September 1, 2014

Adventures in Tourism

These days, it's easy for tourists to find their way to the Gulfshore-and even easier to stay. But it wasn't always that way. Our first tourists braved dangerous seas and primitive accommodations.

Amazingly, one of the first came by yacht during wartime. The Civil War was winding down when Colonel John Wilder, commanding officer of the 2nd United States Colored Troops infantry regiment, took leave from his Key West post in April 1865, and sailed up the coast on a small chartered sloop to see the area around Fort Myers.

In an article in Putnam's magazine three years later, Wilder described arriving at Punta Rassa, then the site of an army barracks/supply depot and now the location of a magnificent resort hotel. He saw "a point of land running out into the always pleasant and sunny waters of this region, low and almost denuded of vegetation.Its only sign of civilization a huge barracks-like building raised with a kind of comically conceited air upon stilts, and bearing upon its front, in irregular and huge letters of black paint, Parker House did not seem to promise much either of comfort or romance."

Wilder's yacht made the journey up the river to Fort Myers. He found the old Seminole War fort "truly a charming spot," with "long, low buildings, cool verandas and graveled walks, and pleasant varieties of fruits and flowers, a delicious climate, and an abundance of fish and game."

Another Northern tourist, Barret Phillips, took a cruise down from the Cedar Keys in January 1884 and wrote a hilarious account of his journey in Harper's magazine a year later. His chartered yawl, Wallowy, drew too much water at four feet, and they were constantly running aground.

"Yachtsmen," he penned, "should remember that on a cruise along this shore.they are generally in water which is knee-deep." And the charts he brought along were useless, in part because storms kept shifting the sands. "Where the lead [channel] might have indicated three fathoms in 1883," he wrote, "there were three inches in 1884."

Phillips stopped briefly at Pine Island, where the village of Pineland is today. There he found a widower fisherman trying to eke out an existence with four children and their three-foot pet alligator. Phillips called the hunting and fishing there "excellent" and the islands "beautiful." Like Wilder almost 20 years before him, he also admired Fort Myers, which at that time had only 200 inhabitants and a "real tropical look."

The sight upon arrival at Marco Island's settlement of Caximbas impressed him as a painter's dream-a schooner, white sails flapping, tied up to the jungle-clad green shore and piled high with sugar cane, with a jaunty English captain dressed in yellow cast-off Cuban army trousers and a scarlet cap. A little further south, the Ten Thousand Islands were lonely and eerie: "Every quiet evening, for hours together, strange sounds were heard."

Phillips ended his account with a detailed breakdown of expenses: A three-week cruise cost him $400 (multiply that by 10 for a rough equivalent in today's money).

By the 1880s, tarpon fishing had become a big attraction for visitors. Two premier spots were St. James, at the southern end of Pine Island, and Punta Rassa. In August 1889, Robert Grant wrote in Scribner's magazine about a trip to those fishing spots. By that time, tourists could take the Florida Southern Railroad to Punta Gorda, which Grant described as having a dozen shanties and a fine hotel.

Then they had to travel by sea aboard the steamer Alice Howard to Pine Island, where Grant found the San Carlos Hotel at St. James comfortable, surrounded by tropical plants and run by Northern proprietors. Punta Rassa's Tarpon House, he reported, was "distinctly a sportsman's resort, as the accommodations, though comfortable, are as yet primitive."

In January 1891, William Henn, a well-known yachtsman who defended the America's Cup in 1886, chartered the 28-foot sloop Minnehaha with his wife for a cruise around Florida's coasts. In a June 1893 article in The Century magazine, he chronicled their trip.

Starting at Indian River on the east coast, he and his wife sailed around the bottom of the peninsula and anchored one day at Cape Sable, the lowest point on the coast. As the sun went down, Henn and the skipper went ashore to explore, making the same mistake boaters to Everglades National Park still do today-underestimating the tide and the mosquitoes.

"Presently the air became dark with mosquitoes," Henn wrote. "And, pursued by the pests, we pulled back to the sloop, which, to our dismay we found had been left aground by the ebbing tide. Night was rapidly approaching and the mosquitoes were more numerous and fiercer than ever. We were literally devoured by them; our clothes were little protection; they penetrated everywhere."

The passengers and crew spent the night on the beach enduring the onslaught in a time-honored Florida tradition-wreathed in thick smoke from a beach fire of green wood. Two days later, they sailed into Marco Island, which only had three families in residence but boasted a post office. There they repaired the Minnehaha's leaks, and Henn met a seaman named Joe, who agreed to take him tarpon fishing-a wild affair in a tiny skiff that almost drowned both of them before they landed a six-and-a-half-foot fish.

Minnehaha's repairs completed, they met up with the yacht Gypsy, owned by a Northern friend, and sailed up the deserted, seemingly endless beach-fringed coast toward Fort Myers. Henn writes that the skipper's spirits rose when he spied the newly constructed Sanibel Island lighthouse, and that soon afterward, they saw another old friend, a former commodore of the New York Yacht Club, on the yacht Atala. Soon all three vessels were at Fort Myers, which Henn describes as "a thriving settlement with population of about 700." After successfully fishing for tarpon in the area, Minnehaha and the other yachts left for the east coast and more civilized shores.

Tarpon is still a huge draw in the area, but in the late 1800s it was the only draw for many. In the March 1894 issue of Scribner's, Charles Dodge wrote of arriving at Fort Myers aboard a boat from Tampa that was sinking. Once at the town's hotel, he found "there is but one topic of conversation in the fishing season-the tarpon." Dodge wasn't much of a fisherman, but he did love watching others read the daily notices about tarpon catches on the bulletin board. He was told that every tarpon caught represented an outlay of $500 for hotel, boat, guide, tackle and such.

With wonderful dry wit, Dodge told the tale of a desperate New Yorker "who could only spare but two days on the Caloosahatchee [River]. He secured boats, tackle and guide in advance, and when one evening he made his appearance at the hotel in a dudish outing suit, the veterans on the piazza [verandah] exchanged knowing glances."

However, the joke was on the old-timers, for the New Yorker got his catch, had his name posted on the bulletin board and the next day headed back to the big city with a prize stuffed tarpon.

Pine Island's Robert N. Macomber is the award-winning author of the Honor series of naval fiction. His Web site is www.robertmacomber.com.

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