Thursday, October 7, 2021

A Survival Guide for Life in the Palm Beaches

 By Bob Davidsson

         Most residents view the the Palm Beaches as a subtropical paradise. However, to many persons relocating to the area, Palm Beach County is a bitter disappointment.

        It all depends on your expectations. The Palm Beaches will never become New York, New Jersey or Boston. It is as it has evolved over the decades. Historically, the county's critics moved within five years.  

        When my family moved here 60 years ago, the population of Palm Beach County was less than 300,000. "Jim Crow" still existed in segregated communities and beaches divided by race. Much has changed for the better. There is still much to be done to keep the Palm Beaches as a destination county to the world. 

        I have created two Internet sites to help new residents better understand the history and important issues in Palm Beach County. "Palm Beach County Issues & Views" and its award-winning "Origins & History of the Palm Beaches" archive may prove useful in understanding our county.

(c.) Davidsson. 2021.

*NOTE: Read articles indexed below and archived in Older Posts.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Invasive Fish: Our Unwanted Denizens of the Deep

 By Bob Davidsson

        Reef fish with poisonous fins, a catfish that walks on land and a variety of fugitives from home aquariums are examples of the many invasive species of fish that are thriving in our coastal waters, lakes and canals in South Florida.

        The U.S. Geographic Survey defines invasive fish as any species living outside of its normal range with the potential to damage the local environment, economy or public health. Section 68-5.007 of the Florida Administrative Code says "No person shall import to the state, sell, possess or transport... prohibited nonnative species."

        The main sources of invasive fish in Florida are home aquariums. When tropical fish  become too large or numerous for a fish bowl, pet owners believe they are being merciful to their aquatic pets by releasing them in a neighborhood pond or canal.

        Unfortunately, most brightly colored tropical fish are soon consumed  by predatory fish or  birds. Those that survive and thrive in our warm subtropical waters often become pests by crowding the habitat of native species and outcompeting them for food.

        Some of the  nonnative invasive fish that have negatively impacted their local aquatic environments are profiled below:

The Lionfish

        The environmental aquatic enemy number one on Florida's reefs and coastal waters is the lionfish. It is a carnivorous fish with a voracious appetite that was native to the South Pacific and Indian Oceans.

        The first lionfish was reported in South Florida coastal waters in 1985. It is a popular ornamental fish in saltwater aquariums which quickly extended its range throughout the Caribbean and eastern coast of the United States once freed from the confinement of a fish tank.

        The lionfish has no natural predators due to its protective poisonous  fins. In coastal reef environments, it competes with native game fish like snappers and groupers. The lionfish feeds on 50 species of reef fish, and one female can release up to two million eggs each year.

The Walking Catfish

        Walking catfish are natives of southeast Asia. The nonnative species was introduced to Florida in the 1960s when they made their escape from aquaculture facilities. Their range has expanded throughout southeast Florida.

          The catfish received its name from its ability to wiggle across the land from one body of water to another in search of food or a better habitat. Their strong pectoral fins and long snakelike bodies allow them to slither on land. A special gill structure enables the catfish to breath air during their terrestrial journeys.

         The walking catfish is an omnivore that feeds on smaller fish, their eggs and larvae as well as plants. It is listed as an invasive species  by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and a permit is required to buy, sell or trade the nonnative fish.

 Bull's-eye and Northern Snakeheads 

       Snakeheads first appeared in the ponds and canals of Broward County in the year 2000. They are native to southeast Asia, where they are prized as a game and food fish. However, in South Florida, snakeheads are apex predatory fish feeding on native species.

        Snakeheads are distant relatives of native bowfins (mudfish), and they can breath air in low oxygen ponds or on land for short periods of time. The torpedo-shaped predators feed on native fish, and supplement their diets with crayfish, frogs, snakes, insects and turtles.

        Some fishermen prize the snakehead as a game fish,  but they should be handled with great care. They have a nasty bite that may become easily infected.

Cichlids and Tilapia

        There are 25 varieties of nonnative  tropical cichlids and related tilapia homesteading in South Florida waterways. Most can trace their nautical ancestry to South America and Africa. 

         They were introduced to Florida waters in the usual manner - released from home aquriums with the assistance of their human owners.  They are small but aggressive fish that vigorously defend their nests. They tend to crowd out native sunfish from their spawning sites through their large numbers, and unique "mouth breeding" technique of providing a refuge for their young when threatened  by a predator. 

        The State of Florida introduced the peacock bass to Lake Okeechobee, Lake Osborne and other South Florida lakes to help control invasive species. It is a rare example of a successful introduction of a nonnative species. Peacock bass feast on cichlids and tilapia. The bass also is popular with fishermen as a game fish.

