Thursday, July 27, 2023

Punta Gorda's Brief Time as the Southern Most Point of the Amertican Rail System


The first train arrived in what is now Punta Gorda in August of 1886, making the town of Trabue the  southern-most terminus of the American railroad system.  It was founder, Isaac Trabue, who convinced the Florida Southern Railway to take the railroad they were building south to his town rather than across the Peace River to Charlotte Harbor.


Later in 1886, the Florida Southern began construction of the "Long Dock," a pier located near where the Isles Yacht Club is today.  The pier was forty-two hundred feet long and extended to a channel 14 feet deep, with tracks on the dock that gave the railroad access to seagoing-vessels, for shipment of merchandise and travel by passengers to New Orleans, Fort Myers, Cuba and other points north.

In 1894 the Florida Southern fell into bankrupcy and the line was sold to Henry Plant.  Plant not wanting Punta Gorda to be the major seaport on the southwest coast, but Tampa, had the track that extended to the long dock torn up and Punta Gorda lost it moment in time as a major seaport.  Soon thereafter, in 1902 the Atlantic Coast Line bought the Plant Line and began extending the railroad furtther south.  By 1904, the railroad reached  Fort Myers and Punta Gorda was no longer the southern most point of the American system.  

Saturday, May 27, 2023

In Memory of those From Punta Gorda who were the first from here to Give their lives for our Country


This plaque honoring fallen hero’s from Charlotte County mentions two men killed during World War I who were from the Punta gorda area: Augustine Willis and Raleigh Whidden.   Lindsey Williams wrote about them in an article which we summarize below.

The first person from the Punta Gorda area to be killed during World War I was Augustine Willis of Charlotte Harbor Town, as reported by the Punta Gorda Herald in October 1918. Mr. and Mrs. Garrison L. Willis received Monday the heart-breaking news that their son, Augustine, had been killed in one of the  battles being fought in France.  Augustine and his father, Garrison, were gill-net fishermen at Charlotte Harbor. There were three Willis families there  at the time -  GarrisonMott and Emmett. 

It was said of him in the Herald at the time that"he was one of the noblest young men of DeSoto County (Charlotte was not split from DeSoto until 1921) and was warmly esteemed by all who knew him." 

A letter regarding his death dated September 8, 1918  abounded in fervent expressions of sympathy for the bereaved parents and of praise for the dead youth. The following are extracts from it: 


"'I am writing you for the remembrance of your son, Augustine, who was at my side when he met his death. His manly form is always before me as I sit and ponder through the long evenings. 


"'He was, and is yet in a way, my dearest friend and chum. He at all times commanded the respect of all with whom he came in contact. 


"'He met his death a few minutes after we had promised each other that should one of us be killed, the other would write to the bereaved parents and relate to them the sad news. It is in fulfillment of this promise that I am writing to you. 



"'His name will always be spoken with reverence by those who knew him, and it will go down as that of one whose military and personal record was without a stain. 


"'His last words to me were -- 'Write mother and father if I get killed.'" 


* * * 

The second military death from Punta Gorda was that of Raleigh Whidden of Punta Gorda who was severely wounded a month after Augustine Willis -- as related in the December 18 issue of the Herald 1918.   

Notice of his death appeared in the January 15, 1920, edition of the Herald. The paper noted that 18-year-old Whidden died at Carlstrom Air Field, Arcadia, where he was taken for treatment after his Army discharge. 

His obituary pointed out that Raleigh was a charter member of Punta Gorda post of the American Legion. His death was the first of the organization. Braxton Blount, representing the post, drove in his car to Gardner, Fla., to assist in burial arrangements. Raleigh was

buried in the family plot there between his mother and father. 




Tuesday, May 16, 2023

John H. Bowman - First Peace Officer to be killed in Punta Gorda


Marshall John H. Bowman was the first Punta Gorda peace officer to lose  his life. He was assassinated by a suspect that fired a shotgun blast through a screened front window of his home on Taylor Street in Punta Gorda. It was believed he was shot in response to his tough stance against drinking and gambling. His wife and four children were present when he was killed.

