Lake Worth Pioneers' Association, Inc.

 


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Charles Moore

There is a monument on the grounds of Norton Gallery of Art, West Palm Beach, which contains the names of eighty-four men who came to the shores of Lake Worth between 1873 and 1893. Charles Moore’s name is on the monument, but he was already here when the others arrived. He had settled permanently on the lake shore by 1872, though he had been a beachcomber in the area for about twenty years.

In the fall of 1866, Michael Sears and his son, George, were sailing home to Biscayne Bay from Indian River when they noticed a new inlet, opened by recent storms. Curious, they sailed through it and onto a beautiful lake. About two miles to the south, they saw a man on the east shore, standing in a clearing he’d made in the tropical jungle. He introduced himself as Augustus 0. Lang and wanted to know how the war was going. He was surprised to learn it was over. Back home at Biscayne Bay, the Sears told their friend, Charlie Moore, about their experience. Sometime later, Charlie set out in his sloop, “Cruiser,” for Lake Worth and, unable to find Lang, settled into his empty cabin.

Charlie Moore, born Charles Warner in 1819 in New York, was legally adopted by an aunt whose surname was Moore. At an early age, Charlie ran away to sea and became a sailor, traveling to many different countries, and was finally shipwrecked off the Florida Keys about 1845. He became a beachcomber, roaming the southeast coast, picking up all sorts of things from shipwrecks, which he sold to support himself. It was said he found everything he owned on the beach, from pins and needles to an iron cookstove, which he vowed floated ashore. He once claimed to have found a trunk containing ladies’ fancy underpants, which he himself wore, having no wife to give them to. Though many conflicting stories were told about Charlie by the early pioneers, they all agreed that he was a colorful character. Charlie himself told this tale:

“Lang and I were here alone with plenty of game and all the fish we could catch, living the life of Reilly, when a hurricane hit the island with terrific force one night demolishing our shack and forcing us out into the open. During the next few days we discovered twenty-seven wrecks between Jupiter and Cape Florida. Amid the wreckage of one of the vessels we found a trunk with $8,000 in gold in its battered interior, and a good money belt to carry it in. After all the years of loneliness in the tropics, $4,000 as my share of the haul proved to be too much for me and after vainly trying to persuade Lang, who was still fearful of being caught as a deserter, to accompany me, I set out for Jacksonville, traveling most of the way on foot. I arrived in Jacksonville in time to catch a lumber schooner bound for New York. After downing several drinks in a waterfront saloon, in New York, I hove to around a corner and ran afoul of a lamppost. I woke up in a hospital minus my gold belt. So there was nothing to do but return to South Florida by devious routes where the news of the cessation of hostilities between the North and South caused Lang to start on a trip of his own.”

If this tale is true, Charlie and Lang knew one another before 1866. They had a shanty on the ocean beach and together, they were beachcombers until they found the money, if indeed they did. It’s hard to imagine Charlie walking the beach to Jacksonville, weighted down with $4,000 in gold. And a sailor, walking most of 350 miles, when passing ships were within hailing distance? Did he arrive in New York with all $4,000? Upon his return, by “devious routes,” he landed on Biscayne Bay and it was there he heard that Lang was still living on Lake Worth. Did he set out to find Lang for friendship’s sake, or to see what Lang did with his share of the gold?

In a retelling of this story, one hundred years later, the old beachcomber found not only gold in the trunk but lead bars which he used for ballast in his boat. After returning broke from New York, he noticed the ballast was an odd color and, upon closer examination, discovered the lead bars were actually silver, so it was off to New York again!

Some say Charlie lived in a shanty on the beach. Some say he built a hut on the ocean ridge. Some say he lived in a shack on the lakeshore. All may be right. The few brave souls passing through this untamed wilderness used palmetto fronds and driftwood to put up temporary shelters. But in the winter of 1872, Charlie moved into the pine log cabin that Lang had built, and not only took care of the trees and flowers planted by Lang, but improved the place. Charles Moore was the first permanent resident of Palm Beach.

He finally got some neighbors. By Christmas 1873, there were nine other settlers around the lake. Charlie caught and fattened a possum for weeks, and invited his neighbors to dinner. There were sweet potatoes to go with roast possum, and biscuits made in a Dutch oven set in the fire. There was prickly pear pie for dessert. The feast was enjoyed by all, especially by Charlie whose loneliness was eased.

There was no Palm Beach County then. Dade County stretched from St. Lucie River on the north to Biscayne Bay on the south. In the fall of 1874, Dade County elections were held. The local polling place was the H.D. Pierce home on Hypoluxo Island. Inspectors of election were Charlie Moore, Will Moore (no relation), W.M. Butler and Pierce. When election day arrived, only one voter showed up, old Doc Talbot, who had been living with the Butlers. Ballots were cut from a sheet of paper. The ballot box was Pierce’s palmetto hat. The inspectors voted, and the five ballots were put into a used envelope and carried by sailboat to Miami, the county seat.

In the summer of 1875, Charlie, age fifty-six, married Elizabeth J. Wilder, a widow with two children, Abner, age sixteen, and Eliza, age eighteen. The widow Wilder had been hired as a cook for the Dwight family, who were having a house built one-fourth mile south of Charlie’s, and he was one of the carpenters. When the Dwights decided the wilderness of South Florida was not for them and planned to move back north, leaving the widow Wilder without a job, Charlie proposed to her. Elizabeth, originally from Georgia, was fourteen years younger than Charlie. They were married in the Dwight’s new house by Mr. Dwight’s father, an ordained minister. Theirs were the first Palm Beach wedding and the first Palm Beach honeymoon.

