Thursday, September 14, 2017

Hurricane Irma Now Part of Punta Gorda History

History evolves every day.  And now another powerful storm has impacted our area and inscribed itself on our historic records.  Although Punta Gorda was spared the damage other local communities have experienced, we did deal with the trauma of threatening winds, potential life-threatening surge and evacuations.   We witnessed our harbor roll out to sea and our downtown flood with deep water.

It's important to keep records on what has happened here -- the bad and the good.  Therefore the History Center is requesting that you help us document and preserve a record of this hurricane.  If you took pictures during the storm or of our main streets during the storm, we request that you share them with us.  We will put them on our History cloud and preserve them as part of our community memory.

See above the photo of a Hurricane that impacted Punta Gorda years ago.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Long Dock Enabled Transit to Havana, New Orleans and Key West

After Isaac Trabue convinced the Florida Southern Railroad directors to locate its railroad down the east side of the Peace River, track was extended along what is now the linear park in Punta Gorda to beyond the original town of Trabue.  The railroad company envisioned the town which became Punta Gorda in 1887 growing further west and actually had plans for extending the track towards yet another dock.

The Long Dock which was located near where the Isles Yacht Club is today had a telegraph office, a post office, several fish companies, stores and facilities.  The dock  extended out into the harbor where the water depth was 12 feet.  In October of 1887, the steamer Hutchinson of the Morgan Line arrived at the Long Dock, and for the next nine years, every Friday Morgan Line Steamers left the dock for New Orleans,  and every Saturday for Havana and Key West.

The Charlotte Harbor Beacon described a steamer at the end of the Long Dock in December of 1887 with passengers in their "quaint travelling suits promenading up and down the great dock" as they waited eagerly to board the boat for New Orleans.

The Long Dock made Punta Gorda a seaport and for eleven years it was the heart of the new City's commerce.  Then in 1897, Henry Plant, who had purchased the railroad, wanting to eliminate any competition for Tampa, removed the rails from the long dock and terminated his railroad near the Hotel Punta Gorda where there was only five feet of water.   The era of Punta Gorda as a seaport ended.

Sources: Vernon Peeples, Punta Gorda and the Charlotte Harbor Area.
                Lindsey Williams, Out Fascinating Past. 
                Broadside of the Florida Southern Railroad

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Municipal Trailer Camp for Tin Can Tourists Where Laishley Park is Today

The mobile homes like ones that were blown up during Hurricane Charley were the descendants of the old, jerry-built encampments of the "Tin Can Tourists" of the 1920s and 1930s, a peculiar phenomenon that helped populate Florida.   The first mobile homes were just tents attached to wooden trailers that were dragged by autos of the time. The tourists  got their "tin can"  name, not from their trailers, but from the canned goods they lived on all winter: potted meats like corned beef, Vienna sausages, baked beans -- the same sort of victuals hurricane victims live on today, during the inevitable blackouts.

The northerns frequently camped out  the winter with their children who were sent to the local schools for as little as fifty cents a week.  Because these tourists were not the kind that spent money to help the local economy, they weren't always appreciated.  Old-timers have many stories of the early snowbirds freeloading on local merchants' generosity. 

But apparently Punta Gorda government did appreciate and see the value of the annual migration. The City built an assemply  hall where recreation activities could be held, built docks for boats and most impressively situated the camp for the tourists on perhaps one of the most beautiful spots in town -- right on Charlotte Harbor Bay.   Today that spot is where Laishley Park juts into the harbor and Laishely Crab House looms over the Marina.  

Friday, July 21, 2017

Gone But Not Forgotten - The Historic Tower Bar of Riverside Drive

Many iconic historic structures in the Punta Gorda area are gone with the winds from Hurricane Charley.  One, a  relic of a key part of Punta Gorda's history, was a 30-foot tower that stood at the head of a creek right off Riverside Drive and US 17.  The tower was originally built as a sales office in 1921 at the start of the Florida land boom by William W. Wilson, a developer and vice-president of the Punta Gorda State Bank to attract potential buyers to land he had platted and provide a vantage point for them to view the area.   It became a successful beacon so much so that Mr. Wilson leased out the building to Chauncey and Lillian Headley as a home and part time business.