The suspect of murdering Bowman was Isiah E. Cooper.  Cooper strongly  denied guilt but was arrested, tried, and convicted to be hanged. After several appeals, his  sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Ten years later he escaped from a work gang and was never seen again. 

Saturday, May 13, 2023

The Train Comes to Punta Gorda

The first train to operate in Florida was the Lake Wimico and St. Joseph line that connected the boomtown of St. Joseph to the Apalachicola River in 1836. Then in 1861, the railroad came to the west coast of Florida.   Track was extended from Fernandina in northeast Florida to Cedar Key, north of Tampa.  Essentially destroyed during the civil war the road was rebuilt in 1866 and by 1883 connected Jacksonville to Tampa.

As the railroad made its way further south, it was Isaac Trabue, the founder of Punta Gorda, who convinced the Boston owners of the Florida Southern Railway, to make his town then Trabue its southern terminus, rather than Charlotte Harbor on the north side of the Peace River.  

By July 24, 1886 track was extended the final six miles to Trabue, (Punta Gorda’s original name) which then became the southernmost point on the country’s rail system. The first passenger train arrived Aug. 1.  The line continued west through the city and terminated at a dock off the Peace River known as the Long Dock, which was located near where the Isles Yacht Club  is today. The dock was removed by Henry Plant in the 1890s after his company acquired the Florida Southern to insure that Tampa would be the major port on the gulf coast.  

The line, originally built as narrow gauge, was widened to standard gauge in 1892, and the Florida Southern was fully integrated with the Plant System in 1896.   

Saturday, March 25, 2023

The Strange Case of Bill Zurick

The following slightly abridged account, bylined “Punta Gorda, Fla.” and originally published in the Sept. 9, 1913 issue of The Tampa Daily Times, was recently discovered by Graham Segger during his historical research.

Harrison Jones came up from the Burnt Store district on lower Charlotte Harbor yesterday and spent the greater part of the day going about town making purchases and laying in a stock of provisions to last him through the fall season. Mr. Jones is a busy man, so busy that he gets to the city but two or three times a year. He is operating a small sawmill at the Burnt Store, clearing off a good farm and already has some sixteen acres of a citrus grove well along toward the age of bearing.

Mr. Jones related a story of the peculiar affliction which recently befell one of his neighbors, and it is a story very interesting to the laity and very puzzling to the medical profession here. The name of the neighbor is Wilhelm Zurick, a Swiss, who something over a year ago moved upon a section of land in township forty-two, range twenty-two, a distance of about a mile from Mr. Jones' residence. Zurick has a large family and a very small house; in fact, he seemed content to take up his abode in the tumble-down shanty which had been erected by the former owner of that section. Although there is splendid timber on the place, Zurick did not have any of it made into lumber with which to repair his abode, neither did he trouble himself about putting out crops or bringing his place into a state of cultivation. How he managed to procure sufficient food and clothing for his family has been a wonder and a topic of discussion among all who knew him or of him.

Some of the neighbors thought Zurick's disinclination to work was the result of ill health, while others declared that his ill health was the result of his disinclination to work. As a matter of fact, Zurick is a sort of hypochondriac, and besides his morbidness and melancholy, he believes himself the victim of many different forms of disease. Having no money with which to purchase medicines, or drugs, he has been in the habit of hunting through the woods for medicinal herbs, barks and roots. These he would take home and boil in a large kettle which he picked up from the beach near Cape Haze light. On many occasions he professed great relief after dosing with the brew thus obtained.

One day, several weeks ago, he came in with an armful of a peculiar and suspicious looking plant. It was not unlike, in appearance, the black snake root, which abounds the entire length of the Appalachian mountain system. His wife cautioned him about fooling with strange herbs, but Zurick himself immediately put the plant to boil and seemed eager to test its medicinal efficacy. He was then complaining of shooting pains and lameness throughout his entire muscular system. In nearly every instance Zurick's illness affected his muscles. Having boiled the herbs two hours and twenty minutes Zurick pulled the fire from under the kettle so that the liquid could cool. Later he obtained a piece of cloth from his wife and strained the concoction into a small pail. Just before supper he drank a glass of the liquid, and early the next morning he took another, followed by one at noon. Toward evening a great change came over Zurick. He was seized with an unconquerable desire to work. He arose from his chair on the porch and briskly walked to the woodpile, where, within half an hour he split a heap of wood as large as the slab pile of a small sawmill. This strange action frightened his wife, who had for years gathered up or spilt the wood with which to cook the meals. She tried to get her husband to come into the house and lie down, but he refused and, seeing a shovel leaning against the fence, he grabbed it and began digging a ditch to drain the water away from the house. This ditch had been needed ever since the Zurick family took up its abode at that place.

