Monday, February 22, 2021

The Fishing Industry of Charlotte Harbor

The first Spanish fishermen sailed their smacks into Charlotte Harbor some time in the 17th century marking the beginnings of a commercial fishing industry,  They caught and carried edible fish, which had been salted and dried,  back to Cuba to earn a large profit. By 1763 when the British acquired Florida the Spanish had built “ranchos” or fishing camps that extended from Charlotte Harbor to the Caloosahatchee River.

The Cuban fishermen controlled the business for over 200 years through the British and then through Spain’s second possession of Florida. Once the United States gained ownership of the peninsula in 1821,  competition began between the Cubans and new American-based businesses. But when the railroad arrived at Trabue (Punta Gorda)  in 1886 and an ice factory was built the industry was changed forever.  

By the 1890s Punta Gorda had one of the largest commercial fishing industries in Florida.  The original businesses operated from the 4200-foot “Long Dock.” In 1897, the industry was relocated to the Railroad at the foot of King Street (now U.S. 41 North) and remained there until it was moved to the Maud Street Dock in 1928.  

The fish businesses constructed fish storage houses throughout Charlotte Harbor.  These shacks, built on stilts over the water, served as ice houses as well as bunkhouses for the fishermen sometimes with their families.  They were serviced by “run boats” like “The Chase” operated by the Punta Gorda fish dealers to carry fish and ice back and forth from the shacks to the dock where the catch was transported to the railroad.   At its height, the industry caught and processed thousands of tons of fish annually 

Gradually as the commercial fishing industry spread throughout Florida, Punta Gorda’s role in it declined.  The last of the Punta Gorda fishing businesses - the Punta Gorda Fish Company - ceased operation in 1977 when the City revoked its lease on the municipal dock at Maud Street to make way for the development of Fishermen’s Village.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

The Bridges to Punta Gorda

The first bridge over the Peace River, the Charlotte Harbor Bridge, was opened in 1921 .    The bridge was built after much legal and financial haggling to insure that the Tamiami Trail would run through Punta Gorda.     It ran from Live Oak Point in Charlotte Harbor on the north bank of the river to Nesbit Street in Punta Gorda.  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 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 1929, built a block east of the Charlotte Harbor Bridge at King Street (now U.S. 41 North).  The construction of the bridge necessitated the demolition of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad’s dock at King Street.  

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 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.  The old Barron Collier Bridge was then demolished, and its remains sunk into Charlotte Harbor for an artificial reef.

The Maud Street Dock

What we now know as Fishermen’s Village is located on the site of the former Maud Street Dock. The Maud Street City Dock was built in 1928 to replace the King Street Pier, home to the Punta Gorda fishing industry. The old pier had been removed to make way for the new Barron Collier bridge.  

At one time there were as many as seven companies that operated the fish packing houses on the Maud Street Dock. Each of the fish companies had a small fleet of “run boats” that made periodic trips down Charlotte Harbor. They transported ice, supplies, and fishermen returning to their fish camps down the bay and brought fresh-caught fish back to the packing houses.  These camps consisted of stilt houses constructed in various locations in the harbor and coves along what is now the Intracoastal waterway.  By the mid-1930s, three packing houses remained: the Punta Gorda Fish Company, the West Coast Fish Company, and the Rose Fishing Company.  The pier was also occupied by the Gulf Oil Company and the Matt Week’s Boat Shop. 

In 1939, a fire destroyed the packing plants. John Willis, houseman for the Punta Gorda Fish Company, his wife and their three-year-old son perished in the fire. The West Coast Fish Company folded, but the Punta Gorda Fish Company continued to operate on a much smaller scale. In the mid-1940s, as the fishing industry declined further, a small crab packing plant was built on the pier. Later this plant expanded to include shrimp. 

Over time the dock and remaining buildings fell into disrepair, and in 1977, the city council moved to permit its reuse as a shopping and dining attraction. In February of 1980, Fishermen’s Village opened on the original Maud Street Dock site.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Theodore Roosevelt Sport Fishing in Charlotte Harbor

On March 26, 1917, a crowd of over a thousand people gathered 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 a fishing guide, Russell Coles 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.

Captain McCann transported the party between Punta Gorda and the inlets and passes of the area.   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 transported the party between Punta Gorda and the inlets and passes of the area.  