The Headleys operated a gas station and built a small cottage next to the tower for a living space and used the second floor of the tower as a bedroom.  Later the Headleys moved to town and rented the cottage as a tourist cabin.  Over time they started a barbecue business on the weekend. People from Punta Gorda would drive out to buy a roast pork sandwich.  They had a tent camp on the same land as the barbecue pit.

The tower survived the hurricanes of the 1920s, but the economy did not, ending the land boom and starting the depression.  The Headleys gave up their lease and Wilson sold the tower to a Jeff Limear, who built more touritst quarters on the property.  The cabins were used during WWII by families of cadets at the Punta Gorda Army Air Base.

After the repeal of prohibition, another owner, Sam Curtis, turned the old filling station into a bar, which was later purchase by a Mr. Kristyensen from Long Island, N.Y.  He filled the place with automobile memorabilia, license plates dated back to 1913 and old theatre posters.  A real traffic light told patrons when the bar was open or closed or "last call."   The bar passed through two more sets of owners,  And in 2004, the tower failed to survive another hurricane.  Hurricane Charley brought the it down, all in one piece.  The then owners, the Ervings, salvaged what they could and turned the bar into a tikibar on the creek.

If you have memories or more details about the Tower and the bar, please share them with us.

(Source: article by Lindsey Williams)

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Story of the McGraws of the Bloody Bucket of Acline Road

These days after moving south of Burnt Store Road, I frequently cross the railroad tracks from Tamiami Trail onto Acline Road to get to the History Center.  As I drive along this peaceful country back road as it winds its way along Alligator Creek, it would never have occurred to me that one day long ago there was a moonshine tavern here referred to by various names over the course of its existence, with one name that sticks out as a reference to its violent past, "the Bloody Bucket."

The Bloody Bucket in the early 1900s was a notorious oasis in the midst of  the "dry", alcohol verboten counties of south Florida.  Even before prohibition set in nationwide, Florida counties including DeSoto (Charlotte after 1921) were given an ok by the state to prohibit alcohol sales.   By regulars of the place, the Bucket was referred to as "McGraw's Place," after it owners and moonshine makers, Geroge "Mac" and Virginia McGraw.

The McGraws provided the only escape for workers at the village known as Acline (AC-Line from the Atlantic Coast Railroad stop) where there was a turpentine camp and lumbering operation. Essentially Acline was a loading dock where turpentine and lumber could be loaded onto boxcars. The McGraws made a strawberry wine concoction that they mixed from strawberry flavoring bought from the Seminole Pharmacy in downtown Punta Gorda and moonshine.   Mrs. McGraw would pour the flavoring and moonshine together in big wash tubs.  This was sold to mostly younger boys, while the turpentiners, lumber jacks and railroad section gang that frequented the place would buy straight moonshine for two-bits (a quarter) a pint.

Saturday nights, after the Acline area workers were paid and the place became rowdy according to a quote from Harry Goulding, who was the bookkeeper for the McGraws, "a pint of moonshine was enough to dull a thirsty man's assessment of another's size and fighting ability."  Knives and guns became the great equalizers.

Mac was a mean man according to Goulding.  And one day, the sheriff got a call that there was a shooting at the Bucket.  When he arrived, the sheriff found Mac McGraw and another black man dead from shot-gun blasts.  Mrs. McGraw claimed that the black man had come to the door brandishing a gun asking for money and whiskey.  McGraw, she said, cursed him and the man shot him and ran.  She claimed that McGraw, mortally wounded, crawled after the man and shot him dead and then also died.

The Sheriff wasn't the only one to doubt the preposterous story.  More likely, as was suspected, either Virginia McGraw, or her boyfriend Dick Windham (suspect in the Marshall Bowman murder) killed Mac and then the black man to pin the killing on him.

