Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Gem of the Sea and the Charlotte Harbor Blockade during the Civil War

Typical bark vessel of the time.  Gem of the Sea was a bark.  

Florida became part of the Confederacy at the beginning of the Civil War, the third of the original seven states to secede from the Union.   Florida had a very small population at this time, nearly half of them slaves.  It only sent15,000 troops to the Confederate States Army. Its chief importance was in food-supply to the south, and support for blockade-runners, with its long coastline full of inlets that were hard to patrol.

Starting in 1863,  Union forces, attempting to suppress shipment of cattle and hogs, organized a blockade at Charlotte Harbor. One of the ships assigned to the picket was the Gem of the Sea, a wooden bark, commissioned on October 15, 1861 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

From December 24 to 30, 1863, Union military regulars sailing on small boats from the Gem of the Sea encountered signal fires and sporadic gun fire from local southern sympathizers. The U.S. sloop Rosalie arrived to provide cover at a shelling position 200 yards from the Myakka's east shore. On June 11, 1864, Gem of the Sea shared in the capture of the steamer Emma by tender Rosalie, for violation of blockage near Charlotte Harbor.

Gem of the Sea remained in Charlotte Harbor until February 1865 when as the Civil War came to an end, she left for the Philadelphia Navy Yard where was decommissioned and sold for $6500.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Teddy Roosevelt came to Punta Gorda to Conquer the Devil Fish

It was over one hundred years ago this month. A few days before America entered the first World War. A crowd of over a thousand people gathereed to enthusiastically welcome the former President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, to Punta Gorda. He had come to conquer the “devil fish”.

Roosevelt had been enticed to Punta Gorda through an article written by fishing guide, Russell Cole of Danville, Virginia, who dramatically described in a magazine the catching of a manta ray weighing three tons. Roosevelt immediately got in touch with Coles - he had to conquer this fish.

Coles arranged for Captain Jack J. McCann and crew and the launch, E.C. Knight, to take Roosevelt and himself on a fishing expedition to what was then considered the leading sports fishing area of Florida.

On their first day, Roosevelt succeeded in harpooning  two “devil fish”, one of small size and the other a huge creature  measuring over twelve feet across. The latter nearly capsized their boat. While here they also explored the surrounding waters, spending one complete day  inspecting the bird rookeries near Matlacha. Captain McCann was their guide and transported the party between Punta Gorda and the inlets and passes of this area.  

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Railroad Dock at King Street - Punta Gorda's Early Commercial Hub

The Railroad Dock at the foot of King Street was the hub of Punta Gorda’s commercial activity from 1897 until 1928.  In addition to being the commercial seafood center, it was the port for steamers connecting with the railroad.

The Henry Plant-controlled railroad company constructed the pier after making the decision to abandon the Long Dock which extended to twelve feet of water.  The King Street dock reached only five feet of water. The South Florida Railroad at Tampa was to be the only rail connected with deep water on Florida’s west coast.

Punta Gorda’s Railroad Wharf served the people of the community until 1928. This circa 1908 view of the wharf is from a point in front of the warehouse and shows a few fish-packing houses to the left. The Punta Gorda Hotel appears in the distance.  A fire on the dock in 1915 was a crippling blow to the fish industry. 

The Wharf was used the fishing industry until 1928 when the construction of the Barron Collier Bridge was started and the fish wholesalers moved to the Maude Street Dock. 

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Ladies Who Built a Municipal Bath House for Punta Gorda

At a time in the Country when women were denied a political voice and an opportunity to explore topics beyond children and household chores, woman’s clubs were  formed for civic, enrichment, social and charitable purposes and became an important part of the fabric of cities and towns throughout the nation. These clubs, most of which had started out as social and literary gatherings, eventually became a source of reform for various issues in the U.S

 Punta Gorda in the late 19th and early 20th century was a new frontier whose business and civic life was dominated by men. The women of the young town used clubs to participate in an active social and intellectual life, but also were formed to make an impact on the growing community. One of these groups explicity formed to address civic issues  was the Ladies Civic Improvement Association (a forerunner of the Woman's Club still active today).. Not only did these women push for changes in the community, often successfully (getting the city to stop cattle from roaming the streets, for example), they published a booklet to promote Punta Gorda in pictures and words, and raised money for community projects. One such project was the Municipal Bath House.

The Municipal Bath House was built off the City Dock of the day which extended into the harbor from Sullivan Street. The Bath House officially opened in April of 1916 came about as a result of the Ladies’ Civic Improvement Association’s fundraising efforts. The ladies raised two thousand dollars, organized volunteer labor and acquired donated material to erect the swimming platform with a pavilion and dressing rooms. They held suppers, participated in the annual Punta Gorda Pfun Festival with booths, and organized even more bizarre fundraising projects. According to Vernon Peeples one event was a great snake fight between rattlers and black snakes.

The Ladies also ran the facility and developed and posted rules for the patrons of the house. They charged 25 cents for admission which included a suit, towel and room, for 10 cents you could use a room and a towel – no suit. Water, ball and mud throwing wasn’t allowed, but ducking and rough play was allowed outside the ropes. Swearing and obscene language was prohibited, and dancing wasn’t allowed unless previous arrangements had been made. (See the complete list below).

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Getting the Mail - A Short History of Mail Delivery and Post Offices of Early Punta Gorda

In an age when messages from friends and family are instant and constant, its hard to imagine a time here when early settlers waited weeks for communications from family and friends and home delivery of mail was non-existence.  From the town’s origin until 1955, Punta Gordans had to collect their mail at the post office, making it a core part of the community in its early years. 

