The History Channel | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

The History Channel

A hundred years ago, gambling on land in Palm Beach County was just as illegal as it is today. But that didn't stop Col. Edward R. Bradley from opening a casino for the elite on Singer Island, near the Lake Worth Inlet, in 1898. Bradley must have wielded some influence, because the casino wasn't torn down until l945, as stipulated in his will. The site is now a parklike plot of ground near the Singer Island office of the Palm Beach Water Taxi.

Bradley's story is part of the taxi company's 90-minute "Palm Beach Then and Now" tour, which cruises along the shores of Lake Worth and its inlet. The "then" part of the tour covers history, and the "now" part is a who's-who glance at the area's tony homes and megayachts.

First, some history. Originally Singer Island didn't have a name. Paris Singer, the 23rd child of Isaac Merritt Singer -- inventor of the Singer sewing machine and obviously a virile man -- arrived in Palm Beach in 1917. His plan was to develop the then-unnamed island, which sits just across the inlet from Palm Beach, so that it resembled its neighbor. His efforts didn't pan out, but while recruiting potential investors, Singer brought in so many friends that locals started calling his project Singer's Island.

The tour is narrated by Capt. Jack McDevitt, who steers the boat along the shoreline as he speaks into a microphone, doling out tidbits of history and noting landmarks. For example, he points out the elegant waterfront mansion of King Hussein of Jordan. It's easy to know when the king's in town, he says, because Secret Service agents and Hussein's own bodyguards are lurking around the property.

One gigantic yacht, the Buck Passer, is moored in front of the mansion of Ogden Phipps. The boat was named for one of Phipps' racehorses, McDevitt explains. Nearby, another eye-catching mansion resembles a cruise ship. The 1937 house was designed by Balford Shoumate, who also drew up the plans for New York City's Radio City Music Hall. Each of the five Art Deco suites in the house has its own bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, dining room, and balcony, according to McDevitt.

As knowledgeable as the captain is, one would assume he's attended soirees in the ritzy homes or has lived in Palm Beach at least long enough to know the local gossip. Far from it. McDevitt splits his time between Palm Beach and Cape May, New Jersey, where he conducts whale-watching tours. The 61-year-old captain is simply big on research.

He reveals, for example, that Bahamian fishermen arrived on Singer Island in the mid-1870's and carved a narrow, shallow inlet, which became Lake Worth. It was completed in 1878 but went into disuse and was filled in by Mother Nature. In 1917 the current inlet, about a mile-and-a-half south of the original, was opened. Paris Singer began construction of a lavish hotel along its banks, but when the Great Depression hit, the project was abandoned. The hotel's steel frame was later demolished and used for scrap during World War II.

Later, of course, developers succeeded in putting up the flashy homes that now dominate the area. On one of the few empty lots, McDevitt points out, used to sit the home of actress Helen Hayes and her playwright husband Charles MacArthur. The home was recently demolished to make way for a new mansion. McDevitt isn't sure yet whose mansion it will be, but he promises that he'll know soon enough.

-- Sue Lynn

The "Palm Beach Then and Now" tour departs from Singer Island and from downtown West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $8 or $15. The Palm Beach Water Taxi office on Singer Island is located next to Sailfish Marina, 98 Lake Dr., Palm Beach Shores. For information call the tricounty toll-free number 930-8294.