Palm Bay’s recent history began in the 1850s when the first European settlers built homes along Turkey Creek. Originally referred to as Tillman, the settlement was described as a “small strip of hammock…on each side of Turkey Creek…mostly pine and palmetto, miserable sandy barren oak scrub, some ponds and interspersed with sawgrass and gallberry.”
By the mid-nineteenth century, there was a lumbering operation, packing house, and orange groves. Growth was slow until the arrival of the railroad in 1894. Then goods were brought in and produce was shipped to market faster.
Between 1910 and 1914, Tillman became the center for a land company known as the Indian River Catholic Colony. Attempting to grow two crops a season, farmers quickly depleted the soil, and the colony failed. Those remaining built St. Joseph’s Church on Miller Street, the oldest building still standing.
In the 1920s, the city was renamed after the bay bordered with sabal palm trees known as Palm Bay, located at the mouth of Turkey Creek. A group of Tillman businessmen established the Melbourne-Tillman Drainage District, and issued $1.5 million worth of bonds. Starting in 1922, a 180 miles (290 km) grid of 80 canals was dug to drain 40,000 acres (160 km2) of swampy land west of Palm Bay. The canals made it possible to control flooding and turn marsh lands to agricultural use. Farmers planted citrus groves and truck farms which shipped winter produce by the Florida East Coast Railroad to northern markets. Farmers sold timber and land to paper companies. In 1926, a fire among the dredges and a severe hurricane economically depressed Palm Bay. The Melbourne-Tillman Drainage District went bankrupt.
In 1959, General Development Corporation purchased and platted extensive tracts of land in Palm Bay for its large residential project known as Port Malabar. The city incorporated itself on January 16, 1960. Prior to expanding their borders, the city population was 2,808 that year.
The active development of the city after that point was intertwined with GDC, who laid out and built many of the streets, sold and built many of the city’s now older homes, and built a water treatment plant later purchased by the city after GDC filed for bankruptcy in 1991.
The city made the finals for “All American City” for three years (2003–2005).
In 2008, the former Port Malabar Country Club property was revalued at $300,000, essentially “worthless” because of arsenic in the groundwater which would require an estimated $12 million to clean up.
There are hundreds of miles of roads that are in such poor condition that the city Public Works Department considers them unserviceable. The voters have consistently defeated measures which would have improved roads, termed the worst in Brevard. In 2005 they voted down a $58.7 million bond measure. In 2009, they defeated a $75.2 million tax referendum. In 2010, voters living in areas with the worst roads voted 9-1 against $44.7 million assessment for repairing them. In 2011, the city government created a Palm Bay Road Maintenance District that they hope can levy taxes and alleviate the situation.
In 2008, fires on Mother’s Day destroyed 37 homes.
The Florida scrub jay is threatened because the species is territorial and cannot move to better grounds when its habitat is jeopardized. In 2009, the Brevard Zoo moved the remaining 15 scrub jay families native to the city to Buck Lake Conservation Area in Mims.
In 2010, there was some fiscal concern over firefighters’ pensions. Firefighters’ salaries averaged $71,100 annually plus $5,590 overtime pay. They were eligible for 100% of base pay after 28 years of service.
The city formerly monitored some intersections with radar cameras, resulting in the issuing of traffic tickets for running a red light. In 2013, these monitored intersections were no safer than unmonitored ones. These cameras were removed in 2014.