Discover Boca Grande, Florida
Steve Meylan

History of Boca Grande

Its name – Spanish for “Big Mouth” – comes from the mouth of the waterway, called Boca Grande Pass, at the southern tip of the island. The pass was used as a busy shipping point for many years as the waters in the pass are naturally deep. Processed phosphate from the Bone Valley region was loaded onto waiting ocean-going cargo vessels via the Seaboard Air Line Railroad at the dock located on the southern tip of the island. Shipping business to the island declined in the late 1970s as it was no longer cost effective to ship phosphate by rail to Boca Grande when it could be loaded at Tampa. The phosphate plant at Boca Grande was old and its tons-per-hour rate was slow. Therefore it made economic sense to discontinue the operation. Evidence of the island’s industrial past can still be seen.

There are no gas stations in the village of Boca Grande, so many local residents use a golf cart as their main mode of transportation. On any given day in Boca Grande, you will see golf carts, as well as some automobiles, making their way throughout downtown. A Lee County ordinance designates all but two streets as golf cart paths. Drivers must be at least 14 years old to operate a golf cart on these designated streets.

Boca Grande provided the backdrop for Denzel Washington’s movie, Out of Time, where the quiet village was renamed “Banyan Key” in reference to the banyan trees that populate the island. Scenes for the 2006 film based on Carl Hiaasen‘s book Hoot were also filmed on the island, which was again renamed for the filming. This time it became “Coconut Cove”.

Hurricane Charley hit Boca Grande heavily on August 13, 2004, causing some $20 billion USD worth of damage to Southwest Florida. There were no deaths or injuries on the island, but many buildings were damaged and numerous banyan trees were heavily damaged.

Boca Grande is very popular with affluent seasonal residents, many of whom keep a second home on the island.

Gasparilla Island‘s first known 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 Calusa had with the white man came during Spanish explorations at the beginning of the 16th century. By the mid 18th century the Calusa had all but disappeared, the victims of European diseases, slavery and warfare.

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.

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.

In 1905 officials of the Agrico subsidiary Peace River Mining Company, along with engineers from the United States Army Corps of Engineers and 60 laborers, landed on Gasparilla Island and surveying and construction of the railroad began. Probably the only buildings on the south end of the island at this time were the lighthouse and the assistant keeper’s house. The railroad terminus with its 1,000-foot (300 m) 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 Hillsborough and Manatee Counties. 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. The port was also used as an oil storage terminal by Florida Power and Light Company. This use ceased in 2001. The oil storage tanks were subsequently removed from the 9-acre (36,000 m2) site at the southern tip of Gasparilla Island adjacent to the 120 year-old Boca Grande Lighthouse. Island residents have begun an effort to have the property preserved as part of the island’s state park system.


Boca Grande Rear Range Light, now known as the Gasparilla Island Light

The Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railway 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 1911 the first hotel, the Gasparilla Inn, opened, and the island became a major vacation destination for the elite from Tampa, Fort Myers[1] and New England. Though shipping has declined substantially since the last quarter of the 20th century, tourism remains important to the island’s economy.

In 1925, the Seaboard Air Line Railroad bought the assests and property of the Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railway, but it took the ICC three years to approve it, and the SAL finally merged the CH&N Ry in 1928. The Tampa to Boca Grande passenger train was still operated every day along with a fast freight between Boca Grande and Plant City, until the SCL era slowly killed the port forcing all phosphate traffic to Tampa Bay.

In 1929 the Boca Grande Hotel was built just south of the Boca Grande city center. 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. When attempt was made to demolish the hotel with explosives, it was unsuccessful. In total, explosive demolition was attempted three times. Finally, 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 winter visitors from all along the eastern seaboard and upper midwest until the Boca Grande Causeway opened in 1958. The Swing Bridge spans two 80-foot wide channels on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway at Placida Harbor. It was built from 1952-1958 to replace a ferry service. When the bridge became operational, it was faster to fly to Tampa and drive to Boca Grande than it was to take the train directly from the northeast and midwest. Rail passenger service to Boca Grande ended on April 12, 1959.

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 rail line between Arcadia and Boca Grande was abandoned in 1981. Thanks to the generosity of Bayard and Hugh Sharp (members of the Du Pont family who had been winter residents for many years), the community purchased the old railroad bed from CSX Corp. (the successor corporation to the old Chessie System) and transformed it into a new use—Boca Grande’s popular Bike Path. Boca Grande has always been 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 population.