The Monster of the Caloosahatchee

        In March 2021 fishermen found the remains of a arapaima floating near the mouth of  the Caloosahatchee River in Lee County. Magazines and newspapers across the nation had a field day reporting on Florida's newest monstrous invasive species.

        After the headlines faded, the mystery remains. How did a native species from the Amazon basin in  South America arrive in South Florida. More important, is there a breeding population of arapaimas in the Caloosahatchee and its interconnected waterways of Lake Okeechobee, the Kissimmee River, and east coast waterways by way of the St Lucie C-51 and Hillsboro canals?

        The arapaima has survived and thrived unchanged for five million years. In addition to  being, the world's largest freshwater predatory fish, the arapaima has large scales on its sides that act as body armor.

        The 400-pound arapaima has a varied diet consisting of  fish, lizards, small birds and mammals. The air-breathing omnivore also feeds on aquatic plants and any nuts or seeds within its reach.

The U.S. Wildlife Service reported in 2019 that "there are no established populations of arapaimas in the United States." However, the report did not deny the existence of arapaimas in Florida.

        The arapaima is classified as a "conditional species" in the State of Florida. That means a permit is required to keep one.  People who choose to collect or display the giant fish are instructed to confine it to a private tank. At least that is the hope.

        It remains unknown if arapaimas will join a growing list of predatory invasive species in Florida that includes Burmese pythons African monitor lizards, iguanas and aggressive tagu lizards from South America.*

c.) 2021. Davidsson.   

*NOTE: Article was reprinted in South Central Florida Life publications. Read also the April 2015 article titled "Alien Species Find Home in the Palm Beaches" archived in Older Posts.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Welcome To Beautiful 'Mosquito County': 1824-45

 By Bob Davidsson

        While it is not promoted in "Discover the Palm Beaches" tourism advertisements, for 20 years Palm Beach County formed the southernmost region of Florida's "Mosquito County".

        On Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1824, the Florida Territorial Legislature carved a vast geographical section out of St. Johns County, 190 miles long and sixty miles wide, along the east coast to create the territory's third county.

        Mosquito County was named for the old 16th century Spanish geographic landmark "Barra des Mosquitos" (Mosquito Coast) which encompassed the Mosquito Lagoon and Mosquito Inlet in today's Brevard County.

        Florida's third county included all or parts of today's Palm Beach, Martin, Okeechobee, St. Lucie, Indian River, Polk, Lake, Orange, Osceola, Brevard and Volusia counties. The southern border of Mosquito County was the Potomac (Hillsboro) River, flowing northwest to southeast before emptying into the coastal estauary just south of the Boca Raton Inlet.

        The first county seat of Mosquito County was "John Burch's House" located near Ormond Beach. It was relocated first to New Smyrna and finally to a pioneer community called Enterprise.

        Early maps of Mosquito County were inaccurate, reflecting a lack of first-hand information about the unsettled wilderness that covered most of the county in 1824.

        Lake Okeechobee was plotted on maps as "Lake Macaco" in Mosquito County until the Seminole's Muskogean name for the big lake came into use by U.S. Army topographers in the 1830s. Mapmakers placed the lake further west than its actual location.

        The wilderness north and east of Lake Okeechobee was designated as the "Seminole Indian Reserve". This was land that Florida's territorial government regarded of having little value to settlers.

        While Lake Worth was charted on Mosquito County maps, it was often listed by the generic name of "Freshwater Lake". The Spanish identified the lake as the "Rio Jeaga," named for the ancient tribe that inhabited its shores. The Seminole name was "Hypoluxo".

        The 1830 Census recorded 733 settlers living in Mosquito County. Most residents lived north of Cape Canaveral. The Census of 1840 revealed a population decline due to the outbreak of Second Seminole War in 1835.

The Seminole War in Southern Mosquito County

        Between the years 1838-42, the southern region of Mosquito County was a battleground pitting U.S. Army and Navy units against the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes. Following the Battle of Okeechobee in December 1837, Colonel Zachary Taylor built a supply depot on the eastern shore of the big lake called Fort McRae, then pursued the Seminoles southeast into the Loxahatchee Slough.

        The Seminoles fought two battles along the Loxahatchee River against a small U.S. Navy unit on Jan. 15, and the main army of Major General Thomas S. Jesup on Jan.24. After the battles, Jesup built a sable palm log stockade three miles west of the inlet called Fort Jupiter. Major William Lauderdale was dispatched to build a "Military Trail" between Fort Jupiter and Fort Dallas (Miami).

        More than 500 Seminoles, caught in the Loxahatchee Slough, surrendered to General Jesup and were detained at Forts Jupiter and McRae until transports were available to deport them to Oklahoma. However, medicine chief Sam Jones (Abaika) refused to surrender and led his followers south of the slough, along the eastern shore of Lake Okeechobee to the temporary safety of Big Cypress Swamp.

