Friday, May 14, 2021

Old Fish Dock Transformed To “Fishermen’s Village”

After the last of the old fish companies on the Maud Street Dock, the Punta Gorda Fish Company, ceased operation in the late 1970s, the dock fell into ruin.    Earl Nightingale, a famous radio personality of the day, discovered the rundown pier with its magnificent view of Charlotte Harbor.    He envisioned the end of the dock becoming a perfect setting for a fine dining restaurant.  But when Nightingale partnered with local developer F.M.Donelson and publisher Robert Anderson, a plan was developed that went beyond a dining venue.   

The partners created a vision for  a major waterfront tourist attraction that would become Fishermen’s Village.  After many months of planning and negotiating, the team had constructed a complex with shops, restaurants,  apartments, a marina, and  tennis courts. 

In keeping with the fishing history, when Fishermen’s Village held its grand opening  in February of 1980, shrimp boats and mullet fishermen could still be seen at the edge of the facility. Pleasure and fishing cruises were also part of the early activity,  as they are today, adding to the atmosphere of the colorful fishing and boating history of days gone by.

Sports Fishing

What was said to have been the first big game fish, a silver tarpon, was taken by ordinary rod and reel in 1885 by W.H.Wood. Articles about the feat in the London Observer and Scientific American launched the new sport of big game fishing and attracted anglers from all over the world to Charlotte Harbor.


The sport not only employed hundreds of fishing guides in Southwest Florida, it also created a leisure industry that included tackle shops, hotels, and restaurants. The diversity of sport fish, habitats, great weather, and year-round fishing soon made the Charlotte Harbor area a premier fishing destination. Game fishing was popular with the wealthy from the late 1800s to the early 1900s with Frederick Remington, J.P. Morgan, and several members of the Vanderbilt family among those who came to Charlotte Harbor to enjoy the sport. 

Anglers traveled to Punta Gorda by rail and then by boat to the tarpon fishing grounds of Boca Grande Pass.  In 1889,  Scribners Magazine reported that all kinds of fish could be caught off the piers in Punta Gorda. In addition to boats, piers and remnants of old bridges continued to be used for fishing. Over the years, anglers would display their trophy catches on Marion Avenue.


Theodore Roosevelt Sport Fishing in Charlotte Harbor

On March 26, 1917, an enthusiastic crowd of over a thousand people gathered to welcome the former President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, to Punta Gorda.  He had come to conquer the “devil fish.”

Roosevelt had been drawn to Punta Gorda by an article written by a fishing guide, Russell Coles of Danville, Virginia, who had dramatically described in a magazine the catching of a manta ray weighing three tons. Roosevelt contacted Coles - he had to conquer this fish. Coles arranged for Captain Jack J. McCann and crew to take Roosevelt and himself on a fishing expedition on the E.C. Knight 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. They also explored the surrounding waters, spending one complete day inspecting the bird rookeries near Matlacha. 

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 persuaded  the Florida Southern Railroad directors to locate their railroad down the east side of the Peace River, track was extended along what is now the linear park to beyond the original town of Trabue.  There a 4200-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, 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.

In 1897, Henry Plant purchased the railroad.  To eliminate any competition for Tampa, he had the rails from the Long Dock removed 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.

The Maud Street Dock


Fishermen’s Village is located on the site of the former Maud Street Dock. The 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. 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  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. In the mid-1940s, as the fishing industry declined further, a small crab packing plant was built on the pier, later expanding to include shrimp.

Over time the dock and remaining buildings fell into disrepair, and in the late 1970s, the city council moved to permit its reuse as a shopping and dining attraction. In February of 1980, Fishermen’s Village opened on the site.

The Boating History of Punta Gorda


Between 1886 and  the early 1900s, the primary means of transportation south and west of Punta Gorda was by boat.

During the winters at the turn of the 20th century, many yachts could  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". 

In the community's early years, paddler-wheelers carrying both freight and passengers navigated the Peace River carrying goods and travelers from Charlotte Harbor to Fort Myers, Cuba, Key West, New Orleans, and Tampa.  Steamboats, among them 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.

Punta Gorda's Fishing Industry


The first Spanish fishermen sailed their smacks into Charlotte Harbor in the 17th century marking the beginning of a commercial fishing industry.  Cuban fishermen controlled the business for over 200 years until the United States took possession of Florida in 1821 and began laying claim to its territorial waters.  

In 1886, the railroad arrived at Trabue (Punta Gorda) and an ice factory was built.   By the 1890s, Punta Gorda had one of the largest commercial fishing industries in Florida.  The  businesses first operated from the “Long Dock.”  Then in 1897,  the industry was relocated to the Railroad Dock at the foot of King Street (now U.S. 41 North) and remained there until moved to the Maud Street Dock in 1928. 

Fish shacks, built on stilts over the water, served as ice houses as well as bunkhouses. They were serviced by “run boats” carrying fish, ice, and fishermen back and forth.  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 old Punta Gorda fishing businesses - the Punta Gorda Fish Company - ceased operation in 1977.