Once a tropical wilderness, home to early Native Americans who settled on the west bank of Lake Worth, Riviera Beach has developed into a true American community in the heart of Palm Beach County. Its history spans centuries, and the story of Rivieria Beach is a microcosm of the story of the United States.
Originally settled in 1881, early pioneer Frank L. Dimick bought 80.24 acres for $93.30 from the U. S. Government in what was to become the city of Rivieria Beach; however, it was initially homesteaded by Allen Heyser, the first lawyer and first county judge in Palm Beach County, in 1882. He called the hotel he built on the land “The Oak Lawn House,” giving the area its original name of Oak Lawn.
Oak Lawn began to attract other homesteaders and pioneers in the coming decades. Several of the early settlers were African-American, such as Willie Melton, who purchased 6.5 acres near the Oak Lawn Hotel, the Guildersleeve family, Ed and Lizzy Cain, and the family of Thomas M. Taylor. These pioneers and others congregated into a religious community west of Oak Lawn, organizing a Baptist church and a Sunday School. By 1907, the first black school, Hope Sound, was founded.
In 1893, the Oak Lawn Hotel officially changed its name to the Riviera, and the town of Oak Lawn followed suit. Around this time, scientist, inventor, and wealthy manufacturer Charles Newcomb envisioned his new home of Riviera as a tourist destination, just as his friend Henry Flagler had done with Palm Beach; and although his dream was never fully realized, it was Newcomb who first developed the town, laying out streets and selling lots for businesses and homes.
Riviera grew primarily as a fishing town, with subdivisions popping up all throughout Newcomb’s plan, and Riviera was first incorporated on September 29, 1922.
The hurricanes of the late 20’s greatly damaged the fledgling town, and dashed hopes of Guilded Age prosperity. The land boom affected Floridians rich and poor alike; Paris Singer, of the Singer sewing machine fortune, had purchased a strip of land separated from Palm Beach by the inlet and Riviera by Lake Worth, and he named it Singer Island. The hurricane of 1928 destroyed the bridge connecting the island to Riviera, and it was not rebuilt until 1935.
It was not until the 1940’s that Riviera experienced further development, but it continued to grow exponentially in the coming decades. By the 1960 census, the population grew to 13,036, a 221% increase from 1950 to 1960. Riviera Beach’s Singer Island became a resort destination, and hotels and condos appeared overnight to service this new tourist industry.
The demographic of Riviera Beach also changed during this period, as the black population, always an integral part of the community, grew from 23 percent in 1950 to 52.9 percent in 1960. The first black councilman, F. Malcom Cunningham, was elected in 1962, and the second, Bobbie Brooks, was elected in 1967, thanks in large part to the Riviera Beach Voters’ League, founded in 1952. The organizing efforts of the League led to a 75 percent turnout of black voters during elections. Bobbie Brooks served as a councilman until 1975, at which time he was elected to serve as the first black mayor of Riviera Beach. He was re-elected in 1979.
The 70’s brought Riviera Beach some of its biggest and most progressive developmental changes. During this period, Riviera Beach landscaped Blue Heron Boulevard, built the Blue Heron Bridge, developed the Ocean Mall on the city beach and constructed a boardwalk, and built Bicentennial Park in 1976, located on the waterfront that Charles Newcomb had hoped to build a park 60 years prior.
Riviera Beach today continues to be a tight-knit, civic-minded, and active city, looking toward the future as we strive to develop businesses, parks, and community centers for the 21st century. We are Florida’s most dynamic and diverse waterfront community.