        In the year 1841, the war shifted from the Jupiter Inlet to the shores of Lake Worth (named for Col. William Jenkins Worth), where the remaining Seminoles were cultivating a variety of crops along both shores of the freshwater lake.

        Major Thomas Childs destroyed 2,000 bushels of potatoes and "several hundred bushels of corn" planted near Lake Worth while en route with units of Third Artillery from Jupiter Inlet to his new command at Fort Lauderdale in September 1841. Two days were required by his 90 soldiers to uproot and burn the extensive fields.

        Two months later, Captain Richard Wade led two explore and destroy missions between Fort Lauderdale and the Jupiter Inlet in November and December 1841. He sacked Cha-chi's village, located on the western shore of Lake Worth at the future site of West Palm Beach, capturing 27 Seminoles during the surprise attack. 

        On Feb. 14, 1842, Navy Lt. John Rogers led 87 Marines and sailors in 16 canoes across the Everglades to Fort McRae on Lake Okeechobee. He encountered several deserted villages while making a complete circuit around the lake, from McRae northwest to the Kissimmee River then back to the ruined remains of the stockade.   

        Few native inhabitants remained in the Palm Beaches by the war's end in 1842. Fort Jupiter was an abandoned outpost.

Settlers Seek New Name for 'Mosquito County'

        New Smyrna, the county seat of Mosquito County, did not escape destruction during the Seminole War. In December 1835, a band of Indians and allied former slaves burned the New Smyrna Sugar Mill, neighboring sugar plantations and several buildings in the village.

        The U.S. Army responded by building "Fort New Smyrna" in May 1837 to protect the few remaining settlers in the area. Captain Lucien Bonaparte Webster (1801-53) and 41 soldiers of the First Artillery garrisoned the outpost.

        The fort was used as a staging area and supply depot for General Jesup's 1837-38 campaign in southern Mosquito County at the Jupiter Inlet. As the Seminole War's battelines moved south, Capt. John Rogers Vinton (1801-47) and the Fort New Smyrna garrison was transferred to Fort Lauderdale. The outpost was abandoned in November 1841.

        With the Seminole War winding down to an inconclusive stalemate, 20 settlers in Mosquito County built a new community in 1841 near an ancient Mayaca Indian midden and gave it the hopeful name of "Enterprise". The village was the southernmost port on the St. Johns River. It became Mosquito's county seat from 1843-45 in place of the devastated community of New Smyrna.

        Beyond the communities of Enterprise and New Smyrna, Mosquito County was a depopulated wilderness as a result of the Seminole War. The county needed settlers. Mosquito was viewed as an impediment to future growth, and settlers twice petitioned the Florida Territorial Legislature for a new name for their county.

        A bill advanced in the Legislature changing the name to "Leigh Read County" in honor of the Speaker of the House of Representatives who supported the legislation. Both houses of the Legislature passed the bill.

        Unfortunately, Speaker Read was assassinated on April 27, 1841 by the friends of a man he previously killed in a duel. While several maps of "Leigh Read County" were printed, the authorizing bill was never signed into law.

        A 19th century conspiracy theory claimed the Mosquito legislation mysteriously never reached the governor's desk. Territorial Governor Richard Keith Call was a political opponent of Speaker Read. It was one of the first examples of a "pocket veto" by a Florida governor in 1842.

        A determined delegation of 72 Mosquito County citizens submitted a second petition to the territorial Legislature in 1844 to change the name Mosquito to "Harrison County" in honor of President William Henry Harrison, a hero of the War of 1812, who died in 1841 after just 31 days in office.

        The petition stated, "The name Mosquito is very unpleasant to many of the citizens..."

        President Harrison was the former standard bearer of the Whig Party. Florida Democrats opposed the name. "Orange County" was approved by the Legislature as a compromise in place of  "Harrison" on Jan. 30, 1845. Florida became the nation's 27th state less than two months later on March 3, and the unwanted name Mosquito County passed into territorial history. 

        Between 1850 and 1909, the southernmost region of Mosquito County would be annexed in turn by St. Lucie, Brevard and Dade counties. A greater "Palm Beach County" was created from the northern half of Dade County on April 30, 1909. It included northern Broward, Martin and southern Okeechobee counties.

        The current borders of Palm Beach County were established following the creation of Broward County in 1915, Okeechobee County in 1917 and Martin County in 1925. While mosquitos remain a minor nuisance, the county is no longer burdened by the name "MOSQUITO".

(c.) Davidsson. 2021.

*NOTE: See also "The Palm Beaches During Reconstruction: 1865-76" posted Feb. 1 and other articles archived below.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

The AWS: Our Local Eyes on the Sky, 1941-44

 By Bob Davidsson

        As World War II raged in Europe and Asia, hundreds of local volunteers joined the nation's Aircraft Warning Service (AWS), the civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Army's Ground Observation Corps, to watch for enemy planes flying over Florida's airspace.

