Gasparilla Island’s first inhabitants were the Calusa Indians.
They were living on nearby Useppa Island by 5,000 B.C. and on Gasparilla Island by 800 or 900 A.D. Charlotte Harbor was the center of the Calusa Empire, which numbered thousands of people and hundreds of fishing villages. The Calusa were a hunting and fishing people who perfected the art of maritime living in harmony with the environment. They were a politically powerful people, dominating Southwest Florida during their “golden age.” Since the Calusa had no written language, the only record we have of their lifestyle and ceremonies comes from the oral history of the (much later) Seminoles, from written accounts of Spanish explorers, and from the archaeological record. The first contact the Calusas had with the white man came during Spanish explorations at the beginning of the 16th century. By the mid 1700s the Calusas had all but disappeared, the victims of European diseases, slavery and warfare.
Early Settlers Were Fishermen
Just like the Indians, the earliest settlers came to Gasparilla Island to fish. By the late 1870s several fish ranches were operating in the Charlotte Harbor area. One of them would later be at the north end of Gasparilla Island in the small village called Gasparilla. The fishermen, many of them Spanish or Cuban, caught huge catches of mullet and other fish and salted them down for shipment to Havana and other markets. In the 1940s the Gasparilla Fishery was moved to Placida across the bay, where it still stands today, and the fishing village died out. Today, many of Boca Grande’s early fishing families are still represented in third, fourth and even fifth generation descendants who pursue many different vocations, including fishing.
Phosphate and Tarpon put Boca Grande on the Map
In 1885 phosphate rock was discovered on the banks of the Peace River just above Punta Gorda, east of Gasparilla Island across Charlotte Harbor. It was this discovery that would turn the south end of Gasparilla Island into a major deep water port (Boca Grande Pass is one of the deepest natural inlets in Florida) and become responsible for the development of the town of Boca Grande. Wealthy American and British sportsmen began discovering the Charlotte Harbor area for its fantastic fishing (notably for the world class game fish tarpon) and hunting. It was these two discoveries – phosphate rock and fishing – that would put Boca Grande “on the map.”
Phosphate was a valuable mineral for fertilizers and many other products, and was in great demand worldwide. At first the phosphate was barged down the Peace River to Port Boca Grande, where it was loaded onto schooners for worldwide shipment. But by 1905 it was felt that building a railroad to Port Boca Grande and carrying the phosphate to it by rail should improve the method of shipment.
1905 officials of the Agrico subsidiary Peace River Mining Company, along with engineers from the U.S. Engineering Corps and 60 laborers, landed on Gasparilla Island and surveying and construction of the railroad began. Probably the only buildings on the island at this time were the lighthouse and the assistant keeper’s house at the extreme southern tip of the island. The railroad terminus with its 1,000-foot long pier would be built nearby. The Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railroad was completed in 1907. For the next 50 years phosphate would be shipped out of the state-of-the-art port virtually without disruption. Phosphate laden trains were off loaded directly onto ocean going freighters, and the ships took the valuable commodity to ports all over the world. In 1969 Port Boca Grande ranked as the fourth busiest port in Florida.
In the 1970s phosphate companies increasingly switched their interest to ports in Tampa and Manatee County. As more money was put into developing these ports, traffic into Port Boca Grande began to dwindle, and in 1979 the line was abandoned and the phosphate industry in Boca Grande came to an end. Today the port is used as an oil terminal of the Florida Power and Light Company. Soon this too will end, and the southern tip of the island will be restored to its natural state.
The Railroad was Boca Grande’s Link to the World
The Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railroad not only brought phosphate and supplies to Gasparilla Island; it also brought wealthy people from the north. By 1910 Boca Grande Pass was already famous for its unequaled tarpon fishing among fishermen, who stayed on nearby Useppa Island. The Agrico Company, having begun to see the potential of the idea of developing Gasparilla Island beyond the port, began to develop the village of Boca Grande.
The railroad station in what would become downtown was built; roads, sidewalks, streetlights, shops, a post office, and water and telephone service were not far behind. The town was landscaped, including the now famous section of Second Street called Banyan Street. The railroad company built several cottages downtown and a few wealthy families from “up north” purchased land and built winter residences. The train stopped at Gasparilla, the fishing village at the north end of the island, at the railroad depot in downtown Boca Grande, and at the south end phosphate terminal.
In 1929 the Boca Grande Hotel was built just south of downtown Boca Grande. It was a three-story, brick resort hotel where most of the island weathered the hurricane of 1944. The Boca Grande Hotel changed hands and was demolished in 1975. It took six months to raze the building by means of fire and the wrecking ball, as it had been built to withstand fire and great storms.
The railroad continued to bring the grand visitors from all along the eastern seaboard until the Boca Grande Causeway opened in 1958. The depot was restored in the 1970s and a number of shops, offices and a restaurant now occupy the old building. The railroad continued to run work trains to the south end until the phosphate port closed in 1979. The Gasparilla Island Conservation and Improvement Association transformed the old bed of the railroad into a new use, Boca Grande’s popular Bike Path. Boca Grande has become a unique community, with a large number of wealthy winter residents rubbing elbows with the fishermen and railroad and port workers who formed the permanent, year-round working community.