Charlie Moore was no longer a “squatter.” The Dade County Deed Book records his purchase in 1880 of 129 acres of land just north of the old Bethesda church location from the U. S. Government for $80 an acre. He bought an additional 80 acres from the government in 1882. Over the next four years, he and Elizabeth bought and sold pieces of their land, the value of which was steadily increasing. On 3 May 1887, they sold five acres to Charles C. Haight. The next entry, 25 August 1887, shows Elizabeth J. Moore as executrix for Charles Moore, selling half of the 80 acre plot and buying the other half for herself. Charlie had died 13 May 1887.

The many stories about Charlie Moore paint a picture of a man who was a fearless, resourceful, practical sailor and beachcomber. He had a sense of humor and loved to “spin a yarn.” He described living in a shanty on a deserted beach as “the life of Reilly” with plenty of game and fish, never mentioning the bears, panthers, snakes and ferocious mosquitoes. He was able to live alone, yet loved company. Described as a jolly old sailor, he claimed to have sailed around the world several times and declared the climate of Lake Worth even better than that of southern Italy. After a hurricane in the 1870s, Charlie and some other beachcombers found plenty of salvageable goods on the beach, but another hurricane eight days later swept everything back to sea. Asked why they didn’t save the stuff, Charlie answered, “We found too much rum.”

The following story, written about Charlie, could only have originated with Charlie, and illustrates his incredible talent for surviving.

CHARLES MOORE TAKEN FOR GHOST

Charles Moore, who was clearing a place about Lake Worth, running short on supplies, started to make a boat trip to Sand Point, now Titusville, for the things required. Moore started out all right, secured his supplies, and began his return trip. When about halfway home, in a heavy north wind, with swells running swiftly, Moore, who was in the act of filling his pipe, lost his knife overboard, and while making an effort to reach for it, as it bounded out of his hand, a squall hit his cat yawl boat, the craft capsized, throwing Moore into the cold water and almost strangling him, before he could right the boat sufficiently to cling to it. This happened about nine in the morning, and realizing that something had to be done, Moore managed to cast aside his garments, with the exception of one shirt, and started to swim ashore. The place where his boat capsized was opposite where Jensen is now located. Moore swam towards the shore nearest the boat, but before he reached its safe retreat he became insensible, and when he recovered he was lying with his feet in the water and his head resting on some of the manatee grass just fringing the shore line. Reckoning by the sun, it was about three in the afternoon.

Chilled to the bone by the exposure to the cold wind and his long immersion in the water, Moore gathered some palmetto leaves and rubbed his body to a comfortable heat, then making a palmetto bed for himself, laid down and rested until morning. With day-light returning, he started out for Fort Pierce - it was not Fort Pierce in those days - and taking to the water’s edge and the paths of cactus, Moore made his way to the mouth of the St. Lucie River, where Sewell’s post office now stands, wading out to try the water again to reach the settlement where Alexander Bell lived, but fearing that it would never be accomplished, he took to the roads or rather to the paths. His hunger becoming keen, and having no water, his voice began to fail him, so that when he reached the place near where Bell lived, he could use his voice only in a whisper.

To tell of the struggles and hardships of his weary journey is unnecessary, it can better be imagined. The rocky shore tore the soles of his feet to shreds, the paths of the cactus ripped big pieces from his legs, his body was fatigued with the exposure, and wracked with the pains of exhaustion. He stumbled and tottered, he had twenty miles to travel, and such traveling as would have made a much stronger man give way under the hardships. But with a determination to get something to eat and drink, that nerves the best and the weakest, he struggled on, and when he came in sight of Bell’s place, he could go no farther.

In those days, houses were built with one big general room, when the women folks were ready for the floor beds, the men folks would walk about the place, and enter later. At this time, when Moore was making his way to Bell’s, Bell was having as a guest a man by the name of Nichols and waiting for the home folks to get ready for their evening rest, Nichols strolled down to the beach where Moore was struggling along at a slow pace. Just before this time, old Captain Hunter, one of the early men of this time and place, had sickened and died, and it was current rumor that the Captain was not averse to returning to this mortal earth to view how things were coming. When Moore saw the figure of Nichols he waved his hand to him to come and help him, but Nichols, with the stories of Captain Hunter in his mind, gave one look at this white ghostly apparition beckoning him, and with hair standing at a sharp perpendicular, dashed up the bluff ten feet at a bound and with a scream bordering close to the yell of the wildcat, dashed into the heavy door of Bell’s place, tearing the door from its heavy leather hinges, and falling upon the sleeping inmates, who no doubt thought a cyclone struck them, lay panting and gesticulating like a big land crab, with forearms spasmodically pointing north, and then south. After Bell had pounded Nichols with boot and heel in all parts of his anatomy, he cried out, “Captain Hunter is down on the beach!”

“You dang fool,” said Bell, “Cap Hunter is dead and buried.” When Bell and Nichols went to the beach to find out what was the cause of the latter’s fright, they came to Moore, who was still slowly making his way up to the home of Bell. Bell soon learned the gist of the matter, and Moore was taken care of. Later, when Moore recovered sufficiently to be questioned, he told the tale of his being wrecked, and Bell in return told Moore how Nichols took him for the ghost of Captain Hunter. Moore replied, “Well, I didn’t know whether to try the rocks and cactus again, or stand and be shot for a ghost.”

 

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