        The AWS was organized through city and county civil defense agencies beginning in May 1941 in anticipation of the war coming to America's shore. At its peak, the AWS numbered 750,000 aircraft spotters along the Atlantic coastline from Canada to Key West, the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific coast. A majority of the observers were women.

        By Sept. 20, 1941, there were 514 aircraft observation posts established in Florida. These included 13 stations in Palm Beach County, four in Martin County and two in Okeechobee County, according to the Florida State Planning Board in Tallahassee. More area observation posts were added after America entered the war.

        AWS volunteers were trained to identify the silhouettes of German, Japanese and American aircraft. Reported sightings were forwarded to regional "filter centers," and if confirmed, to the U.S. Air Corps First Fighter Command headquarters based in New York. Data gathered from multiple observation stations was used to track the movement of aircraft.

        With German U-boats lurking off the coast of southeast Florida  in 1942-43, there was a real fear in the Army's air command that the submarines might be assisted by enemy reconnaissance aircraft.

        AWS aircraft spotters were stationed on the roofs of the tallest office buildings in West Palm Beach, and on the Lake Worth Casino building. In Boca Raton, observers were stationed from dawn to dusk on a wooden tower built on the Red Reef beach.

        The AWS reporting stations were linked by telephone lines so volunteers could report suspicious aircraft or submarine sightings immediately.

        While the threat of German U-boats off Florida's coastline was proven by the loss of many ships, as the war progressed it became apparent that the Germans and Japanese lacked long-range bombers capable of raiding the U.S. mainland.

        Germany's only four-engine bomber was the Fw200 "Condor". The Condor was essentially a civilian airliner refitted for combat as a patrol bomber to sink allied shipping in the mid-Atlantic. 

        Prior to the war, a Condor made the first direct 4,000-mile flight from Berlin to New York City in August 1938. Ironically, the first generation of Condor airliners were powered by Pratt & Whitney engines purchased in America.

        There were no AWS reports of  bombing missions over the U.S. cities by the thin-skinned patrol bomber during World War II.

German Ju88 Bomber Buzzed the Palm Beaches

        However, in December 1943, three AWS spotters in West Palm Beach, Mr. and Mrs Merritt Smith and Mrs. Herbert Weiss, sent a "flash message" to the Army Air Corps by telephone. They correctly identified a German Ju88 light bomber flying over the Palm Beaches and reported its location.

        The Junkers Ju88 sighted by the observers was one of 15,000 twin-engined fighter-bombers built by Germany during the war. A Luftwaffe pilot decided to surrender by flying his Ju88 to an allied airfield. The aircraft, in perfect flying condition, was confiscated by the Army Air Corps and eventually transported to Morrison Field in West Palm Beach.

        The Army conducted a test flight over the Palm Beaches to evaluate the aircraft's strengths and weaknesses. The German crosses on the wings of the Ju88 were replaced by Army Air Corps stars. While the AWS volunteers correctly identified the Ju88 as an enemy plane flying over Palm Beach County, it was in fact piloted by an American.

    With the Germans and Japanese in full retreat, the U.S. Army disbanded the AWS in May 1944. The 14,000 observation posts in the United States were closed. The wooden AWS tower resting on Boca Raton's beach was dismantled in 1946.

(c.) Davidsson. 2021.

* NOTE: Article also was reprinted in the June 11, 2021 edition of the South Central Florida Life and the Okeechobee News. Read additional articles below and archived in Older Posts.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Austrian Architect Designs Palm Beach Landmarks

 By Bob Davidsson

        During a brief but productive sojourn in the Town of Palm Beach, Austrian-born architect Joseph Urban designed three of the town's landmark buildings - the Paramount Theater, Mar-a-lago and the Bath and Tennis Club (B&T).

        In addition to the three historic sites in Palm Beach, Urban's architectural designs were selected for the Demarest Little Castle in 1925-6, and the Anthony Drexel Biddle Jr. residence a year later.

        Carl Maria Georg Joseph Urban, a noted architect, illustrator and theater set designer in the early 20th century, was born May 26, 1872 in Vienna, Austria. His professional education was completed at the Academy of the Fine Arts in Vienna.*

        Urban immigrated to the United States in 1911 to advance his career opportunities. Three years later he relocated from Boston to New York City to design the first of 47 scenic stage sets he would create for the New York Metropolitan Opera.

        While in New York, Urban also began a 17-year collaboration with entertainment entrepreneur Lorenz Ziegfeld Jr. He designed sets for his stage productions, including the "Ziegfeld Follies". In 1927, Urban was contracted as the architect for the Ziegfeld Theatre building in New York.

        It was this close working relationship between Ziegfeld and Urban that opened opportunities for the designer's five architectural projects in the Town of Palm Beach.