After the Tamiami Trail was built (around 1921), the Bucket lost its front entrance and Mrs. McGraw moved her door to the side and continued to serve customers who came as far away as Tampa or Miami for whiskey.  During prohibition, Ma McGraw (as she referred to) had bootlegging connections from the Bahamas to procure whiskey.  After prohibition was repealed in 1932, she hired waitresses and turned the place into a legitimate bar and restaurant and renamed the place, "the Alligator Bar."  A.C. Frizzell, Charlotte County's richest cattleman hungout there, and ended up marrying one of the waitresses after his first wife passed away.

Mrs. McGraw sold the place years later to one of the County Commissioners (researching as to who this was -- see below perhaps the County Commissioner was Dick Windham).  Another name it took on before finally disappearing was the Acline Wine Place.

Addendum from Lynn Harrell (Charlotte County Historical Center)

Dick Windham was appointed by Governor Hardee to the first board of county commissioners when Charlotte County was formed in 1921. He and Virginia McGraw were married in 1946 in Lee County. She died in 1948, he died in 1953. George "Mac" McGraw, Virginia McGraw Windham and Richard "Dick" Windham are buried side-by-side in Indian Spring Cemetery -- Virginia is in the middle. The McGraw and Windham graves are among those featured during the Charlotte County Historical Center's walking tours of Indian Spring, btw. Next cemetery tour will be during Founders' Week in December.


John J. Panio, Sr. of Cape Coral, who passed away on March 7, 2014 was employed by the City of New York Department of Transportation and relocated to Florida in 1972 to purchase the Alligator Bar in Punta Gorda. . 

Saturday, July 1, 2017

4th of July Punta Gorda 1931

With the opening of the Barron Collier Bridge in 1931, the town threw one of the biggest 4th of July celebrations it had ever celebrated.  Decorated cars paraded downtown and the day was capped by a fish fry at Gilchrist Park with Punta Gordans ushered into a huge tent where fried mullet was served. Below are some photos from July 4, 1931.

Punta Gordans gather outside Hotel Charlotte Harbor 

Marion and Taylor - Note Hotel Charlotte Harbor where only a sign indicating where it was there today.

Ceremonial Archway was constructed for the opening of the Bridge at the south end of the bridge.

Punta Gordas entering the tent constructed for the fish fry.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Bridges to Punta Gorda - a Brief History

As best as we can determine, here is the history of the bridges over Punta Gorda's harbor.

The  postcard above shows the oldest bridge over the Peace River. The bridge was built across the Peace River in 1921 to accommodate the Tamiami Trail being constructed and was known as the Charlotte Harbor Bridge. It ran from Live Oak Point in Charlotte Harbor on the north bank of the river to Nesbit Street in Punta Gorda (near where the Laishley Marina is today). After the Tamiami Trail opened in 1928, it was determined that this bridge would not meet the needs of the road because of its poor construction and narrow lanes.

Barron Collier Bridge  circa 1930s

Barron Collier Bridge 1961

Barron G. Collier, who owned the Hotel Charlotte Harbor (formerly the Hotel Punta Gorda), was one of the main proponents of building a new bridge. Work began on the original Barron Collier Bridge in December 1929s, built a block east of the Charlotte Harbor Bridge at King Street (now 41 North) (right next to Collier's hotel). The construction of the bridge necessitated the demolition of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad’s dock at King Street, as well as its original passenger depot. That is when the railroad built the Punta Gorda Depot on Taylor Road, which still stands as a museum and antique market.

The original Barron Collier Bridge opened on July 4, 1931 with great fanfare including a community fish fry. The old Charlotte Harbor Bridge was then closed to traffic and converted into fishing piers, which were demolished in the 1970s.

In 1976, the westernmost Gilchrist Bridge (left in picture above) was opened to traffic, and southbound traffic was rerouted there, while both lanes on the old Barron Collier Bridge began carrying only northbound traffic.  Then on January 12, 1983, a new and the now current Barron Collier Bridge was opened to traffic (right). The old Barron Collier Bridge was then demolished, and its remains sunk into Charlotte Harbor for an artificial reef.