Saturday, January 27, 2018

Protecting History: The Rough Road and Resolve of the Palm Beach Maritime Museum

Since 1996, the Palm Beach Maritime Museum has provided ambassadors to our nation’s past with truly one of a kind exhibits and content.  The PBMM is – well, was – located on Peanut Island in Palm Beach County. This location proves to be both urban and remote simultaneously as thousands cruise by on ships, small boats, kayaks, bridges and roadways. The Island is not accessible by land; one must take a personal vessel or one of the local ferries on a 15-20-minute ride across the waterway. This seemingly trivial matter was perhaps one of the greatest obstacles for the Museum to deal with on a regular basis – it is most certainly something that kept me off the Island for over 15 years.

The Palm Beach Maritime Museum consisted of three different buildings: the Museum proper (gift shop, lobby, and beginning of the tour), a retired United States Coast Guard Station, and a fallout shelter created specifically for President John F. Kennedy in 1961. To join a tour, all one had to do was walk up during operating hours and pay a modest fee to the non-profit.

US Coast Guard Station, active from 1936-1996
So, what prompted me after so long to take my 8-yr old son and also invite my history loving in-laws to join us? Closure. The chance at catching a glimpse of something truly special before it changed forever. I learned through my network of friends and colleagues that the PBMM was going to shut its doors, potentially forever. The partnership with the local county government had dissolved and the Museum would have to move. The buildings would remain, but be closed up for an unknown length of time and all of the artifacts would be gone regardless. I am embarrassed to say it was the inevitable closing that truly lit the fire under my backside to finally get over to the Island on one of the weekends before it closed on October 22, 2017. I hate visiting busy places on the weekends, and worked during the week, but I was not disciplined enough to make the time before – now I had to do it. My in-laws had lived in South Florida for over 30 years and had never been. They were surprised to hear of the Museum’s existence (WHAT??!) and wanted to join me one Sunday morning before the facility shut down.

Then, nature kicked in and I realized I may not get the chance after all. Hurricane Irma visited our shores during the second week of September with what could have been a much greater force than realized. Schools were shut down for over a week. Streets were flooded. The docks in front of the Museum were wrecked and boats strewn along Peanut Island’s shoreline. With the contract ending, would the Museum even bother to open? What beautiful opportunity had I squandered?!

The staff at the Palm Beach Maritime Museum, passionate about what they do, decided to stay open until the last possible moment. They led tours on the weekends and during off hours packed up exhibits. They had no dock, but chose to run the ferry despite the now lengthy walk each way that visitors would need to take because they knew there must be procrastinating munches like myself who would jump at the last chance to see history frozen in situ. Stalling was no longer an option and we were going on a backyard trip through time. 

Broken docks that won't be repaired.

Upon arrival to Peanut Island on a typical hot Florida day in October, we began our walk to the Museum. This was very hard on my mother-in-law, who has difficulty walking for any length of time, and we were quite moved when the staff immediately offered her a wheelchair for the walk to and through the USCG Station and to the shelter. The fallout shelter itself is not wheelchair accessible, but she was still able to walk inside and enjoy the underground portal back in time.

Since those of you reading this will never have the same experience we did, I chose to smatter you with photos in a pathetic effort to show what we enjoyed that morning. The history of the Island came first, with a special treat since the Curator, Ruth Pelletier was our guide on that busy day (she told me later that the last two weekends of the Museum were perhaps the busiest they had every witnessed with hundreds and hundreds of people coming through; and if in fact, there had been that type of support from the public beforehand, the Museum might have gone down a different path). The groups were kept small to allow for everyone to see and hear without crowding in some of the tighter areas of the tour.

With about 20 people ranging in age from small children to those who lived in Florida long before the Island was accessible to the public at all, we set out on our adventure to the US Coast Guard Station. The station was fully operational from 1936 to 1996 and was also the home to three very cool cats – literally. “Jack”, “Jackie” and “Marilyn” lived on the island and were quite friendly to visitors and staff alike. The old photographs, nautical artifacts and depth of history living in the walls was fascinating.

The wooden floors did not creak as expected, and the group was respectfully quiet as our guide gave more information than I could ever keep in short-term memory. I wish I had brought a notebook and not just a camera, but with an 8-yr old that can be a little tricky to juggle without incident. The smell of the Station was salty and old but comforting. The displays commanded respect while remaining welcoming, and throughout the building were signs bearing information that again, far surpassed my ability to process in only one short visit.

Yes, that is a real cannonball!

After leaving the Station house, we took a lovely and rather short walk to the Kennedy Bunker. This fallout shelter was nothing like I had ever experienced, nor might ever again. Designed as a shelter post-bomb drop for use by the President and staff whenever he was at his winter home, the Bunker begins with a rather imposing door. Once opened, the group walked down a dark declining ramp into the pit. The air was different – thicker and warm. I had no idea that going back in time would be so foreboding.

The shelter itself is precisely that – a sparsely furnished, reinforced hole in the ground. Perhaps the most intense feature is the giant presidential seal in the middle of the space. It is the only official Presidential Seal in the State of Florida. The bunker was also kept true to its originality, save for the emergency exit added into the main room – this is the only way the Museum could gain authorization to have public tours (visible in the background).

The original exit from the bunker was an old ladder going straight up. The cubby leading to this exit was at least 15 degrees hotter than the rest of the shelter, and looking up the shaft is daunting. The walls of the entire were corrugated metal and gave a distinct military feel to a non-service civilian like myself. Voices echoed in the chamber. Walking through a giant metal time capsule, wondering if the world would look the same upon exiting, I could not help but be consumed by self-reflection. One feels small in a place of such astounding preparation. Knowing technology must have affected any modern-day fallout shelters I can only speculate on what they may look like now.

But you may never know, never experience it for yourself. After the fact, I began thinking about other iconic buildings and places and activities available that may some day be lost. Will we always be able to walk to the crown of the Statue of Liberty? Will the Mona Lisa always be on display at the Louvre in Paris? How many animals will go extinct or ecosystems change until they are unrecognizable? Will the rocky edges of the Grand Canyon someday become unstable and the public no longer able to raft that section of the Colorado River or stand on the edge and shout – waiting for an echo that will not come? (Seriously, the Canyon is waaayyyy too vast to hear your echo, sorry for the spoiler. For what is it worth, I still yelled while on the cliff’s edge anyway)

Fortunately, those dedicated to the history protected by the Palm Beach Maritime Museum found another way to share the stories. They found a new partner in the City of West Palm Beach and are currently working on new exhibits – a new museum essentially – located in Currie Park. The Museum may not have the same structure, but the artifacts and passionate staff will be there to guide visitors back in time. No longer locked by a barrier of saltwater, I cannot wait to experience the new Maritime Museum when it opens – expectedly in 2018.

Here are some great places to learn a bit more and watch for progress on the Palm Beach Maritime Museum:

I challenge everyone, myself included, to take the time and enjoy the local treasures. Don’t wait for family or friends to visit from out of town. Don’t assume these wonderful places will always be there, idly waiting for you to drop by when convenient. Anything worth keeping requires education and support. Whether it be protecting history or waterways, reefs or forests, honey bees or family bonds – do not allow the self-disappointment found only by a lack of participation.
Who knows when, if ever, the bunker will re-open to the public

Swim often.

Laugh more.

Hug your family and fur-babies too.