In the 1870s when the first homesteaders occupied the land on this side of the Peace River, they waited weeks for mail to arrive by boat.  The Howards, early residents of Solana, near where the Elks Lodge is today, had to watch for the boat that would deliver much needed packages and awaited correspondence from northern relatives.   They didn’t know which boat (The "Alice Howard" was one that carried mail and freight as well as passengers, and shuttled between Fort Myers and Cleveland, an early now defunct town northeast of Punta Gorda) would be delivering the mail and had to wade out into the river to pick it up, or cross the Peace to get their mail from neighbors across the Bay.

It wasn’t until the late 1880s when the railroad began moving towards the new settlement that a post office was established at Cleveland.  It is said that Isaac Trabue traveled to the Cleveland post office to collect mail for his new town of Trabue, which he distributed from his land office which  essentially was the town’s first unofficial post office.

Trabue Land Office now in the History Park acted as post office in 1886
In August 12, 1886 the first official post office was established at the train depot with Nannie Scott as it’s postmaster.  The depot then was located at King Street near Charlotte Avenue.  The post office was changed from Trabue to Punta Gorda on January 14, 1888.  George McLane succeeded Nannie Scott as postmaster, then, in 1890, Isaac Trabue named Robert Meacham, a black man, to
the post.

Punta Gorda Post Office 1900

From the early 1900s the post office was next-door to the east of Blount’s grocery. Originally it was very small, then enlarged in the 1920s adding more mailboxes.   Its front was on Marion Avenue backing onto Herald Court.  The Hotel Punta Gorda, across the street, maintained a mailbox at this location.   Josh Mizell served as postmaster from 1898 until 1909 when Harry Dreggors, who owned the building where the office was located, took over the post.
Smith Arcade 1930s Courtesy Tampa Hillsborough County Public Library System

Smith Arcade Buiding 2011
In 1926 the post office moved to the Smith arcade across the street from the current location. At the time, George Rhode had become Punta Gorda postmaster. He persuaded his friend Smith to apply for the lease of a new post office for the town. Smith built the Arcade, with a central hall with stores on each side, one of the first in-door malls, leading to the post office in the back of the building.

Other early post offices were located on the Long Dock, at Villa Franca and at Acline (a railroad stop.  In 1893 when the Florida Southern Railroad was establishing a freight and passenger onnection to New Orleans and Havana, it constructed what became known as the Long Dock near where the Isles Yacht Club is today.  A post office was established there which was supported by the Punta Gorda office with Iva Bright as postmaster. It closed after the demise of the Dock in 1898. From 1910 to 1927 there was a post office at the store at Acline.  Also, east of what is now downtown Punta Gorda Villa Franca, a settlement of Cuban cigar makers, had its own post office.

 Home delivery of mail didn’t start in Punta Gorda until 1955.

Sources include:

Lindsey Williams, Our Fascinating Past, Charlotte Harbor, the Early Years.

Vernon Peeples, Punta Gorda In the Beginning, 1865-1900.

Byron Rhode, Punta Gorda Remembered.

Diaries of Jarvis Howard

Punta Gorda Herald, 1902-1918

Tampa Tribune, 1895-1900


Friday, December 8, 2017

Charlotte County's Christmas Parade in Punta Gorda started in 1979

Tomorrow is the 39th annual Charlotte County Chamber Christmas Parade. It  will march from the Charlotte Performing Arts Center (at Charlotte High School)  through to downtown Punta Gorda to the Event Center.

While Punta Gorda had Christmas parades prior to 1979, the first one sponsored by the Charlotte County Chamber took place that year.  It commenced on Marion Avenue on a Friday night and moved down Marion to Henry, onto Shreve and Maud Street and back to Marion to its starting point.  Fisherman's Village, Faucett Hospital, the Cultural Center  and other local businesses had floats based on themes like "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "Toyland," and "Sleigh Ride."  For a time the parade alternated between Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda, but for as far as we can determine its been mostly in Punta Gorda.

One of the largest parades, and perhaps the largest, was in 1987, for the Centential year of Punta Gorda. The grand marshalls were Gussie Baker and Cathy Johnson.   A photo of the Charlotte High School Band passing the Court House on Taylor that year is above.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

One Hundred Years Ago This Month - Early Snowbird Navigates Charlotte Harbor on The Aroostock

In the early years of Punta Gorda, in addition to sailboats owned by the town’s residents, many visiting yachts sailed into Charlotte Harbor perhaps our first "snowbirds."  A number docked at the Hotel Punta Gorda, some staying there as a base for the entire winter season.

Around this time, one hundred years ago, the Aroostock would be sailing into Charlotte Harbor. 
Owned by Charles A. Dean, President of the Hollingworth-Whitney Paper Company in Maine the Aroostook was likely named after a river and county in Maine.  Mr. Dean with his family was a regular winter visitor in Punta Gorda from 1888 until his death in 1921.     The Aroostook was built in 1903.

Dean would often rent the tower floor of the Hotel Punta Gorda for the season. He would then sail with his family down the Myakka, to Pine Island and Sanibel and Captiva down to Fort Myers and further. They frequently went fishing for tarpon.  If their boat was too large to navigate the streams, they leased Captain Connolly’s launch to take them.

(copyright 2017, Punta Gorda History Center. All rights reserved.)