The first tourists to visit Palm Beach in the late 19th century came for fishing and hunting, not fancy balls. The area was largely swampland made famous by a man named Alligator Joe, who wrestled alligators to entertain visitors for the princely sum of 25¢.

Historic Sea Gull Cottage, built in 1886 by RR McCormick, a Denver railroad and land developer, dates from the period and is the oldest house on the island. Built in the Florida vernacular style, the shingle cottage was famous as the 'showplace along the shores,' so pretty were its stained glass windows, Georgian marble floors and commanding viewing turret. Oil magnate and railroad entrepreneur Henry Flagler was immediately taken with it and bought it from McCormick as his winter retreat, that is until he completed his adjacent Whitehall Mansion in 1902. In the interim, he extended his railroad to its service town West Palm Beach in 1894 and started attracting a more moneyed crowd to his two hotels, the 1100-room Royal Poinciana Hotel (opened 1894 and closed in 1934) and the Palm Beach Inn, now better known as the Breakers.