Putting the Palm in Palm Beach

June 12, 2018

As we count down the days until supernatural historical mystery THE TERATOLOGIST is launched, I’m writing posts about the novel’s setting and era. First, a bit about Palm Beach, Florida.

 

Florida has always been filled with people running away from something and toward hoped-for reinvention. In the late Nineteenth Century, Florida was one of our nation’s last frontiers with very few people living south of St. Augustine on the east coast or Tampa on the Gulf. The first settler of Palm Beach was a German named August Lang who was hoping to escape conscription into the Confederate army during the Civil War. Like him, other settlers in the area were hardy souls who had to survive by fishing, hunting and farming. When ships wrecked off the beaches, salvaging them provided a jackpot of goods that were impossible to attain locally. (Where I live, Boynton Beach, many a home was built with wood taken from the wrecked barkentine Coquimbo carrying a load of lumber in 1909.)

 

In Palm Beach, a shipment of coconuts gave the town its name. Florida does have its native palm trees, such as the cabbage palm, but the tall, stately coconut palms that defined the place arrived when the brigantine Providencia

 

ran aground in January, 9, 1878, with 20,000 coconuts from Trinidad on their way to Spain. Following maritime salvage rules, the few settlers on the island “rescued” the coconuts. Some coconuts washed ashore and took root while the rest were sold by the salvors at two for a nickel and were planted all over the island. 

 

The railroad and hotel magnate Henry Flagler first visited the island around this time and was impressed by the majestic trees. He decided to build hotels here which dramatically changed the fortunes of the island and serve as the stage for much of the action in THE TERATOLOGIST.

 

Next post: How Palm Beach became the playground of the wealthy.

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