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Sea Stories

Here on the Southwest coast of Florida, we're blessed with an abundance of islands, bays and rivers. But everyone who ventures forth on our waters knows that below the mesmerizing jade-green waves lurks a bottom frequently so shallow that you could walk-sometimes crawl-home, if not for those razor-sharp oyster bars along the way. Aye, and therein lies the dilemma that seamen have faced for centuries: How do you get from here to there when the boat won't float?

About five centuries before us, the people of the Calusa Empire traveled all over this area by water with few problems. They were excellent seamen and engineers, even building a canal passage across Pine Island long before the first "civilized" Europeans arrived in 1513. Of course, you may correctly argue, the Calusa had no problem because their boats only needed inches of water. The European boats needed a lot more, however. I like to picture Calusa fishermen laughing at the Spanish pushing their heavy boats off the shoals.

In 1567, Pedro Menedez de Aviles, the Spanish governor of Florida, was directed by King Philip II of Spain to look for a potential canal route across Florida to lessen the burdens of coastal passages for ships. Pedro, who happened to be up to his armpits in thieving English buccaneers, heretical French Huguenots and angry Native Americans (not to mention some very disgruntled Spanish settlers), had other things to do and never quite got around to it. Nor did the Spanish ever get any decent charts made. So the problem of navigating the coasts continued.

When the Brits owned us two centuries later, they did some survey work on Florida's shorelines. The surveyor, Bernard Romans, didn't spend a whole lot of time on this coast, however, and the chart he made in 1774 is not accurate for our waters.

Ninety years later, during the Civil War, the U.S. Navy found many of the sandbars along the Southwest Florida coast the hard way: They ran aground. Not only were there no detailed charts of the lower Gulf Coast, but those pesky Confederates kept pulling up the rudimentary channel markers in San Carlos Bay and the Caloosahatchee River! The first surveys done with any accuracy were made out of necessity by the Union Navy during that war and published in 1863 (for Boca Grande) and 1867 (for San Carlos Bay).

Southwest Florida became better known in the 1870s and 1880s, and more vessels began using our waters. If a visitor wanted to go from Tampa to Fort Myers or points south on the coast, he had to get there by ship, not by road or rail. Soon captains were cursing the lack of decent charts and channels, usually just after finding one of those shoals the unpleasant way. All that cursing must have been heard up in Washington (captains can curse pretty loud) because in 1890, the federal government dredged a channel in Sarasota Bay to link it with Tampa Bay. Six years later, they extended the channel down to Casey's Pass.

But what about the folks further south on the coast? In 1884, the Sanibel Lighthouse was built, and in December of 1896, residents sighted Lt. Meyler of the Army Corps of Engineers examining the coastline. In his 1897 report, he recommended that a channel be dredged through the shoals in the "Inland Passage." This waterway was (and still is) a 75-mile route from Punta Rassa to Punta Gorda, much of which was between Pine Island to the east and the barrier islands of Sanibel, Captiva and La Costa to the west.

The very diligent Lieutenant Meyler even did a study of the commerce on this route, which showed that $154,500 worth of citrus and vegetables, and $150,000 of general merchandise, were shipped by water from Fort Myers to the nearest railhead in Punta Gorda. But no one really took notice of his recommendation, which was buried on page 1,573 of the annual Corps of Engineers report.

The Spanish-American War of 1898 brought new attention to the lower Gulf Coast of Florida, the virtues of which the first famous snowbird, Thomas Edison, was now extolling to folks in the frozen northland. First word on the U.S. mainland of the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana came to George Schultz at the Punta Rassa telegraph station, where the under-water telegraph line from Cuba came ashore. Instantly, the coast was alerted to the threat of Spanish warships coming out of Cuba and raiding the Gulf. But, like Pedro Menendez 331 years earlier, the Spanish fleet in Cuba had other problems and never quite got around to it. The point was made, however, and notice was taken of the United States' vulnerable coastal shipping and the solution that lay just behind the barrier islands of our Atlantic and Gulf coasts-inland passages.

By 1900, the atmosphere had changed in Washington, and the coast of distant Southwest Florida got some serious attention. Elihu Root, United States secretary of war, recommended to Congress that they authorize and fund a project to dredge a channel through the shoals in the inland passage of Pine Island Sound. He used a new survey, done by Capt. Henry Jervey, W.H. Caldwell and A. Thompson of the Army Corps of Engineers, in September and October of 1899, to justify his recommendation.

In addition to the actual fieldwork, the engineers investigated the maritime commerce of Southwest Florida. Their report documents an astonishing increase in shipping in the three years since Meyler's study. The freight totaled over 106,000 tons (with six tons of honey!), and vessel arrivals and departures included 26 large steamships, 704 small steamships, 68 sailing vessel and 30 yachts. It was obvious we were no longer a sleepy backwater.

Thompson was in charge of most of the survey work and used a chartered stern-wheel steamer, the Gray Eagle of Fort Myers. Expanding on an 1891 survey, his crew based their triangulations at Boca Grande Light House and the Charlotte Harbor Light Station at Cape Haze (a lighthouse on stilts that no longer exists). During two hot, wet summer months, they surveyed more than 40 square miles in Charlotte Harbor, Pine Island Sound and San Carlos Bay, mostly by small boat. Those were tough men-the bugs alone must have been horrendous.

Caldwell found complaints by ship captains about the shoal east of Captiva Pass (where Safety Harbor is today) to be less than compelling. He found "a perfectly navigable channel of seven feet depth." Admitting that its course was "rather tortuous," he recommended buoys to mark its "changes in direction." That's the channel around Marker 50, and even today you can see that the original deep-water swash channel is indeed tortuous to traverse. Caldwell was far more impressed by the shoals in Pine Island Sound east of Blind Pass and Buck Key (where Sanibel and Captiva Islands meet). There he recommended a channel be dredged to ensure safe transit even during low tide.

At the northern end of Pine Island Sound, Caldwell found another menace to navigation at Horse Shoe Shoals, now called Jug Creek Shoal. Back in those days, the main channel was to the east of Useppa Island; and it ran right up to the shallows at Horse Shoe where, at low tide, most moderate-sized vessels couldn't get through. A detailed chart of the area showing the proposed dredged channels was sent to Army headquarters in Washington and eventually to Congress along with the Secretary of War's recommendation. The chart is intriguing because of the changes over the next century (mainly the result of hurricanes) to the barrier islands. Even nowadays the coastline changes from storms-witness the new islands formed by Hurricane Charley in 2004.

Secretary Root's suggestions were approved by Congress, and for the magnificent sum of $5,967 the deed was done over the next couple of years. Southwest Florida finally had a safe channel along the Inland Passage. The sounds of frustrated ship captains cursing those darn shoals must have diminished markedly.

But the actual Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) we see today didn't come along until the Congressional authorization of 1935. The project included a 148-mile channel from the Caloosahatchee River north to the Anclote River above Clearwater. It was started in 1939, but World War II delayed further funding. In 1947, the West Coast Inland Navigation District was created by the Florida Legislature; and by 1967, the job was done. Within two years, the ICW carried 418,268 tons of freight. I remember as a boy watching the giant moon rockets, built in Texas and Alabama, being barged along the channel on their way across the state to Cape Canaveral. By 2002, the Intracoastal Waterway was carrying over two million tons of cargo.

So the next time you're out there relaxing on the water, take the time to raise a little salute to Jervey, Caldwell and Thompson, the men who endured the mosquitoes, heat and rain in 1899 to ensure mariners on our coast could get from here to there-floating all the way.

Pine Island's Robert N. Macomber is the author of the award-winning Honor Series of naval fiction. 

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