        Ziegfeld, a seasonal resident of Palm Beach since 1916, opened a live show called "Palm Beach Nights" Jan. 14, 1926 at his "Club de Montmartre" on Royal Palm Way. Urban arrived in the Palm Beaches to design stage sets for this original "Palm Beach Follies" production. 

        As fate would have it, investment banker Edward F. Hutton was building a mansion in Palm Beach for his wife, heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, called Mar-a-lago (meaning from the sea to the lake). Ziegfeld accepted an invitation from Hutton to visit the building site on South Ocean Blvd. Soon after, architect Marion Sims Wyeth was replaced by Urban, who modified the designs.

        Complying with Marjorie Merriweather's request for a more flamboyant architectural style, Urban added Middle Eastern Moorish elements to the Mediterranean-revival designed mansion. These features included Mar-a-lago's distinctive minaret tower.

        Mar-a-lago was added to the National Register of Historic Places in December 1980. The estate was acquired by former President Donald Trump, who transformed it into the private Mar-a-lago Club in 1995.

        Concerned that a new development was planned on neighboring property immediately to the south of Mar-a-lago, E.F. Hutton joined Anthony Drexel Biddle in forming the Oceanfront Realty Company. The firm purchased the Causeway Park properties for $600,000. It became the site of the private, exclusive Palm Beach Bath and Tennis Club (T&B).

        Urban, the new architect for Mar-a-lago, was awarded an additional contract in 1926 to design the B&T Club. The architect also was selected by the Biddle family to design their new Palm Beach residence in 1927.

        The limited membership B&T Club is in its 95th year of operation. After sustaining storm damage during the Hurricane of 1949, the reconstruction of Urban's historic seaside building was assigned to Palm Beach architect John L. Volk.

        Today, the B&T Club's Mediterranean revival architecture is maintained by membership fees and the not-for-profit Bath and Tennis Historic Building Preservation Foundation, Inc. 

        Urban's connection with Ziegfeld, combined with his reputation as a designer for the Metropolitan Opera and William Randolph Hearst's film company in the 1920s, led to a contract to design the new "Paramount Theater" in Palm Beach.

        The architect's self-described vision for the Paramount was a "cool and comfortable theme" reflecting a rhythm in Palm Beach that was "leisurely and sunny." By the late 1920s, Urban's work was influenced by the "art deco" architectural movement.

        The Paramount's exterior contains Spanish revival features, but its simple lines emphasize a subdued art deco palette of silver and green colors. Urban's goal was to design a theater that illustrated the Palm Beach lifestyle.

        "The theater is not an escape from the life around," he later wrote, "but part of it, fitting into the rhythms of the community. The architecture of the Paramount Theater is accordingly simple, spacious, Southern."

        The theater was built on a 1.3-acre lot on North County Road. The 35,992-square-foot building was topped by a dome and featured an interior courtyard when it opened to the public in 1927. The 2.5-story building included the main 1,068-seat theater-auditorium, with a stage and balcony.

Opening Night at the Paramount Theater: 1927

        The Paramount Theater opened as a "movie palace" on Jan. 9, 1927 with a premier performance of the silent film "Beau Geste" staring Ronald Coleman.

        At its grand opening, capacity seating was provided for 1,236 patrons, consisting of 1,080 in the orchestra section and main auditorium with an additional 156 seated in balcony boxes. The interior side walls of the fan-shaped theater were covered by 60-foot canvas murals depicting marine life off the coast of Palm Beach. The murals were designed by the architect's daughter, Gretl Urban Thurow.

        The silent movie was accompanied on opening night by a 16-piece orchestra. Musician Emil Velasco was featured on a Wurlitzer organ to provide appropriate background theme music as patrons read the movie's dialogue on the big screen. 

        The theater was refitted with a sound amplification system after the first "Talkie" movies were introduced in 1928.

        Paramount's stage also featured some of the top live entertainers of the 1920s and 1930s. They included appearances by George Gershwin, Al Jolson, Will Rogers and Billie Burke - Ziegfeld's wife and an actress in the "Wizard of Oz".

        A total of 2,000 first-run films were projected at the Paramount Theater during its 53 years as a movie palace. The theater closed on May 21, 1980 after a final showing of "Coal Miner's Daughter" staring Sissy Spacek.  The Paramount could not compete with smaller theaters offering multiple movies and screens.

        During the early 1980s, the Paramount was refitted with 30 office suites. It reopened as a Palm Beach retail center in 1985.

        Paramount Church, Inc., a not-for-profit religious organization, purchased the property in 1996 for $3.7 million. The Rev. Dwight Stevens led nondenominational church services in the auditorium for nearly 27 years. True to its earlier use as a theater, the church occasionally offered classic films and Friday movies with religious themes at the Paramount during this period.

