Photo by Tim Stepien
By Tim O’Meilia
In the mid-1910s, when Lake Worth city fathers figured it was time for a handsome wooden bridge to reach the city’s new piece of beachfront and its soon-to-be-built casino and bathhouse, they raised the money the old-fashioned way.
They bumped up the property tax.
It’s not clear from old records and newspaper accounts what the quarter-mile bridge cost to build, but it was wide enough for automobile traffic and was one of the longest toll-free bridges in the country at the time.
Until then, and as far back as 1913, visitors to the beach had to take a ferry from a long pier that jutted into the waterway from near where Bryant Park stands. The cost: a nickel.
The ferry was how construction workers moved the 1,700 feet of pine and 17,000 shingles across the lake to build the original two-story casino. According to the Historical Society of Palm Beach County, the upstairs was used for dances, while downstairs were dressing rooms and a dining room.
After the bathhouse burned down, the Brelsford family, area pioneers, gave oceanfront property to the city of Lake Worth, which had none. The wooden bridge soon followed.
When the Lake Worth Casino and Baths opened in 1922, they included slot machines — until they were outlawed in the 1930s.
Beaches, gambling and a new bridge were tactics used by local politicians to attract visitors and new settlers to the booming South Florida coast. Sound familiar?
The Lake Worth bridge, unfortunately, was somewhat star-crossed. At least, whenever a hurricane crossed.
The 1926 hurricane ripped out 200 feet of the east end of the bridge. In its July 30, 1926, edition, the Palm Beach Independent gave a brief but remarkable account of one episode during the storm that begs for more detail: “Mr. Mark, bridgetender, had to be forcefully taken from his post by Earl Reid, L.W. Barker.”
Repairs took more than a month. Work later began on adding a pedestrian walkway to the bridge after residents complained that the bridge was so narrow that they were forced to walk single file in front of and behind cars to cross. Neither motorists nor pedestrians approved of that arrangement.
The hurricane of Sept. 16, 1928, later calculated to be a Category 4, nearly demolished the bridge. That 150-mile-per-hour killer storm moved west to the Glades, where Lake Okeechobee’s shores sloshed over, drowning nearly 2,500 people.
Former Lake Worth resident William Stafford gave The Palm Beach Post an account often retold by his grandfather, William M. “Chief” Stafford, publisher of the Lake Worth Herald.
The elder Stafford drove across the bridge to the casino to photograph the surf, but the wind-whipped sand made it impossible. He drove his 3-ton 1926 Hudson sedan back across the wooden bridge, waves breaking over it.
Damage to the bridge was so extensive that repairs were still ongoing more than a year after the hurricane. The work cost more than $25,000 and efforts to replace the pedestrian bridge and lights were abandoned as too expensive.
Discussions began immediately to replace the “the old and dilapidated wooden bridge,” as it was referred to in the press, and a new concrete drawbridge was finished in 1937. It was state of the art in a time when Intracoastal Waterway bridges at Southern Boulevard, Blue Heron Boulevard and Lantana were all wooden.
Said local historian Bill McGoun, a retired editorial writer for The Palm Beach Post: “The only thing I recall about the ’37 bridge, which was the bridge when I was growing up in the ’40s and ’50s, was that it was lit by first-generation sodium-vapor lights that had the unfortunate side effect of making everything look yellow, including people.”
The bridge lasted until 1973, when a $4 million four-lane replacement was completed, its western landing just south of its 1937 ancestor. It was the tallest single-leaf bascule bridge in the state. The east and west ends of the ’37 bridge were left as fishing piers.
The bridge underwent a $4.6 million rehabilitation in 1997. Last year, the remnants of the old ’37 bridge were demolished and a new fishing pier built as part of a $2 million Snook Islands Natural Area project.