Roosevelt enjoyed a week of fishing the waters of Charlotte Harbor returning to Punta Gorda on April 2, 1917,  a few days before the United States entered the First World War.  

The Long Dock


In 1886, 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.  There a forty-two hundred-foot dock was constructed and for the next eleven years, it became the heart of Punta Gorda’s commerce.  

The Long Dock, located near where the Isles Yacht Club is today, extended to twelve feet of water which enabled steamships to arrive there.  The pier had a telegraph office, a post office, several fish companies, stores, and facilities. Among the seafood dealers located on the dock were A.K. Demiere, Carnes and Monk, Bill Lewis, M.M. Sullivan and Sons, and Bloxham and Lewis. 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 traveling 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.  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

Friday, January 29, 2021

Early Boating History

Boats have always been extremely important to the Charlotte Harbor region and were essential to its development.   The ancient Calusa used canoes to get around their domain.   European explorers like Ponce de Leon arrived at Charlotte Harbor by sailing ship.  In the early days of Punta Gorda, between 1886 and 1904, the only means of travel south and west of the town was by boat.

During the winters at the turn of the 20th century, many yachts would be seen anchored near the shores of Punta Gorda.  Naphtha cabin boats like the "Myakka" owned by Charles Dean of  New England brought some of the first "snowbirds" to local waters.  Sharpie sailboats engaged in commercial fishing roamed the harbor. Perry and Marian McAdow, early wealthy residents,  entertained the elite of the town on their sailing schooner, the "Roamer".  

Steamboat traffic was heavy during the nascent years of the community.  Paddle-wheelers carrying both freight and passengers navigated the Peace River and carried goods and travelers from Charlotte Harbor to Fort Myers, Cuba, Key West, New Orleans, and Tampa.  Steamboats such as the "Alice Howard" and the "Clara" brought the mail and passengers between Punta Gorda and Fort Myers.  Later the "St. Lucie" and "Thomas A. Edison" were among the ships that made the 76-mile run.  The Morgan Line steamers arrived at Punta Gorda from New Orleans at the Long Dock and left for Key West and Havana the same day. 

Before the railroad ran to Boca Grande in 1907, steam tug boats including the "Albert F Dewey" and the "Mary Blue" hauled phosphate on barges down the Peace River to freighters waiting at Punta Gorda and the Boca Grande Pass.  

Monday, January 25, 2021

Punta Gorda’s First Tourist Attraction - The Hotel Punta Gorda


The first suggestion of the Charlotte Harbor area as a tourist destination appeared in a booklet written by George Barbour in 1869.  Barbour lauding the beauty of the harbor said that at some point a winter resort needed to be established in the southern part of Florida and that Charlotte Harbor presented an ideal location for it.  It wasn't until years later that Barbour's vision was realized.  Isaac Trabue in 1885 persuaded the Florida Southern Railway to bring the railroad to his town by giving them the land to build a grand hotel on Charlotte Harbor.  

The Hotel Punta Gorda first welcomed guests for the 1888 winter season and Punta Gorda became a tourist destination.  Luxurious for the time, it was a three-storied structure with a central tower that extended higher.  Advertisements for the resort proclaimed that the hotel had gas, electric bells, steam heat, and open fireplaces.   News articles touted the magnificent grounds and fishing and sailing from the dock.  Situated on the harbor, the hotel had a large promenade, verandas with yellow roses climbing the railings, and 135 rooms, each with views of the bay.  Palm trees adorned the grounds to provide a tropical ambiance. Appealing to the wealthy, the hotel attracted guests that included  W.K. Vanderbilt, John Wanamaker, Thomas Edison, and Andrew Mellon. 

The hotel had its ups and downs and by 1924 it was acquired by Barron Collier and Cornelius Vanderbilt and the name was changed to the Hotel Charlotte Harbor.  The investors remodeled the hotel in 1927 adding a central tower and top floor ballroom. This stately hotel also had its economic problems and by the 1950s was again renamed the Charlotte Harbor Spa.  On the night of August 14, 1959, the hotel was destroyed in a fire leaving a void in Punta Gorda's tourism industry.  Other than the Municipal Trailer Park which accommodated winter visitors from 1925 to the 1980s,  it wasn't until 1980 that a tourism magnet of the hotel's scope was constructed.    Fishermen’s Village opened on the old Maud Street Dock that year and reignited the tourism industry in the area.