        The Covid-19 viral pandemic forced the Paramount Church to offer remote online services during 2020-21. The church leader decided it was time to place the historic building up for sale.

        The Paramount was purchased in March 2021 by an ownership company titled WEG Paramount LLC for about $14 million. The company represents the family of Lester and Trent Woerner. Future improvements to the historic structure will be in compliance with the Palm Beach Landmarks Preservation Commission.

        Pictures of past performers, famous guests and movie posters line the corridor walls of the historic building. The Paramount Theater was added to the National Register of Historic Places in December 1973. The Town of Palm Beach granted the theater landmark status in 1982.

        As for the theater's architect, Joseph Urban died of a heart attack at his St. Regis Hotel apartment on July 10, 1933. At the time of his death, the 61-year-old architect had designed more than 500 stage sets for 168 theatrical and film productions in addition to his architectural projects in Palm Beach.  

(c.) Davidsson. 2021.

*NOTE: The "Joseph Urban Collection," consisting of documents, stage models and architectural designs, is archived at the Columbia University Libraries in New York. Read additional articles below and archived in "Older Posts".  

Thursday, April 22, 2021

WPB Morrison Field and the B-29 'Superfortress'

By Bob Davidsson

        On June 15, 1944, 51 B-29 "Superfortress" bombers dropped their payloads on the Imperial Iron and Steel Works located on the Japanese home island of Kyushu.

        The surprised and embarrassed military high command in Japan immediately sought the origin of America's new long-range, high-altitude bombers - the first to attack Japan's homeland since the Doolittle Raid launched a handful of B-25 medium bombers from the deck of the U.S.S Hornet in April 1942.

        The mission's origin: Chengdu, China, by way of  Morrison Field in Palm Beach County, Florida.

        The B-29 bombers that struck Japan were the first of 150 aircraft making the long journey from the U.S. Army Air Corps field in suburban Palm Beach County to China as part of the top secret "Operation Matterhorn" between June and November 1944.

        At the November 1943 Cairo Conference, President Franklin D. Roosevelt promised to support China's hard-pressed Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek with direct U.S.  bombing missions on Japan. It became the objective of Operation Matterhorn.

        The only weapon available to fulfill Roosevelt's promise to the Chinese leader was the new Boeing B-29 Superfortress - a huge four-engine bomber measuring 99 feet in length, with a wingspan of 140 feet, and capable of carrying a bomb payload of 120,000 pounds of high explosives or napalm. The bomber had a range of 1,500 miles, with a pressurized cabin that allowed it to fly above 30,000 feet.

        Rushed into production at plants located in Reston, Washington, and Wichita, Kansas, at a cost of $3 billion in 1940 dollars, the first B-29s arrived at Morrison Field as part of the 20th Bomber Command.

        Morrison Field, the site of today's Palm Beach International Airport (PBI), was originally a county airstrip dedicated in 1936 west of West Palm Beach. It was acquired by the U.S. Army as a future air base in 1940. The military base was activated as an air transport and training facility at the end of 1941.

        The B-29s used in Operation Matterhorn flew from their assembly plants to Morrison Field, where they were fueled and fitted for the long journey to China.

        To reach their destination, the B-29 crews flew from Morrison Field to Puerto Rico, south to British Guiana and Brazil in South America, then to Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, across the ocean to Liberia and Cairo, Egypt, in Africa, east to Tehran and Karachi in the Middle East, and the Kharagpur air base near Calcutta, India.

        The bombers completed their journey by flying over the Himalaya mountains to their airfields in Sichuan Province, China.

        Logistical support for the bombers had to follow the same extended supply lines. The B-29s were supported by the 3rd Combat Cargo Group at Morrison Field. 

        It required a herculean effort to supply the B-29s in China with fuel, bombs and spare parts. In his analysis of Operation Matterhorn, General Curtis LeMay later said it was "founded on an utterly absurd logistics basis...with a scheme of operations like something out of the Wizard of Oz."

        During its six months of operations, the 20th Bomber Command supported the allied war effort by flying missions over Japanese-occupied Manchuria, Korea, the Dutch East Indies, Malaya, French Indo-China, Burma, Taiwan, Thailand and the Chinese coastal cities of Hong Kong and Shanghai. The B-29s also completed nine missions over Japan's southern islands.

        General Douglas MacArthur called these first B-29 bombing missions over Japan "a new type of offensive against the Japanese home islands" in one of his many communiques.

        To the Japanese people, the huge bombers were "the silver crosses" - as the unpainted metallic planes appeared at ground level when flying at 30,000 feet. With the arrival of the B-29s, Japan's military government could no longer deceive its citizens in 1944. The war was a lost cause.

        Following the capture of the Pacific's Mariana Islands between June and August 1944, the U.S. Army Air Corps began building B-29 bases on Tinian, Guam and Saipan for the bombing of Japan.