Having finished the ditch and straightened up the gate post, Zurick suddenly remembered that it was about time to make up the seed bed. Streaming with perspiration, he attacked the bed, which is about twenty-five feet square, and, although the sun was sinking, and his wife was calling supper, he stuck to the work until he had the bed entirely spaded and raked as smooth as a floor. Next morning Zurick took another glass of the mysterious brew, ate a hearty breakfast and by 7 o'clock was in Punta Gorda buying wire to fence his northeast quarter. In the afternoon he ran the fence up and cut a good road one-half mile long on his way in.

Mrs. Zurick had never before seen such symptoms manifested by her husband and her fright bordered on hysteria. She was sure the strange herb was the cause of it, and she knew her husband would kill himself in a week by overwork. She sent for a physician, who arrived at noon on the third day after Zurick began taking the juice of the unknown herb. The doctor took the sick man's wrist and began to count, but Zurlck, happening to glance upward and seeing light through the roof, jerked his arm away from the doctor’s grasp and in an incredibly short time was on top of the house, nailing shingles over the hole.

After he came down, the doctor completed his diagnosis, but not without several interruptions caused by the patient seeing something to do and immediately doing it. The doctor asked to see some of the juice, but it could not be found. It seems Zurick had hidden it.

Up until August 26, Zurick had grubbed, burned, plowed and drained ten acres of his land, had felled over 600 trees, and hauled half of them to Mr. Jones' sawmill. It is impossible for him to resist doing work that strikes his eye, and seems to be under some uncontrollable impulse. That explains why he was found doing unfinished jobs on the farms of his neighbors. He cannot sit still if his eye falls upon something that should be attended to, no matter what or where it is. The physician thinks that Zurick's nerve functions have been completely changed around by the action of the mysterious herb. This seems to be the correct diagnosis since Zurick's reflex nerves are now dead and refuse to act. Flies, bugs, mosquitoes, and other insects strike him in the ball of the eyes without receiving any opposition from the reflex action of the eye lids, and Zurick never winks until after the object has lodged on the outer membrane of the eye. While on the other hand, all the common nerves have been changed into the kind possessing reflex action. At least this is proven by the effect which the sight of undone work has upon Zurick. He cannot resist pitching into it, and cannot stop himself until all work in sight is done.

A number of our prominent physicians discussed Zurick's case informally at a meeting held last night. They unite in the belief that Zurick is impelled by some stimulus or excitation entirely without the usual intervention of consciousness, and that he performs the work involuntarily, impulsively and without the slightest desire or volition on his part. They discussed learnedly "afferent" and "efferent" nerves, "reflex action," and so forth, but were unable to explain just what has taken place in the nervous system of Zurick. They are satisfied that Zurick's muscles are not under the control of his will. Even laymen are satisfied about that.Meanwhile, Zurick is simply tearing that section of land to pieces. His wife can induce him to take rest only by placing his chair "where his eyes can rest on work absolutely completed”. He brings in quantities of the herb each day and boils it so that he can have it fresh. His case is the talk and wonder of the entire county.

While no author was listed, it is Graham’s theory that this story was written by Wallace Chadman, who wintered in Punta Gorda and spent summers in Tionesta, PA between 1911 and 1926. Chadman was granted the designation AAA by his colleagues at the local beverage room – Attorney, Author and Angler.

There was in fact a back story to this tongue in cheek account of Mr. Zurick. A group of 15 Swiss immigrants did establish a colony near what is now the corner of Durden Road and Old Burnt Store Road in August 1913. Newspaper accounts in November 1913 state that the town site was to be called Klaricka, had a sawmill, and was in the vicinity of the old Burnt Store.