By Tim O’Meilia
Back in the early 1900s, Lantana Point jutted into Lake Worth, just as it does today. Neatly, in the shallows of the lake, the point separated oyster beds on the north from oyster beds on the south.
A drive down Lantana Avenue (now East Ocean Avenue) ended at the point, a dock leading to the fish house to the north and another pier leading to a store to the south.
It was the logical spot for a bridge to the barrier island, especially since Hypoluxo Island was so close. But there really was no need, unlike that faced by neighbors to the north and south.
The bridge built in 1911 over Ocean Avenue in Boynton was spurred by Maj. Nathan Boynton’s desire for visitors to reach the resort hotel he had built on the ocean. The need to reach the newly built Lake Worth casino made the 1919 bridge to the north a commercial necessity.
But a raft and chain pulley across the inland canal was all Lantana residents needed. Even after the first wooden bridge was finished in 1925, the main use for land east of Hypoluxo Island — not far from where the Ritz-Carlton Resort stands today — was as a garbage dump.
Now, Lantana is the last of the three to get a third rendition of a bridge. Demolition of the second version, built in 1950, begins March 19. A taller, wider, more dependable replacement will take at least 19 months to build and cost $33.2 million. Compare that with the $500,000 cost of the 1950 concrete drawbridge.
The Lymans, Lantana’s pioneer family, had dreams of their own beyond shipping oysters from the fertile beds of the lake. They built their homes near the point, opened stores, founded schools and had plans drawn for a hotel on the west side of the bridge.
That first bridge was a wooden swing bridge, opened by inserting a large bent iron pipe, or “key,” into a center device and pushing the key in a circle until the bridge swung open, a task that took 15 minutes, according to Mary Collar Linehan in her town history Early Lantana, Her Neighbors — And More. The bridge was opened three times a day for boat traffic.
A bridge tender’s house was built on the south side of the bridge, at the west end.
It was no cramped toll collector’s booth, but a genuine house with living and dining rooms, a kitchen, two bedrooms and a water closet that apparently emptied directly into the lake below, according to Lantana Historical Society historian Kathy Elaine Clark-Tilson, who interviewed tenders and their descendants in compiling a history of the bridge tender’s house.
The first bridge tender, Pete Nelson, left shortly after the 1928 hurricane, which ripped off the wooden slats of the bridge but left the house undamaged. The Sept. 16, 1928, storm, with winds of 150 mph, killed more than 2,500 people, mostly in the Glades.
According to The Palm Beach Post, “the bridge toppled into the channel in the hurricane.”
Repairs by Palm Beach County took months.
Perhaps the best-known bridge tender was Will Easton from Michigan, who gave up his Dad’s Place restaurant to take on the job from 1929-1937. He hunted deer and bear in the wilds of Hypoluxo Island to supplement his income, Clark-Tilson was told.
But the biggest tale grew up around a photo of Easton hooking a 300-pound goliath grouper. Clark-Tilson wrote, “The story is that he caught the fish by fishing with a chain that was baited. After the fish took the bait, he managed to bring the fish up next to the bridge and then he shot it.”
With no way to keep the huge catch fresh, Easton invited everyone from Boynton, Ocean Ridge, Manalapan, Lantana and Lake Worth to a giant fish fry. “At that time, circa 1930, you could invite all the residents from Lake Worth to Boynton Beach to ‘dinner’ and serve all of them on this fish,” Clark-Tilson wrote in her history.
When the half-million-dollar, modern, concrete drawbridge was finished in 1950, the tender’s house was moved ashore and became a bait and tackle shop. Later the Lantana Women’s Club moved in and, finally, the town library.
When the house was slated for demolition in 1990, Jack Carpenter, a founder of the historical society, and others had it moved to Yesteryear Village on the South Florida Fairgrounds. Clark-Tilson oversees its operation with volunteers from the families of bridge tender descendants.
The 1950 bridge opened July 4 with a ribbon cutting by the twin 4-year-old daughters of the girlfriend of Palm Beach County Commissioner John Prince.
The county saved money by using the draw from the old Royal Park Bridge in Palm Beach, which had just been rebuilt.
The 62-year-old bridge is a dozen years past its design life and numerous closings for repairs convinced inspectors that a new bridge is needed.
It will be 11 feet higher in the center, cutting openings by 40 percent. The two-lane replacement will have pedestrian and bicycle lanes on both sides and a $650,000 fishing pier under the west end.
Not all of the 1950s bridge will disappear. The town of Lantana will salvage the roof of the bridge tender’s house, the gear box the raises the spans, several lights from the span, and plaques from the 1950 dedication.