Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Boca Grande

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!


susan s. said...

Hi Tim! I can't remember where I saw the link to your blog. I think it might have been thru a comment you made at Saintly Ramblings place. I had wondered what happened to you! These are lovely pictures. I was struck by the one of the restaurant. The building looks like the ones I have seen in pictures of my Dad's when he was in Panama during WWII. Thanks for the reminder. Susan Hedges(from FB). I will go away if you want and never darken your blog door again if you like. Just say the word, and it shall be done.

Tim Lewis said...

Susan, how lovely to hear from you! I'm glad you're enjoying the pictures, and am intrigued at your father's Panama experiences. I'd love to know more.

Come back and comment anytime! This is a growing blog very much in the public domain, and I prefer to expend energy here over FB. Tim

susan s. said...

Well, Tim, you asked, so I will tell you what I know. My father was drafted in 1944 and went to the Navy. I believe he was an Electrician's Mate or something like that. He was a civil engineer in real life and worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority and had been exempted because of his job until he was drafted when they started taking previously exempted men. I think he was highly disappointed that he was sent to Panama rather than overseas to fight as he was never in any real danger there. He came home in 1946 and went back to TVA to work. I was 14 months old. So you see I was not privy to what went on in Panama! He was a depressed person who committed suicide when I was almost 6 and I don't think I ever knew him when he wasn't depressed, so I have no way of knowing how he would have been otherwise. I wasn't going to say that, but since I have typed it, I will leave it.

I look forward to reading your blog. I have put it in my rss feed.

Tim Lewis said...

Thank you for telling that story, Susan. The tragic and untimely death of your father must not belittle his role in Panama. The US military role in the canal zone was both open and covert, protecting that water channel for allied ships. THere was even a submarine base established, able to defend both Atlantic and Pacific oceans. To quote from a published analyst:

"The Panama Canal could serve as a kind of deterrent to Japan when the US fleet was in the Atlantic, and to Germany when the US Navy was deployed in the Pacific. The strategic flexibility provided by the Panama Canal could make up for the numerical inferiority of US battleships. While the canal made it possible to shorten the trip between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, should the size of battleships be increased to compete with foes, the US would have to increase the size of its ships to the point where they could no longer transit the canal, the US would lose this inherent advantage."

Although your father, as a draftee, would not have been aware of the big picture in that war, I would be proud to acknowledge his part.