crafted,” DeVries says. “I expect we’ll have the dedication sometime in January. And I’m hoping for a boat parade.”