In the year 2020, with the Camino Real Bridge having undergone restoration, it is a good time to look back at its history.
The historic Clarence H. Geist Bridge in east Boca Raton reopened in August of last year after undergoing extensive repairs that lasted for well over a year. The Bridge reminds us of Boca Raton’s unique history as an early Florida-frontier town and WW2 Airfield.
Clarence H. Geist saved Boca Raton.
In 1925, renowned architect, Addison Mizner, began building his vision of a beautiful and elaborate Italian-style resort on the Atlantic Ocean in Boca Raton. A year later, in 1926, Mizner’s Development Corporation was bankrupt.
Clarence H. Geist, a farmer’s son turned financier, bought Mizner’s dream project for $76,350 at auction in 1927. The property Geist purchased included Cloister Inn, fifty houses, and 15,000 acres of land.
Geist continued to build the resort and successfully landed a train station stop at Boca Raton with the Florida East Coast Railway. Geist also loaned money to the fledgling City of Boca Raton to have the city install its first municipal water plant.
FDR built the Bridge during the Great Depression.
The bridge was built – improving on Geist’s temporary swing bridge – by FDR’s Public Works Administration, the organization that was so important in providing jobs during the Great Depression. Completed in 1939, the bridge is an unusual type: a double-leaf, rolling lift bridge. There are only nine such bridges in all of Florida, and most are historical.
The bridge was built just before World War II, just in time to be an integral part of the unimaginable changes to Boca Raton as a result of the war.
The U.S. Army requisitioned the Bridge During World War II.
In 1940 there were just 723 residents. The small Boca Raton Airport was expanded into the Boca Raton Army Airfield, and the population exploded to include well over 16,000 stationed troops. Boca Raton’s flat terrain and beautiful weather made the area ideal for pilot training and the tiny population meant few problems in acquiring vast swathes of land.
The U.S. Army used the Boca Raton Army Airfield as a testing ground for the development of top secret radar technology making it a site of interest for German U-Boats. The Clarence H. Geist bridge allowed troops to commute to the Airfield for training and sorties. Perhaps the Bridge even allowed some German spies to infiltrate downtown Boca Raton. Its not too far-fetched since evidence of German spies carried by U-Boats was found after the War in early settler, Dr. William Sanborn’s home. [Sanborn Square, in the heart of downtown Boca Raton, is named after William Sanborn and his wife].
Thousands of civilians poured into Boca Raton to provide services to the troops. The U.S. Army requisitioned Mizner’s visionary Boca Raton Resort and converted it to officer barracks. But the Army didn’t provide turn down service for its guests. The Army even used the golf course for drills, turning the emerald-green fairways into a sea of tents and foxholes.
Next time you’re driving or walking over the Camino Real Geist Bridge, reflect on how it connects the past and present of a City that almost wasn’t.