Friday, January 10, 2020

How the Railroad Came to Punta Gorda (aka Trabue)

The first railroad to span Florida was completed between Fernandina and Cedar Key in 1861. Coastal vessels navigated between small existing villages and conveyed merchandise to the railroad terminus where it was shipped North or to the Gulf coast.

People living in southwest Florida at the time started making demands for a rail line to this area after the Civil War, and various settlements competed to become the end of that line. In 1866, Charlotte Harbor land owners were working to get the railroad line to terminate there. In 1867, newspapers reported that the terminus for a Gulf coast line site was between Tampa and Charlotte Harbor. Harrison Reed, the governor of Florida. In1868, petitioned Congress for aid to build a railroad to Charlotte Harbor.

By 1880, the South Florida Railroad Company, had completed a line to Orlando and was preparing to extend its line beyond there. Then in May of 1883, the Plant Investment Company, owned by Henry B. Plant, purchased a three-fifths interest in that railroad. The following month Plant, for $50,000, got the right to build a line from Kissimmee to Tampa. 

The South Florida Railroad constructed this branch, and the first train entered Tampa over the new line on January 22, 1884. Plant then worked out a settlement with the Florida Southern Railway whereby that company agreed not to build into Tampa but rather down the peninsula to Charlotte Harbor. Plant is said to have had an interest in the Florida Southern; that company and the railroads controlled by Plant never competed with each other.

The Florida Southern Railway had its origins in the Gainesville, Ocala, and Charlotte Harbor Railroad which was chartered in 1879 to build a line from Lake City to Charlotte Harbor with a branch to Palatka. A branch from Palatka to Gainesville was finished first, which was extended to Pemberton's Ferry, and later to Brooksville.

The South Florida Railroad then completed construction on a branch from that point to Bartow. The Florida Southern began surveys south of Bartow Junction, and by May 1885, it was reported that routes had been surveyed to Punta Gorda, Hickory Bluff (aka Charlotte Harbor town), and Pine Island. A month later survey crews under the direction of the South Florida Railroad were in the vicinity of Fort Ogden. Henry Plant is thought to have had a hand in the selection of the terminus.
In August of 1885 the Florida Southern railroad entered into a contract with the Plant Investment company and the South Florida railroad company to build the road from Bartow to Charlotte Harbor, which would be operated jointly.

Isaac Trabue, the founder of Punta Gorda, was very likely  the determining factor in making what was then Trabue the terminus of this rail line.  At the time there was a push for the rail to terminate on the north side of the Harbor at Hickory Bluff.  But Trabue had another vision.  His homesites at his self-named town of Trabue had not been selling well despite other marketing efforts.  He realized that if the railroad ended in his town that would change. Trabue went to Boston to discuss this option with the members of the board of directors of the Florida Southern. On September 6, 1885, he wrote his cousin, then the only resident of the town of Trabue: “If our place is to be the terminus the Yankees will build grand hotels and Trabue will be a city in reality."  Trabue and the railroad directors agreed that if he would deed one-half of his holdings in Trabue to the company, a line would be constructed through his property.

The first Florida Southern train crossed Shell Creek, on May 26, 1886.  Soon after trains were routinely running to Cleveland with connections by stream boat to Fort Myers. The last rail was laid by July 24, and the Charlotte Harbor Division of the Florida Southern was completed to Trabue (Punta Gorda). The first trains arrived in the area in August loaded with building materials for the development of port facilities and other materials for the construction of the Hotel Punta Gorda.

(From the research of Vernon Peeples, as presented to the Florida Historical Society in 1971.)

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Albert Gilchrist - a Punta Gordon who became Florida’s Governor

Florida's 20th governor and one of the most famous residents of Punta Gorda  was born in Greenwood, SC.  His then-wealthy family traced descent from Presidents Washington and Madison.  His life story was a real-life version of the classic 19th century fictional story of “Horatio Alger”, a boy who rose from poverty to wealth through a combination of hard work, self improvement, and determination.  His varied career included work as a store clerk, railroad surveyor and civil engineer, military service, land development and citrus growing.

Mr. Gilchrist's parents owned large properties primarily in Quincy, FL (Gadsden County) at the time of his birth in 1858.  His father's early death in 1860 from pneumonia coupled with the devastation of the Civil War and his family's poor management reduced Albert Gilchrist to relative poverty.  He was forced to make his way from an early age, selling firewood at age nine and working as a store clerk for $15.00 per month.