        Operation Matterhorn flights to China were phased out beginning in November 1944. The B-29 missions from China ended in January 1945. By March 1945, the last B-29s with their crews flew from India to the Mariana Islands. 

B-29 'Hurricane Hunters' at West Palm Beach

        Morrison Field officially opened on Jan. 19, 1942 as part of the Air Transit Command. During World War II, about 45,000 pilots and air support personnel were trained at the air field.

        After the war, the 308th Reconnaissance Group, also known as the "Long Range Weather Unit," began operations from suburban West Palm Beach in July 1946. Modified B-29 Superfortresses were called into service to collect data as part of the National Hurricane Research Project for the "U.S. Air Weather Service".

        The Military Air Transport Service (MATS) used the retitled "Palm Beach Air Force Base" as its hurricane research headquarters throughout the 1950s. The former B-29 bombers, designated as "WB-29 Superfortresses" from 1951-56, and modified as the "WB-50" from 1956-63, became part of the first generation of "Hurricane Hunter" aircraft.

        The former World War II bomber adapted well to its new role. It could fly above a tropical storm, and had the durability to pass through hurricane-force winds.

        The 9th Weather Group continued performing hurricane and climate research in West Palm Beach for the Air Weather Service until the National Hurricane Center was established in Miami. The joint use of Palm Beach International Airport as a military base ended in 1962.   

(c.) Davidsson. 2021. 

*NOTE: Article also was reprinted in "South Central Florida Life". Read additional articles below and archived in Older Posts.

Friday, March 19, 2021

'Picture City' Aspired to Become a New Hollywood

 By Bob Davidsson

        "When one crosses the South Bridge at Jupiter Lighthouse, the finest ocean driveway in the entire world is open for approximately the entire distance to the St. Lucie Inlet," a 34-page booklet promoting the planned community of "Olympia-Picture City" proclaimed in 1926.

        "Nowhere in the state - nor in any other state - nor in any other country in the world - will one find its equal," the real estate guide concludes.

        In 1923, the agricultural Indian River Association's affiliated company in Martin County sold 4,000 acres of land on Jupiter Island and the adjacent mainland at Hobe Sound to a new investment group called the Olympia Improvement Corporation. The property was originally part of the old Eusebio Gomez Spanish Land Grant during most of the 19th century.

        Malcolm Meacham (1884 - 1929) of Palm Beach and New York City, a prominent figure in South Florida real estate developments during the state's "Land Boom" of the 1920s, organized and served as the first president of the Olympia Improvement Corportation in Hobe Sound. The community was within the borders of Palm Beach County until 1925.

        The development plan for the Olympia Improvement Corportation was to create a community called "Olympia," in a Greek-revival architecture style, with two coastal subdivisions called Olympia Beach and Bon Air Beach  It would be supported by a suburb named "Picture City," where movies could be produced and filmed.

        Wealthy investors flocked to the project, including Philadelphia millionnaire and diplomat Anthony Joseph Drexel Biddle Jr. (1897 - 1961), upon whom Meacham betowed  the title of  the company's second president in 1925.

        Meacham also obtained the financial backing of banks in Palm Beach County. The developer was  vice president of the Palm Beach National Bank which he helped establish in 1924-25.

        Swiss architect Maurice Fatio of the firm Treanor and Fatio relocated to Florida and signed a contract with  Olympia Improvement Corporation President Anthony Biddle in 1925 to design homes and business structures within the community. 

       His first project was the Olympia School, a Spanish-revival mission style building designed in 1925. He also designed a resort hotel with Greek temple architectural features to match Olympia's classical theme. The draft design was featured in the "Olympia-Picture City" promotional booklet, but the hotel was never built.

        Later in his career, Fatio designed the Town of Manalapan's historic "Eastover" and "Casa Alva" mansions for shipping and railroad heirs Harold and Consuelo Vanderbilt during the 1930s.

        One early 20th century movie mogul enticed to support Olympia's "Picture City" project was Lewis J. Selznick (1870 - 1933), the father of Hollywood producer David O. Selznick.

        Lewis Selznick founded the World Film Corporation in 1914 to produce silent movies at his New York studio. He later moved to California with his son, were he continued to make films under the studio names of Selznick Productions, Inc. and Selznick International Pictures.

        When his business ventures in California failed during 1925, the producer turned to the Olympia  Improvement Corporation's Picture City as a potential place of employment in the future.

The 'Olympia-Picture City' Community Plan

        Beginning in August 1925, Meacham, acting as the registered agent for the community, filed incorporation documents for the Picture City Studios, Inc., the Picture City Corporation and the Picture City Construction Company, Inc. with the State of Florida.

