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The city was founded by Henry Flagler as a community to house the servants working in the two grand hotels on the neighboring island of Palm Beach, across Lake Worth. The original spelling was "Westpalmbeach", but it was feared that the 13-letter word would be an ominous omen for the fledgling community. On November 5, 1894, 78 people met at the "Calaboose" (the first jail and police station located at Clematis St. and Poinsettia, now Dixie Hwy.) and passed the motion to incorporate the Town of West Palm Beach in what was then Dade County (now Miami-Dade County). This made West Palm Beach the oldest incorporated municipality in the county and in South Florida. The town council quickly addressed the building codes and the tents and shanties were replaced by brick, brick veneer, and stone buildings. During the 1920s, the city grew rapidly during the Florida land boom, during which many historic structures and neighborhoods were built.
The city has a very rich history. Prior to the founding of Miami, West Palm Beach was a thriving cultural center. Originally, Henry Flagler intended for his Florida East Coast Railway to have its terminus in West Palm, but due to a deep freeze, he decided to extend the railroad to Miami. For many years West Palm Beach and Miami were rival South Florida cities and they both thrived in the early 20th century. Although it was originally intended to be a settlement for the servants of the wealthy Palm Beach Island neighbors, West Palm became a thriving center in its own right. Pleasant City is a neighborhood in the original Uptown West Palm that had a thriving middle-class African-American population. This community still has a rich heritage, whereas many of the families have lived there for generations.
Pratt & Whitney, IBM, RCA and others helped put the city on the map in the late 1960s and 1970s. But now the focus was on the whole of Palm Beach County, not just West Palm Beach. The city was loving its position as the county's hub and heart. And so many other things were changing. Integration brought the end of Palm Beach and Roosevelt High schools and the beginning of a new high school, Twin Lakes (now Alexander W. Dreyfoos Jr. School of the Arts).
In the 1960s, Palm Beach County's first enclosed shopping mall, the Palm Beach Mall, and an indoor arena were completed. These projects led to a revival for the city. However, crime was a serious issue due to racial tensions and high vacancy rates. But following the 1960s, the city underwent a renaissance as newcomers have rediscovered the city's historic areas.
Despite being part of the South Florida Metropolitian Area, Palm Beach County was not directly hit. Miami and Ft. Lauderdale however, were. The destruction of the 1-95 south of West Palm Beach as well as the electromagnetic pulse rendering most cars unusable split the survivors of the strike in two: The Miami group,who fled westwards into the Everglades, and the Ft. Lauderdale group, who trekked up 1-91 eventually reaching Palm Beach.