His early education in local schools was followed by the Carolina Military Institute (Charlotte, NC) from which he graduated in 1877.  In 1878 he won an appointment to the West Point Military Academy through a competitive exam.  He attended West Point for three years but was “retired” from the school due to academic deficiencies.  His primary difficulty was noted as being in “experimental philosopy”, a field of study not directly related to military science but then considered part of a rounded education. 

Mr. Gilchrist returned to Florida and began his business career working as a civil engineer and surveyor in Gadsden County.  He subsequently was employed by the Florida Southern Railroad as both a surveyor and civil engineer on their lines. Through this  job he first came to Punta Gorda in 1885-1886.  He saw a future in the rapidly growing town, left the railroad, and settled in the town.  He began work on his own as a surveyor, land investor, and developer.  His real estate business was profitable enough to become his full-time occupation and provided the funds for both additional land investments and eventually the addition of citrus growing to his activities.  

He was also active in politics almost from the time he settled in Punta Gorda.  Mr. Gilchrist was one of the voters who incorporated the town and then ran for mayor during the first election.  He fell only two votes short of winning but remained determined to run for office again.  He was first elected to the state legislature in 1893 and over the next 12 years was successful in rising to Speaker, the highest legislative position in the state.  In all his races Mr. Gilchrist ran as a Democrat, which was almost a requirement for a successful political career in the South in the decades after the Civil War.  However his legislative career was marked by his willingess and ability to work with opposition politicians to achieve mutual goals and by a personal warmth and openness which resulted in his having political opponents but no personal enemies, a remarkable achievement in any period.  

In addition to his work in business and in politics Albert Gilchrist had a strong interest in military affairs, dating from his time at both Carolina Military Institute and the West Point Military Academy.  He was active in the state militia, ultimately being appointed Brigadier General and Inspector General.  In addition he was a member of the Board of Visitors at West Point and had the satisfaction of returning to West Point wearing a general's stars and being saluted by many of the professors who had participated in his “retirement” from the school.  Despite his senior rank in the militia he enlisted as a private for the Spanish American War in 1898 and in 18 months of service (but no combat) achieved the rank of Captain.  

He left the service in 1899, returned to business and in 1902 again ran for and was elected to the state legislature.  In 1903 he ran for Speaker of the state legislature and was defeated, receiving only 2 votes, including his own.  He remained determined not to give up and developed a reputation for efficiency, moderation, and successful compromise which resulted in his unanimous election as Speaker in 1905.  

Mr. Gilchrist was by then a successful businessman, military veteran, and respected legislator.  He ran for governor in 1908 and was easily elected.  His campaign adopted the motto “Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” to symbolize his refusal to run down his opponents and his willingness to work with all parties.   His administration  focused on developing public health and infrastructure projects designed to benefit all Floridians.  

The governor's human side was marked by having his mother serve as “First Lady” during his term in part because of his affection for her and in part because he never married.  Punta Gorda's children benefit to this day from another of his projects, which involved a bequest which created a trust which provides free ice cream to children at Gilchrist Park in town each Halloween.  Numerous charities benefitted from his decision to leave his remaining, considerable estate to them. 

Albert Gilchrist is remembered by historians as one of Florida's most effective governors.  Because of his personal modesty and moderate approach to politics his reputation has been somewhat overshadowed by more flamboyant predecessors and successors.  Governor Gilchrist died in New York City in 1926 following an operation.  His body was returned to Punta Gorda for interment in Indian Springs Cemetery.  He is memorialized by the southbound Route 41 bridge over the Peace River and by the creation of Florida's last county, which was named after him.  

By Mark Surresco
Punta Gorda History Center 

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Birth of Team Punta Gorda - Fifteen Years Ago This Month

From Florida Weekly archive June 1, 2005
In November 2004, it started as an idea by local business people and civic-minded citizens wanting to help rebuild their city.   At a time when city and county officials were overwhelmed, struggling to provide normal services, they jumped in to form a citizen-based organization to help plan the recovery and eventual renaissance of a City that many had adopted as their new home town or had families who had lived here for generations.  

TEAM Punta Gorda under the early leadership of Roger Kress (pictured (center left) above being presented a check from Vernon Peeples (center right) of the Charlotte Community Foundation at the time), a local businessman, quickly grew to 1400 members and raised $25,000 within a few months.  With a matching grant from the Charlotte Community Foundation, a world-renowned urban planner, Jaime Corea, was hired to design a new Punta Gorda.  After many public planning sessions organized by TEAM, a vision emerged documented in the Citizens Master Plan which has been used over the past fifteen years to guide the resurgence of the City.  

