Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The President and Peanut Island

            On a sunny Florida day in 1961, my parents and I headed to the Southern Boulevard Bridge that connects Palm Beach to the mainland. They were there to catch a glimpse of President John F. Kennedy as his procession traveled from the airport to the Kennedy beachfront mansion where the Kennedys spent their winters.

            As the convertible crossed the bridge, Kennedy turned from side to side waving at onlookers. When his car pulled in front of my parents, Kennedy turned in their direction and waved. My Mom decided that Kennedy was one of the best-looking men she had ever seen. The little black and white televisions of 1961 simply didn’t do him justice. The procession drove on and my Mom has always remembered the day she saw those blue eyes for herself.

            With the Cuban Missile Crisis less than a year away, there was a heightened awareness of the president’s vulnerability to nuclear warfare while in town. After all, Cuba is only 284 nautical miles away from Worth Avenue, main street of the winter home for the rich and the wannabes since Flagler started developing it in the late 1800s. 

            So the government decided it would be prudent to build Kennedy a bomb shelter. If you’ve ever tried to dig a moat around a sand castle on the beach, you know that digging down into the soil in Florida to create one wouldn’t be particularly easy.

The site chosen was on an undeveloped island in the middle of Lake Worth the locals called “Peanut Island.”  With a Coast Guard facility there since 1936, security was already in place that would enable a “hush hush” building project and Operation Hotel commenced.

Former Coast Guard Facility on Peanut Island
Originally just a convenient location to dump dredged mud from Lake Worth to clear the inlet, the island over time had become populated with Australian pines. Named “Peanut Island” by the locals for the peanut farm and factory that never quite got going, boaters stopped on its beaches to swim, cookout and camp after a day of fishing. 

 The bomb shelter was built behind the Coast Guard Station in a huge mound of dirt. Covered with concrete and rebar, sandbags originally hid it from view. Fortunately for all of us, Kennedy only had to visit the shelter twice--once when it was being built and one more time after it was completed. In a practice run, the Secret Service got him to the shelter from Palm Beach in five minutes.

I remember exploring the island in the early 1970s when the sandbags over the shelter were hidden by trees and a thick mat of pine needles. The tour guides with the Palm Beach Maritime Museum will tell you that the bomb shelter was rediscovered about that time by some boys wandering through the woods. They stumbled upon the escape hatch and being curious, climbed down for a look. A couple of bunk beds and not much else were all that was left of the once well-stocked shelter.  By the time I was playing Starsky and Hutch in the woods a few years later, the door had been cleared of debris, but it was always shut and locked. We know because we tried it every time.

Boat House Used by the Secret
Service as the Bunker was Built
            In those days, Peanut Island was a rustic little island enjoyed only by those fortunate to have a boat.  Peanut Island has finally been developed. With the restored Coast Guard station as a museum on the south side, picnic facilities, campsites, a snorkeling and swimming area manned by lifeguards and even restrooms, it’s a far cry from the Peanut Island I remember and can still see in my mind’s eye. I’d hazard a guess that most of us who grew up with the paradise Florida was would have preferred that Peanut Island remain rustic and we’ll always miss the Australian pines swaying and whistling in the ocean breeze, but I went to see it for myself, just to be fair.

A friend and I hailed a water taxi, piloted by a wonderfully accommodating Captain Joe (561-339-2504) and sailed over one Saturday morning. We bought tickets to tour the Coast Guard Station and the Kennedy Bunker from the Palm Beach Maritime Museum (561-832-7248).

While Peanut Island is nothing like I remember, I just can’t say the development was a bad idea.  I think it’s beautiful albeit different and the people working there are friendly and very knowledgeable. As my friend and I sat on the big porch at the Coast Guard Boathouse, we decided that it felt like a mini-vacation somewhere other than fifteen minutes away from home.

The Author After Touring the Kennedy
Bunker - FINALLY
If you enjoy a bit of history, go take the Palm Beach Maritime Museum tour. As you stand in front of that door waiting your turn to walk into history, try to picture the door surrounded by gently whispering pine trees and buried under pine needles. Next to you, a small, skinny blonde girl with big blue eyes whose eyebrows are knitted in concentration tries to imagine what’s behind that big heavy door. Tell her she’ll be able to see for herself in about forty years.

This column appeared in the November issue of Southern Exposure published by Seabreeze Publications, Inc.

Inside the Bunker. The Museum Added the
Presidential Seal. Looks like it belongs there, doesn't it?
(This article was updated from its original posting. I have removed a reference to attempts to dig a sand tunnel from Palm Beach to Singer Island because I have been unable to locate where I got that information in my notes. When, and if, I come across that research, I will add it back in.)


  1. I had heard rumors about a tunnel, and also that President Kennedy had been to the bunker. However, local newspapers have reported that the president was either never brought there and/or was not even aware of the bunker. I've never seen a mention of a tunnel prior to this one. I would love to know your sources for this story.

    1. Hi Bob! Thanks for your comment. I went home last night and searched for the file I have on this story and was unable to locate it. I'm in the middle of moving all of my work into a spare bedroom so I can better organize everything. As soon as I locate the file, I'll get that information for you. I do remember that the story was a tunnel had only been attempted. I don't think it met with much success from the get go. Hope to have that info to you in the next couple of weeks. Thank you again :)

    2. Bob, I'm sorry it took me so long to get back to you with a definitive response. I've searched all of my notes and totally organized my office and research just can't find where I read that information. I'm going to revise the article to remove it and if I ever do locate that info again, I'll put it back in. Thanks for your comment and thanks for reading :)