How the flow of water has created what we know as Florida

June 15, 2018
By Marcy Shortuse

This is not the story of how the Woman’s Club along with Captain Carey Johnson brought the Water Company to Boca Grande. Nor is it the story of the Gasparilla fishing village at the north end of the island or of a tarpon tournament, although it includes all of these.
This story happened long before Florida was a state. More than 56 million years ago, Florida was an underwater structure archeologists call the Florida Platform. This platform was built up from limestone formed from shell materials and marine organisms. Later during the Pleistocene Epoch (1.8 million to 10,000 years ago), water had receded, exposing the Florida peninsula.
The area was recognizable in shape but much wider than it is today. The museum at Useppa estimates that today’s Charlotte Harbor islands would have been 50 miles inland from the Gulf at that time. Because of the publicity about the recently discovered underwater burial ground near Manasota Key, we know that the area was dry enough for people to be living there.
As the Earth warmed and the glaciers melted, the oceans, including the Gulf of Mexico, rose and much of our area was inundated. Higher points like Gasparilla Island remained above water. People such as the Calusa lived in the Charlotte Harbor area because fish were plentiful and were the mainstay of their diet. The water was essential to their livelihood, and it would continue to be essential through present days.
Fish continued to be the major reason Charlotte Harbor’s islands have been occupied. In the 1700s they were not only visited by Spanish conquistadors but by Cubans who fished the waters and returned to Cuba with their bounty. Eventually some of the Cuban fishermen stayed to construct fishing ranchos, where they dried fish for shipment to Cuba.
Eventually settlers from Georgia, the Carolinas and other states arrived in Florida. Trains were routed to settlements like Punta Gorda, where an ice house was constructed. These factors changed the fishing business, and soon fishermen in Charlotte Harbor had a nearby place to sell their catches so they could be sent North by train.
Finally, in 1905 construction began on a railroad to Gasparilla Island. But it wasn’t built because of water or fish but because of the discovery of phosphate in the central Bone Valley of Florida. Phosphate is fossilized rock that is a key ingredient in fertilizer. It was and remains a valuable commodity. For a while, phosphate was barged down the Peace River to be loaded onto ocean-going ships.
It became more efficient and economical to build a railroad to the deepest water in Charlotte Harbor, so the south end of Gasparilla Island became a port capable of handling ocean- going ships. Over the next 70 years it was visited by international ships, and Florida phosphate was sent to destinations all over the world. Port Boca Grande covered the south end of the island and included the industrial facilities for the trains, loading docks and apparatus, homes for many who worked the trains and docks as well as the Boca Grande lighthouse. What is now the south end of Boca Bay was part of the port.
With the arrival of the train, the descendants of the Cuban fishing families as well as others had close access to transportation for their catches. The railroad built ice facilities at the Gasparilla village at the north end of the island.  This village included homes, a post office and a school as well as stores. Many of the families who lived in the village of Gasparilla continue to live and fish in Charlotte Harbor just as the Calusa had done before them.
The history of Boca Grande and water has yet another chapter – sport fishing. Those men who fished commercially also developed a method of catching large game fish. As Florida continued to develop and vacationers arrived, Boca Grande tarpon guides were in demand, and Boca Grande soon called itself “the tarpon capital of the world.”
Tarpon fishing as well as beaches, charming hotels and a small downtown made real estate development important, and Boca Grande became the place we know today. As wells and cisterns could no longer service the water needs of the community, several community women – Catherine Gilbert, her sister Lealia Slotterbeck, members of the Woman’s Club and other community leaders – led the development of the Boca Grande Water Company, another part of Boca Grande’s history with water.