Today, while the mission has changed from recovery to community development, TEAM Punta Gorda's tradition of community involvement and collaboration is still at its core.  Included in its many achievements, TEAM can be credited for initiating the founding of the Punta Gorda History Center.

TEAM will be honored this December 7 at the PGHC's Southern Supper.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Fred Quednau Boat Captain Restauranteur Mayor and Sheriff -- All Around Punta Gordan

Born and raised in Punta Gorda by pioneer parents, German immigrants Fritz and Minnie Quednau, who set up shop as cigar makers, Fred Quednau was an all-around man who started his career as a boat captain.

As young as 12, he was out on the seas on his own boat hauling cargo from Punta Gorda to the 10,000 islands and back. During his sea journeys he met Belle McBean, who he married in 1921.  The second couple to be married in the new Charlotte County, Belle and  Fred often went together on  trips on the RW Powell which steamed in and out of Charlotte Harbor on a regular basis.  Later after daughter Tosie was born, she also traveled with Fred on his boat.

In his late twenties , with Tosie now in school, Fred knew it was time to give up the sea life. He  opened a restaurant “Fred’s Quick Lunch” on Marion Avenue (on south side near Taylor) right next to his brother's bar 'Bill's Bar".  When the first Collier bridge was opened in 1931, Fred was the main cook at the huge fish fry celebrating the event.

Popular with the townspeople, Quednau was elected to city council and became mayor of Punta Gorda in the 1930s.  Later he served as Charlotte County Sheriff from 1941 to 1957. 

Quednau was the son of German immigrants, Fritz and Minnie Quednau, who came to Punta Gorda in 1888 and ran a cigar-making business. 

Monday, November 4, 2019

Punta Gorda's First Church Service and the Beginnings of the Bethel AME Church

Shortly after the first passenger train arrived in Trabue in July of 1886, Dan Smith, a black man, organized the first religious service in the town. He, with the help of other African Americans in the survey crew, including Sam Kenedy, and men named Graham, Fuller and Ransom,  hired by Albert W. Gilchrist, then a young engineer, erected a palmetto thatched roof shelter for the service.  It was attended by the crew as well as other African Americans and their families already living in Trabue including Isaac Howard, A.G. Reese, S.P. Andrews, Lynn and Rhoda Jackson and Henry Simmons.  Several white families also attended said to have included Isaac and Virginia Trabue, Jacob Wotitzky, Ephraim Goldstein, James Sandlin and their wives. This event led to the establishment of the Bethel AME Church. 

The African American religious community continued to meet informally under the arbor until Isaac Trabue bequeathed some land for the newly organized African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1888. Witness to the transaction was M.T.B. Thomas, the first pastor; Dan Smith, the trustee for the church; and James Sandlin.  Lumber was paid for by Jacob Wotitzky, and Smith and other congregation members built the first sanctuary at Helen Avenue and Milus.  Robert Meacham, postmaster in Punta Gorda, who had organized the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the State of Florida, served as Pastor of the Bethel Church from 1890 to 1892. 

In 1897, a new church was built at Olympia and Wood Streets, unfortunately, destroyed by Hurricane Donna.  A later church structure was severely damaged in Hurricane Charley. Then, in 2006, the current church edifice was dedicated at 260 E. Olympia.   The current pastor is Rev. Frankie S. Fayson III. 

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Man Who Helped Create Charlotte County - Senator F.M.Cooper

Senator F. M. Cooper was one of Punta Gorda’s most prominent citizens who owned several businesses, organized a major bank, and became a Florida State Senator. Senator Cooper was one of the leaders who drove the division of  DeSoto County to create Charlotte County.  Unfortunately, he died in 1921 shortly before Charlotte County officially came into existence and never saw his vision become a reality.  

Also known locally as Captain Cooper,  Frank Marion Cooper  was born in Fernandina, Florida on March 19, 1853 to James Gignilliat Cooper and Pharaba Jane Vaughn Cooper. As a young man he operated a freight-carrying business, running schooners between points on the gulf coast from Cedar Key to Key West.   An imposing six feet, four and a half inches tall, Frank Cooper was widely known for his self-confidence, courage, nerve and marksmanship.  As a leader of a citizens’ posse in 1883, Cooper effected the capture of the chief of the murder clique known as the Sarasota Vigilantes. 