        The Olympia Improvement Corporation also lobbied the Florida Legislature for a charter encompassing an area "extending along the Atlantic Ocean for a distance of 7.5 miles," and "along the Indian River (Jupiter Narrows) for about nine miles."

        The Olympia-Picture City planners envisioned a community of 40,000 residents, supported not only by the film industry, but by winter tourism and real estate sales.

        In the 1926 promotional booklet, publisher Felix Isman wrote, "It is common rumor that when Henry M. Flagler desired to locate 'Palm Beach', he exerted every possible endeavor to obtain the Gomez (Spanish Land) Grant upon which to locate that city, and it was not until all his efforts had failed that he went elsewhere."

        "Such is the Gomez Tract (Hobe Sound and Jupiter Island) situated well outside the frost belt in fashionable, tropical, seashore Florida," the publisher concludes. "Its tropical venue cannot be excelled."

        The development plan for Olympia and Picture City, platted in Martin County after it was created out the northern third of Palm Beach County in 1925, featured lots of 50 by 100 feet, located on 10,000 acres of land. The homes would be located on streets and boulevards as wide as 100 feet, never less than 50 feet. The streets are named for Greek gods and heroes - Apollo, Zeus and Hercules etc.

       The Olympia section of the community was planned to "extend along the ocean from the St. Lucie Inlet to the Jupiter Lighthouse," according to 1926 promotional guide. "Along the westward portion of Olympia, the Picture City development of New Deauville, Picture City Park, Studio City and other developments are actually in progress - cities within a city."

        The community of Olympia-Picture City had highway and railroad networks planned to connect them with Palm Beach to the south, and major cities along the eastern coast of the United States.

        Their promotional booklet reported, "Starting at approximately 22 miles in a northerly direction from Palm Beach, Olympia-Picture City extends many miles along the Dixie Highway and has at the present time two railroad stations on the property, Olympia and Gomez. Two more, Picture City and New Deauville, are contemplated."

        "In the charter of the Florida East Coast Line," publisher Felix Isman wrote, "there is a provision that every passenger train must stop at Olympia Station."

The Demise of Olympia-Picture City

        The planned Olympia-Picture City township was doomed to failure by four financial and natural disasters beyond its control.

        The first was the collapse of the Florida "Land Boom" at the end of 1926. It was followed by the deadly Hurricane of 1928, the Stock Market Crash of 1929, and the Great Depression of the 1930s.

        The first sign of future financial troubles appeared in March 1926. The developers failed to make a loan payment to the Farmers Bank & Trust of West Palm Beach. The bank filed a foreclosure action in court six months later.

        The Biddle and Duke families, whom invested heavily in the project, foreclosed on Olympia-Picture City land holdings to acquire remaining unsold assets. They later sold their holdings to J.V. Reed and his newly established Hobe Sound Company in 1933.

        The Picture City Studios and Picture City Construction Company were dissolved in 1936, according to State of Florida business records.

        Pioneer Hollywood producer Lewis Selznick died of a heart attack at the age of 62. He never produced a movie at Picture City. His son, David (1902-65), continued the family's business in Hollywood, producing such classic films as "Gone With The Wind," "Rebecca" and "Spellbound".

        Following the demise of the Olympia-Picture City project, the Olympia Improvement Corporation President Anthony Biddle Jr. invested in several failed business ventures in the 1930s before changing careers and becoming a diplomat. He served as the U.S. ambassador to Norway, Poland and Belgium. Biddle was an officer in World War II, rising to the rank of major general.

        As for Olympia-Picture City developer Malcolm Meacham, he moved on to a new business enterprise in the Florida Keys, where he established the Key West Foundation Company.

        Meacham owned a Palm Beach home called "Casa Bougainvillea" on Barton Avenue, but in March 1929 he was residing at his New York City apartment on East 72nd Street.

        During the Stock Market Crash of 1929, a March 19 New York Times headline screamed, "Realty Man Dies in 11-Story Plunge: Malcolm Meacham Found Dead on Sidewalk in Front of Apartment on East 72nd Street."

        The newspaper reported "the real estate dealer with offices in New York City and Florida" accidently fell through an open window while experiencing a "dizzy spell".

        The name "Hobe Sound" was restored to the Martin County community in 1928 after bankruptcy and a category four hurricane flattened the dream of a new Hollywood.

         The "Olympia School" building on Apollo Avenue was used by the development company as a sales office and community center. It was acquired by Martin County and became a public school building until 1962. The building became a National Register of Historic Places site in October 2002.

        The historic school building, street signs bearing the names of Greek gods and heroes, and a few cement lamp posts remain today as a reminder of a time in the past when Hobe Sound was part of Olympia-Picture City.

(c.) Davidsson. 2021

*NOTE: Article was reprinted in the May 6, 2021 digital edition of the "South Central Florida Life" news service. Read additional articles archived below and in Older Posts.