PALM BEACH, Fla. — With its iconic paintings created by 75 Italian artisans three-quarters of a century ago, four oceanfront pools, nine restaurants, 10 tennis courts, 11 boutiques, 25 luxury beach bungalows, 36 holes of golf, a half-mile of private beach and 2,000 employees, the Breakers, here on an ocean bluff on Florida’s coast, stands as a robust symbol of many things:
The vision and creativity of a classic American entrepreneur. The affluence and excess of an international leisure class. The aspirations of a striving American middle class. And the growth of a remarkable American peninsula once regarded as a hopeless backwater overrun by mosquitoes and mobsters, cracker cowboys and crackpot real-estate swindlers.
From the dreamy 1565 delusions of Ponce de Leon to its 1819 acquisition from Spain to its 1860s role as “supplier to the Confederacy” (it sent beef, pork, fish, fruit and salt to rebel troops during the Civil War) and beyond, Florida once was stuck at the literal and imaginative periphery of the country, a place of limitless potential but little prosperity. As late as 1880, the entire state had a population smaller than Lincoln, Neb., the 72nd biggest city in the country, has today.
Then Henry M. Flagler built his hotel beside the Palm Beach breakers, and the guests flocked in by private Pullman cabins. Eventually he extended his rail line south all the way to Miami and finally, amid nearly unendurable building conditions that included three hurricanes, to Key West. That, and the phenomenal growth of the orange trade — Florida production reached 10 million boxes in 1915 on the way past 230 million a century later — provide the origins of one of the most remarkable stories of population and economic growth in history.
So much so that maybe today, maybe next week, maybe next month, Florida will surge past New York and become the third biggest state in the country, its population now arching toward 20 million people, surpassed only by California (38 million) and Texas (26 million).