In 1898, he came to Punta Gorda, purchased 60 acres of land for a farm two miles south of the then town, and became a farmer and businessman.   His businesses included a hardware store on Marion Avenue depicted in many of the old street scene photographs of the time. 

He became tax accessor for DeSoto County, a position he held for a decade, and then in 1915 he was elected to the Florida State Senate and served for two terms.  He was the first to suggest the construction of a coastal road from Tampa to Miami, making him the father of the idea for the Tamiami Trail.  Always a proponent of dividing DeSoto County to form a new county with Punta Gorda at its core, he was later re-elected to the state senate and became instrumental in the movement which created Charlotte County.  

The Punta Gorda History Center will induct Senator Cooper into the Punta Gorda History Hall of Honor this December 7 at the annual Southern Supper.  

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Ice - The Early History of Punta Gorda's Ice Factories

Consolidated Ice and Fertilizer Plant on Berry and Olympia 

In the early 18th century, Spanish-Cuban fishermen discovered Charlotte Harbor to be a rich source of a variety of fish.  But the distance from the Harbor to Cuba presented a problem.  Spoilage.   The original solution was to soak the fish in saltwater, then dry and press it.  The Cuban fisherman continued to fish the waters of Charlotte Harbor off and on (somewhat disrupted by wars, the British takeover of Florida in the latter part of the 1700s, and then by the United States acquisition of Florida in 1821).  

By the later part of the 1700s they were packing their catch in salt for transport back to Havana.   By this time, they had established permanent or semi-permanent camps or “ranchos” in the Harbor.  But the nascent fishing industry was disrupted again when tensions between the U.S. and the Cubans over control of the fisheries in Charlotte Harbor led to the murder of a customs official at Useppa Island in the 1830s and ultimately to the abandonment of the fish camps.  While according to a survey by Goode after the Civil War, some camps had been re-established, it wasn’t until Isaac Trabue founded his town that fishing reemerged as a major industry  -- and the difference this time was ice.

Trabue opened his first ice factory in 1891, the only product was ice for the mullet season.  The factory located near Berry and Olympia turned out over 15 tons a day to support the early industry and was powered by steam.  But by 1895 a competitor emerged, a group of Punta Gorda business men including L.T. Blockson, James Sandlin, Charles Davis, John Farrington and Albert Dewey established the Punta Gorda Ice and Power Company.  The plant located at the corner of Tamiami Trail and Virginia turned out 25 tons daily. A sideline was the sale of electricity for homes and businesses near the factory.  It was able to produce ice cheaper than Trabue’s factory which was forced to close in 1897 once Plant removed railroad tracks west of King Street (Tamiami Trail).  Undeterred, Trabue connected with a consortium of Philadelphia investors to establish the Consolidated Manufacturing Refrigerating and Fish Company and erected in 1903 what was touted as the largest ice and freezing plant in the world.  This plant which turned out ice cubes weighing 6,000 pounds only operated for only a short while.  
Punta Gorda Ice and Power Company

The Punta Gorda Ice and Power Company used ammonia as the refrigerant. After first being compressed in a large cylinder, the expanding ammonia gas supercooled in an adjacent tank of brine. Then, when a series of steel buckets, suspended from the ceiling, each containing about 30 gallons of water were immersed in the supercooled brine, the freshwater inside the buckets would freeze into blocks of ice.

A system of ice stations was developed for collecting iced fish from the ice stations, scattered throughout Charlotte Harbor.  Then the traditional salt fisheries were abandoned. Instead, run boats would carry ice to the stations and deliver fish back to the fish houses in Punta Gorda.   Fish would be packed in bins on boxcars with alternating layers of ice for train shipment north.  (In one month during World War II when meat was rationed, the Punta Gorda Fish Company shipped almost 2 million pounds of fish north.)

In 1913 the Ice and Power Company structure was expanded.  Perry McAdow who owned the controlling interest at the time sold the company to Southern Utilities.  Ultimately it was purchased by Florida Power and Light.  


Van Itallie, Theodoric B. Triumph of Ice over Salt - the Changing Face of Commercial Fishing in Charlotte Harbor

Punta Gorda Herald, 1895, 1913 various articles

Williams, Lindsey, Our Fascinating Past, the Early Years

Peeples, Vernon, Punta Gorda and the Charlotte Harbor Area.. A Pictorial History