“Now, look here to your right… do you smell that delicious 49-acre pineapple plantation?” The tour guide, local actress Tiffany Lewis, asks, as she assumes the role of a woman who’s engaged to a serviceman returning home from World War II. Dressed in a red and black lace 1940s period style costume, she takes patrons—an eclectic bunch from snowbirds to year round locals—on a ride down to West Palm Beach’s memory lane. Stops include the Cuillo theatre [presently Palm Beach Dramaworks]; West Palm Beach’s first skyscraper, the 10-story Comeau Building; the vernacular-style Harris Music Lofts, built in 1902; and the Downtown waterfront, currently in transition to become a major centerpiece in Downtown West Palm Beach.
The trolley, a half-open, half-closed style vehicle, is provided by the West Palm Beach Downtown Authority and the Historical Society of West Palm Beach. The 45-minute tour takes locals and tourists alike on a distinctive and historic ride-along Historic Downtown West Palm Beach dating back to the real estate boom of the 1920s and the vibrant re-development of the 1940s, at the end of World War II. This was a period when our city was hopping with excitement over architectural innovations and restorations, and color television, personal computers, cell phones and private jet travel were far-fetched dreams of the future.
“Now look over there to your left, beyond that construction dirt pile. Can you see the 1934 International Fishing Club?” Lewis asks. “The author of The Old Man and the Sea…” She challenges people to guess, and one does. “Ernest Hemingway!” a man shouts. “Yes, that’s right. Mr. Hemingway was a club member of this exclusive fishing club that is 75 years young.” According to Lewis, when you go inside, you will see an autograph copy of Hemingway’s famous novel The Old Man and the Sea presented to the club by Hemingway.
“Can we take your picture?” Asks a tour participant. “Oh, darling, I’m very shy,” says Lewis, smacking her red lips as she strikes a million poses, one better than the next.
“Look to the right and you will see that small yellow church that John F. Kennedy attended for his very last time before his assassination…” Lewis continues as the trolley takes another turn. She begins to share the stories about the people and places that transpired on historic streets such as Clematis Street, the heart of West Palm Beach. And that’s where the tour truly comes alive. There is so much history on that tree-lined street that dates back to the 1800s, when our first pioneers came to town, like Otto and Mary Weybrecht, who opened the first downtown business, a hardware store on Clematis Street, in 1894. The Weybrecht’s family home was a white tent next to the store.
Photo Gallery – Historic Trolley Tours
As the trolley takes a turn around the 200 block on Clematis Street, Lewis says, “Now, look here…” prompting her patrons to take a look east towards Flagler Park, which is the site of today’s Centennial Fountain and the West Palm Beach Public Library.
“Our friends from Georgia are visiting with us,” says a woman sitting in the back of the trolley. She and her husband reside in Palm Beach half the year and wanted to show off our city to their friends, who are originally from Fort Lauderdale. “I saw this [trolley tour] in the paper and thought that it would be neat. My husband and I did the walking tour years ago. We always like a little history.”
A little history. “Gentlemen, by your third wife you finally figure us out!” Lewis comments as she talks about Henry Flagler and his third wife, Mary Lily Kenan. “There was a wooden railroad that lined the intercostal area. And the lovely Lily told her husband: ‘Darling, I simply cannot stand the sound of that railroad. Can you please move it?’ And so Henry did. He moved the railroad to the other side, away from their beautiful estate.” That beautiful estate was called Whitehall, known today as the Flagler Museum. Flagler had it designed by John Carrere and Thomas Hastings in the Beaux-Arts style of architecture, which was meant to rival the extravagant mansions in Newport, Rhode Island.
“If you look to your left, you will see the Palm Beach Harbor Marina. Isn’t that a beautiful thing to have as your backyard?” Lewis quips, pretending she is looking at the homes that lined the shores of Lake Worth in 1945. It is a breathtaking site. Across from it, she prompts us to imagine The Hut, circa 1940s, a famous drive-in at the bend of Flagler Drive near Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. The Hut was a popular West Palm Beach hangout that opened in 1930. The average check in the 40s was just 60 cents. The Hut closed in the early 80s to make way for Phillips Point office towers. But, as Lewis tells it, “The Hut is the hottest hub in town!”
The 45-minute historical tour ends exactly where it began, by the front steps of Richard and Pat Johnson Palm Beach County Museum, at 300 N. Dixie Highway. How do you step aboard the tour? Start by registering here or by calling 561-833-8873.