Palm Beach County is a county located in the state of Florida. As of the 2010 census, the population was 1,320,134, making it the third-most populous county in Florida. The largest city and county seat is West Palm Beach. Named after one of its oldest settlements, Palm Beach, the county was established in 1909, after being split from Miami-Dade County. The county's modern-day boundaries were established in 1963. Palm Beach County is included in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, Florida metropolitan area.
The area had been increasing in population since the late 19th century, with the incorporation of West Palm Beach in 1894 and after Henry Flagler extended the Florida East Coast Railway and built the Royal Poinciana Hotel, The Breakers, and Whitehall. In 1928, the Okeechobee hurricane struck West Palm Beach and caused thousands of deaths. Since then, a number of other tropical cyclones have impacted the area. More recently, the county acquired national attention during the 2000 presidential election, when a controversial recount occurred. As of 2004, Palm Beach County is Florida's wealthiest county, with a per capita personal income of $44,518.
Approximately 12,000 years ago, Native Americans began migrating into Florida. The tribes settling in modern day Palm Beach County included the Ais', Calusas, Jaegas, Mayaimis, and Tequestas. An estimated 20,000 Native Americans lived in South Florida when the Spanish arrived. Their population diminished significantly by the 18th century, due to warfare, enslavement, and diseases from Europe. In 1513, Juan Ponce de León, who led a European expedition to Florida earlier that year, became the first non-Native American to reach Palm Beach County, after landing in the modern day Jupiter area. Among the first non-Native American residents were African Americans, many of whom were former slaves or immediate descendants of former slaves who had escaped to the State of Florida from slave plantations located in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. Runaway African slaves started coming to what was then Spanish Florida in the late 17th century and they found refuge among the Seminole Native Americans. During the Seminole Wars, these African-American slaves fought with the Seminoles against White settlers and bounty hunters. Portions of the Second Seminole War occurred in Palm Beach County, including the Battle of Jupiter Inlet in 1838.
The oldest surviving structure, the Jupiter Lighthouse, was built in 1860, after receiving authorization to the land from President Franklin Pierce in 1854. During the American Civil War, Confederate sympathizers including Augustus O. Lang and James Paine removed the lighting mechanism, dimming the lighthouse and assisting their blockade runners. After the Civil War ended, the Jupiter Lighthouse was re-lit in 1866.
Henry Flagler, who was instrumental in the county's development in the late 19th century and early 20th century, first visited in 1892, describing the area as a "veritable paradise." Flagler subsequently purchased land on both sides of Lake Worth. Other investors followed suit, causing a small boom and bringing in existing businesses or new ones were established. The Royal Poinciana Hotel, constructed by Flagler to accommodate wealthy tourists, opened for business in February 1894. About a month later, the Florida East Coast Railway, owned by Flagler, reached West Palm Beach. On November 5, 1894, Palm Beach County's oldest city, West Palm Beach, was incorporated. In 1896, another hotel built by Flagler was opened, the Palm Beach Inn, later renamed the The Breakers. He also constructed his own winter home beginning in 1900; he and his wife moved in on February 6, 1902. Flagler died there on May 20, 1913, after falling down a flight of marble stairs.
Palm Beach County was created in 1909. It was named for its first settled community, Palm Beach. The County was carved out of what was then the northern portion of Dade County, comprising part of the areas now occupied by Okeechobee and Broward counties, part of Martin and all of Palm Beach county, initially including all of Lake Okeechobee. The southernmost part of Palm Beach County was separated to create the northern portion of Broward County in 1915, the northwestern portion became part of Okeechobee County 1917 and southern Martin County was created from northernmost Palm Beach County in 1925.
Early on September 17, 1928, the Okeechobee hurricane made landfall near West Palm Beach and crossed Lake Okeechobee shortly thereafter. Storm surge left severe damage in the city of Palm Beach, and a death toll of 26. In West Palm Beach, more than 1,711 homes were destroyed. Further inland, wind-driven storm surge in Lake Okeechobee inundated adjacent communities, particularly Belle Glade, Pahokee, and South Bay. Hundreds of square miles were flooded, including some areas with up to of water. Numerous houses were swept away and damaged after crashing into other obstacles. Flood waters did not completely subside for several weeks. At least 2,500 deaths occurred, many of whom were black migrant farmers. Damage in South Florida totaled approximately $25 million (1928 USD). In response to the storm, the Herbert Hoover Dike was constructed to prevent a similar disaster.
Lake Okeechobee had previously overflowed in 1926 during the Miami hurricane, though flooding was primarily in Moore Haven in Glades County. As a result of both the Okeechobee and Miami hurricanes, Palm Beach County, along with the rest of South Florida, began suffering economic turmoil and pushed the region into the Great Depression, even before the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Housing prices dropped dramatically in the county, as well as in the rest of the country.
The Palm Beach International Airport, then known as Morrison's Field, opened in 1936. After the United States entered World War II, it was converted to an Air Force Base in 1942. During the war, thousands of servicemen arrived in Palm Beach County for training and supporting the war effort. Following the conclusion of World War II, a number of veterans returned to the area for work, vacation, or retirement. The base was closed and became a commercial airport again in 1962. Migration to the county by workers, tourists, and retirees continued into the 21st century.
Early on August 28, 1949, a Category 4 hurricane struck West Palm Beach with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph (240 km/h). Sand and debris swept across roads in Palm Beach. Strong winds shattered windows at a car dealership in West Palm Beach and toppled two radio towers, one in Belle Glade and the other in Lake Worth. At the Palm Beach Air Force Base, the storm left at least $1 million (1949 USD) in damage.
The area's first television station, WIRK-TV Channel 21, signed on September 13, 1953. It went off the air less than three years later. However, NBC affiliate WPTV-TV and CBS affiliate WPEC first aired in 1954 and 1955, respectively – both of which are still in existence today.
About three-quarters of Lake Okeechobee was removed from Palm Beach County in 1963 and divided up among Glades, Hendry, Martin and Okeechobee counties. This was the final change to the county's boundaries.
Hurricane David struck near West Palm Beach late on September 3, 1979, with sustained winds of 100 mph (155 km/h); this was the most recent hurricane landfall in Palm Beach County. The storm's winds shattered windows in stores near the coast and caused property damage, including blowing the frame off the Palm Beach Jai Alai and downing the 186-foot (57-m) WJNO AM radio tower in West Palm Beach into the Intracoastal Waterway. A few roofs were torn off, and numerous buildings were flooded from over 6 inches (150 mm) of rainfall. Damage in the county reached $30 million (1979 USD), most of which was incurred to agriculture.
By 2000, the population of Palm Beach County exceeded 1 million.
The county was the center of controversy during the presidential election. The "butterfly ballot" led to an unexpectedly large number of votes for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, rather than for Democrat Al Gore or Republican George W. Bush. Due to the voting tally in Palm Beach County, Bush won the electoral votes for the state of Florida by a margin of 537 out of 5.8 million votes. This victory in turn, gave him the victory in the national election.
Following the September 11 attacks in 2001, it was revealed that some of the terrorists trained in Palm Beach County, including Ahmed al-Haznawi, Marwan al-Shehhi, Mohamed Atta, and Ziad Jarrah. Later that month, during the anthrax attacks, a letter containing spores of this substance was mailed to the American Media, Inc. building in Boca Raton. Three people were exposed to the anthrax, one of whom later died.