The causeway joining Gasparilla Island to the mainland doesn’t allow waiting or parking, which is a great shame because there are views of interest on either side. To the right lies Bird Key, a green, uninhabited island (not to be confused with the upscale vacation resort of the same name in Sarasota) which guards the mouth to Placida Harbor. And beyond it, on the headland, the brightest blue house ever painted. To the left, about eight hundred feet away, stands the concrete remains of the railroad trestle which once was the single most important artery that pumped life into the island. For Gasparilla Island, and the village of Boca Grande owes most of its existence to a railroad that once carried phosphates.
Now I realize that phosphates is not the most stimulating of subjects, and certainly do not come up in polite dinner party conversations unless the table guests are dependent on effective fertilizer, but when they are discovered, as they were in 1885 near Punta Gorda, to the east of the island, they suddenly create both excitement and investment. And the need to create a deep water harbor from which these chemicals could be transported all over the phosphate-seeking world. This was done at the southern end of Gasparilla, and the mineral was brought there on barges to be transferred onto larger ships. A fine process at first, but after a decade and more it was thought cumbersome and in need of improvement. “How slow!” muttered the men in top hats and long coats, traditional business dress even in the Florida summer. "We need a railway." And so in the short space of two years the Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railroad was opened in 1907.
This railroad was to serve the mineral companies for over seventy years, and it is staggering to think as you enjoy a cup of home-made blueberry swirl ice cream in the attractive tourist village of Boca Grande, that this was once part of the noisiest, busiest commercial maritime operations in Florida. The last train was in 1979. As larger, deeper terminals were dredged in Hillsborough County, in particular Tampa, the number of ships entering Port Boca Grande became less and less. And then they were gone for good.
The future of Boca Grande was already decided by this time. It was to continue as a fashionable resort community. The phosphate years had already attracted large numbers of wealthy businessmen to the area, many of whom had or discovered a passion for sea fishing. To this day the waters around Gasparilla Island continue to provide the best sport fishing, most notably the big game fish - the rolling tarpon. And the houses? Oh, such houses!
I was not fishing that morning as we were simply out for a drive and doing a bit of exploring. It’s always a pleasure to drive the two miles from the causeway to the village. Once out of site of the water lush green hedges and well maintained houses line the roadway and the designated golf-cart path. For the preferred method of getting around the island is by battery powered golf cart. Even the Episcopal Church has its carts!
The Episcopal Church of St. Andrew (established 1908) stands within the historical district of the village, and we were lucky to find it open, and a friendly parish secretary to welcome us. The Rector was away on vacation (as was I!) but cards were exchanged and photographs taken.
Boca Grande lighthouse, or to give it its correct name, Port Boca Grande Light, guards the southernmost tip of the island. Built in 1890 as the phosphate trade (no escaping those phosphates around here) increased, we are lucky to have the building today. It was decommissioned in 1966 and abandoned three years later. Time and tide inflicted severe damage on this site which includes two buildings, the other being the lighthouse keeper’s residence, and restoration did not start until 1986. And then, and this is surely a rarity, the lighthouse was re-commissioned. It’s worth a visit, for it now houses an excellent, if small, museum dedicated to the island’s history, and provides spectacular views over Charlotte Harbor.
And on to lunch at the Loose Caboose in the village center. Once the railroad depot it is now a very popular family restaurant which has kept the railway theme in its décor and menu design. And did I mention the fresh grouper sandwich? I must, for the one I ate that day was among the tastiest I have ever enjoyed!